What is a flag for? Social media reporting tools and the vocabulary of complaint

Crawford, K., & Gillespie, T. (2016). What is a flag for? Social media reporting tools and the vocabulary of complaint. New Media & Society, 18(3), 410–428.

Link: https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444814543163

Open access: No

Notes: In this essay, Crawford and Gillespie reflect on the flag as a techno-cultural construct to organize and moderate social media content. They see flags as having two objectives for social media companies: first, they provide a mechanism for content regulation and moderation, and second, they offer a means of rhetorical legitimation to remove or retain contentious content. In this sense, while they offer a way for users to express their feelings about content, flags also obscure the moderation process. Moreover, Crawford and Gillespie outline the different vocabulary of flagging by following the options within specific social media platforms. It is telling how, in the face of complex grammars of violence, platforms offer a narrow vocabulary of complaints. Finally, the authors also discuss how users deploy flags in various ways. For instance, they are used to limit opposing views or in playful ways with people known to them. To summarize, they note: “Flags proceduralize and perform collective governance while simultaneously obscuring it: Flagged content is not apparent to other users, nor are the reasons for removal or retention made public, and social media sites are intentionally silent on when and how a flag ‘counts.’”

Abstract: The flag is now a common mechanism for reporting offensive content to an online platform, and is used widely across most popular social media sites. It serves both as a solution to the problem of curating massive collections of user-generated content and as a rhetorical justification for platform owners when they decide to remove content. Flags are becoming a ubiquitous mechanism of governance—yet their meaning is anything but straightforward. In practice, the interactions between users, flags, algorithms, content moderators, and platforms are complex and highly strategic. Significantly, flags are asked to bear a great deal of weight, arbitrating both the relationship between users and platforms, and the negotiation around contentious public issues. In this essay, we unpack the working of the flag, consider alternatives that give greater emphasis to public deliberation, and consider the implications for online public discourse of this now commonplace yet rarely studied sociotechnical mechanism.

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