Digital Conversations, Comment Moderation, and Believing in the Effort to Try

By The Seventh Wave

An Interview with Nadia Petschek Rawls
January 4, 2020

Interviewed by Bretty Rawson, TSW staff

You might not be “following” Nadia Petschek Rawls on social, but you have definitely followed in her wake: as Director of Social Media and Audience Development for TED in 2014, she founded the social team and grew the social audience to over 30 million followers, but then changed lanes and led digital strategy at Conde Nast, overseeing all 16 of their media titles, but is currently nesting over at NOVA PBS, where she is their Senior Director of Brand Marketing and Audience Development. Oh, and she also is the founder of @tinybookreviews, which is our one of our favorite accounts to-date.

Nadia is the kind of person you want at the helm of social media: she has the capacity to dive deep into both data and strategy, but she also experiments with the form of storytelling, understanding what readers respond to and why, and building audiences for content with a positive impact on the world. She’s led cross-disciplinary teams of writers, designers, video editors, and analysts, bringing all of those people together to make a story come to life. She might not have a large presence, personally, but her impact is immeasurable.

When we spoke with Nadia in 2016, it was about a very specific experience: Monica Lewinsky’s March 2015 TED Talk, “The Price of Shame,” or really, the reaction to her talk: while Lewinsky’s talk moved the people physically present to the verge of tears, when posted online three days later, in less time than it would take to watch the full clip, a flash flood of hatred ensued. “People called her a slut and a whore,” Nadia recalled of the comments, “and said she deserves shaming because it is ‘an important part of how we shape our culture.’” Nadia and her team at the time were stunned, but prepared. When the comments came in, they did what they always do: remove the negative ones and reward the positive ones. The volume of vitriol was like nothing Nadia had seen before, but the tide did eventually turn, evidence of a contagiousness that can occur in any conversation, digital or otherwise. But all of this hints at something a little bit larger, which was a central point of Lewsinky’s speech: “We talk a lot about our right to freedom of speech, but we need to talk more about our responsibility to freedom of speech.”

How big of a gap exists between our online and real lives? Nadia suggests it might not be as large as we think. In the wake of their best efforts to fill in gaps, new ones might arise, as was the case with Lewinsky, but for Nadia, it is necessary: “We can just try to bridge that gap, and we may not reach everybody — we will not reach everybody — but I believe in the effort to try.”

Bretty Rawson: It’d be an understatement to say you “brushed up” against a perception barrier with Monica Lewinsky’s TED Talk. For seventeen years, she’d been portrayed, and viewed, a specific way in mainstream media. You provided an atmosphere for a conversation about shame and online bullying, but what ended up happening?

Nadia Petschek Rawls: With someone like Monica, we felt a lot of responsibility for that moment for her. She was really trying to be able to redefine herself as human, as somebody who was a multifaceted person who had a real experience of this whole thing we watched as theatre. I think because of that, and because it is important and core to TED, to show that humanity and what might be behind these things we watch, where someone is getting destroyed, where someone is struggling with public shaming. We really wanted to show her and her human side, to help her through that process, and it was so difficult to do that in the comments because people do have this incredibly strong negative reaction to her that you don’t get in the room. In the room where she delivers the talk, you have this audience who is so ready to listen to her, but then you put it online and you get people who didn’t bargain on seeing Monica Lewinsky that day, or who weren’t prepared to see her in a new way or any kind of new light.

We made clear statements about what we were and we were not willing to tolerate on that comment thread, and the tide really did start to shift, and that was astonishing for me to see. You started to see people who watched her talk coming into the comment thread. And as soon as you did, people were swayed. They were willing to hear her, to listen to her. It’s amazing to see how positive voices in an online conversation can make a difference — the ones that have taken the time to watch and be open to the content. And that’s all we ask.

We don’t ask that somebody agree with what we’re posting, or what the speaker believes in, but we ask that people listen to the speaker. That’s the thing that’s very core to TED’s mentality and the moderation of the comments. We expect that you will come into the comments with an openness to hearing what the idea is. And then you’re welcome to disagree afterwards, but you should come in with an openness.


Bretty: When you were getting prepared to release this online, did you expect to have to “aggressively moderate?”

Nadia: We knew there would be negativity in the comment thread, so we were certainly prepared to do that, but the force and the volume, and just the speed of the vitriol was shocking to me. Within seconds of posting it, there were hundreds and hundreds of comments making fun of her, attacking her, saying all sorts of hateful, horrible things about her. And these were people who have never met her ever. She has become this project of so many things that people felt about affairs, about lying, about the integrity of the country. She was just a canvas, a total blank canvas for America’s feelings. It was astonishing to see the extent of the vitriol toward someone these people had never met. She is lovely. She is so sweet, she is the most thoughtful, caring, sweet person. And so to see that hate, and to see that so fast, was really hard.

As a moderator, I’m used to stepping back and not taking it personally. People are so often saying hateful things and it’s not directed at me, but there was something about just how hateful the comments were and how fast they were coming. It was a glimpse at what it was like for her for seventeen years — to have constant vitriol and hatred thrown at her. It was so upsetting, even in this momentary glimpse of what it was like to be her. It was such a reminder to me that it’s not a productive conversation, and not a conversation we should be having. It’s the modern equivalent of a public stoning. I like to think we are capable of being better people than that, and that we should be better people than that.

A lot of what we do in comment moderation is calling on people to be a better version of themselves. A lot of us can get swept up in lashing out at people on social media and I don’t necessarily think it’s a sign that you’re a bad person but I think that a reminder to just say, “Hey, step back for a second.” We don’t get that reminder when we are not face-to-face with somebody because we don’t have the same empathic instinct that we might have if I was screaming at you across the table or calling you horrible names. I would feel bad because I’d see your face.


Bretty: This type of force, or tide, strikes me as dangerous, whether it’s in real life or online. Every summer, people die in Bristol Bay because they take a nap on the side of the river, and being the eighth highest tide in the world, it takes only seven minutes to fill. When the tide began to change, when the hate started to retreat, was that equally unexpected?

Nadia: I don’t know that I found it unexpected, but I’m very optimistic about people’s potential to be better people. I think that’s why I wasn’t terribly shocked by that. I do feel like a community does create a culture, even if that comes out of the tiniest scale of one comment thread. There becomes certain things that are and are not okay within it. You see that in our broader culture and the microcosm of a comment thread. I was glad to see it. It was something I have seen in a lot of other comment threads. I will often go in to guide the conversation in the beginning to a positive place. But with Monica and the vitriol we saw, I wasn’t sure we would be able to do it. I was glad we were able to succeed and that was what was so promising to me of that moment. Even when the initial reaction was so strong and so negative, we could still bring about that better culture. And that is a really promising moment that we can look at and say, there is potential to make our online conversations better if we just give them a little bit of effort and guidance in the beginning.

I think the analogy you’re giving of the tide is a really great one, and important one because you mentioned that the tide comes up on the beach and every year people die. I think that is something people forget: when the tide comes in on social media, people do die. We have people who get shamed online and they jump off bridges or kill themselves in whichever way they choose, and it is devastating losses of children and parents and people. No one should suffer that fate. I think that is what we lose sometimes — the stakes of this. These comments can feel benign because it’s just words on the page going out into the Internet and we don’t see the person who is on the other side and we can think, I didn’t do that, I wasn’t responsible for that. But people get killed in the crossfire all the time, and that is something that deserves our attention. We should step up to help those people and make sure that nobody is dying because we have stoned them to death. If we were throwing rocks at them and we watched them die, it would feel different to us than it does when it has a sense of remove, but we are just as responsible.


Bretty: How simple is it to recreate the atmosphere inside the room online?

Nadia: It’s not exceptionally simple. I have so many thoughts. I would start with that education and accurate information is the antidote to everything. That is what we should be striving for: we should be giving people accurate information. We are living in a time when information and entertainment has merged into this strange mess that we can’t really pull apart and figure out what is accurate and what is not. Look at Fox News, which is entertainment posing as actual news, where the information is largely inaccurate, but then you have the Daily Show, which is accurate information but it’s actually entertainment. We have a total merge of the two. I think in some ways that is super positive.

With something like the Daily Show and comedy, art and humor can pull people into a topic and help them understand and process information. I think that it can be so positive in that way. But then you have a different kind of hybrid like Fox News that is using it as a manipulation to make you believe a whole bunch of these things that aren’t true. Or at least that’s my personal opinion about Fox News. But I think we do have this environment and hybrid at this point that is difficult to navigate, and confusing for people. It is hard to find, in the vast Internet, what is accurate information and what is not. That becomes a difficult environment, but a lot of what we end up doing is trying to educate people. In the comment thread, what is hard to make a judgement call about is that some of the comments that are extremely negative are also well intentioned. That’s a difficult line to walk. We see this a lot with Islamophobia. We see this with just about anything we post about Islam. It is extremely harsh and those comment threads take a lot of attention and care. Those ones are much more difficult to bring to a positive conversation. We usually fail to bring those around, and simply make it a less negative conversation. But in those ones, I particularly struggle because there is often a lack of understanding about the religion as a whole, or the culture, and I think that’s where people will often come to it with good intentions.

But we can say OK, so there is a gap in understanding, where two people are trying to communicate to each other but they’re getting lost. They’re not hearing each other, reaching each other, and not understanding some aspect of each other’s experience or what they’re trying to say. And we can just try to bridge that gap, and we may not reach everybody — we will not reach everybody — but I believe in the effort to try.


Bretty: Does filling in the gap change people?

Nadia: I wouldn’t say it’s an opportunity to change them. I think that it’s an opportunity to present them with something different. Something maybe they haven’t heard before. Maybe the people who are saying that haven’t heard directly from a black man about his commenting on white culture. Maybe they’ve actually never even spoken to a black man in a substantive conversation. All of these things are possible. And so I think exposure is my ultimate goal.

It’s not to change their minds, to make them think differently, or act differently next time. It’s just to expose them, which gives them the opportunity to act however they want the next time. Exposure is ultimately what drives change, and that’s what initially drove so much of the change in the Gay Rights movement. It was Harvey Milk saying, “Call the people that you know who don’t know that they know someone who is gay, who don’t know that they love somebody and know somebody who is gay.” And as soon as you do, your perspective changes. As soon as you hear someone, that is ultimately the goal. This is obviously a much smaller scale, but the goal is just exposure: how can we continually expose people to something different?

This is not the type of battle that can be won or will ever be won. Battle isn’t even the right way to think about it. It’s an ongoing effort through the entirety of humanity’s future and has been the entirety of our past. The world is constantly changing and we are constantly trying to grapple with its changes and all the diversity that is here in this world, and that is only increasing, especially as we can start to edit our genes. That diversity is going to increase rapidly, or I hope. I certainly hope we don’t go in the opposite direction of making everyone the same. But as that diversity increases, we have to keep working on this, on trying to hear each other and understand each other. Even if we don’t agree, it’s a constant effort to expose everyone and ourselves to other people’s honest and open understanding of their world. How do they understand the world that is different than what you understand?

All we can do is get really good at this process of trying to hear each other and that’s the best we can hope to do.


Bretty: If there is any battle going on, is it more so an individual one? And perhaps someone else might help us see that we are coming up against a singular view the world?

Nadia: They are coming up against the boundary of the worlds they’ve created for themselves, or the world they have been able to see. Our worlds are all constructed and individual. We can try to expand them, but we’re always limited to what we’ve been exposed to. It’s like we’re all sort of living in our individual little version of the Truman Show. We kind of have this set that has been created around us and I think it is our job and responsibility to expand that.

What keeps people confined to a small space is fear, and I think fear is fueled by ignorance. The more we can hear other people’s perspectives and recognize that their understanding and experience of the world is not a threat to our own experience, they both just exist at the same time. And that ability to start to hear each other can begin to break that down. I think that is a lot of what I see my job is: is to just help people hear more of these ideas.


Bretty: Certain parts of the Internet strives to send us things it thinks we already like. With TED talks, obviously, we are exposed to things we might not know, and possibly therefore like, or feel comfortable with. From your vantage point, how are we changing the internet, and how is it changing us?

Nadia: That instinct to bucket things and say, “This is like something I know” or “This is dislike something I know,” is so human. It’s the core of how we understand the world: these go together, and these don’t. It’s a core function of our brains and it serves us really well. If we can look at the world and try to synthesize it in different ways, that can be a huge positive. Sometimes, you can really see the humanity in something. Those “likes” that you are pulling together. You can see somebody who has a vastly different experience than you and say, I hear something in this story that resonates with something in me that I understand that is similar to my experience. Sometimes, it’s just a way in; not necessarily all you take away from everything they say, but just a doorway. Because a lot of the time, it is difficult to completely hear someone who we have no basis of understanding. The more you can do to get to some common experience of pain or joy or something that is core to all of us, then you have a window into that person, and then it is much easier to hear all the things that are different.

But that instinct to pair things is also very damaging in a lot of ways and is what drives a lot of the negativity we see: this is like me, this is not like me, I like this, I don’t like this. It can be a positive and very dangerous at the same time. A lot of this and how we operate on social media and in the world is we just have so much personal responsibility to approach it in a way that is trying to find a common humanity. I was talking to a transgender woman recently and it’s so easy for someone to just say, “I have nothing in common because I am not transgender.” But that’s such a surface distinction that has nothing to do with the lived experience underneath that. I may not understand so much of that experience, but we may have a common experience of loss or pain that I do get. And then all of a sudden, we can connect on something and from there, I feel like I have some understanding of that person and I want to understand the rest of her and her experience. I think that’s what we need to be looking for.

There’s something that sounds self-serving in only looking for that thing that is similar to you in order to connect with somebody, but I don’t think that you could ever encounter anyone that you would have absolutely nothing to understand or try to understand.


Bretty: Are our most obvious dissimilarities really our smallest differences? But for some reason, they become the biggest obstacles to get over. There was this beautiful piece on transgendered teens a month back in Mashable, which profiled 12 incredibly brave teenagers. These kids were talking, some of them for the first time, trying to find the words to express their experiences. We posted that article, but within minutes, and we don’t have that many people following us, we had two incredibly hateful, negative comments about the kids.

Nadia: I think that looking at a lot of these hatreds that come up is that we fear a lot of our similarities rather than our differences. To continue on our transgender example, the only difference is the expression of someone’s gender. Otherwise, we are human, we are both facing the world in very different environments, and we are ultimately both human. People end up fearing that. In so many ways, we want certainty that we know we can rely on, and we see threats to it from fluidity. We like binaries. We fear those ranges. We fear that we will recognize less certainty that we hope to have or that is comfortable to us. When we see that in somebody that has embraced it, we are scared that we should embrace that as well. That often can drive people toward hatred, or see themselves reflected in someway. I guess that’s what I hope we will learn to overcome, and embrace the many different sides to ourselves that might be there.

Nobody is happy with the rigid constructions of ourselves that we are forcing ourselves to be. Hatred comes from the box. We don’t accept in ourselves what we then come to hate in others.


Bretty: On the cover of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, it says, “To look is an act of choice,” and slides into the scenario of a kid on a hill who sees another kid on a hill, and in that moment, he realizes that if he can see, he can be seen. When it comes to the Internet, it seems like we forget this. We can see, but a lot of people don’t think they can be seen.

Nadia: Absolutely. I think we do have a huge problem where people think that they can’t be seen which is shocking to me. They write these horrible comments with their actual Facebook profiles, which are completely and totally tied to who they actually are. I can see everything about you. There have been people who were reported to their company for their comments, for comments they made online that people found their profile and found who they worked for and reported to HR. You are not invisible in any way and so many people think that they are.

I actually think that the digital world is something that we make out to be so much more different from the real world than it actually is. We struggle with the same things. People are assholes to each other and fail to hear each other all the time and are dismissive and cruel. So much of what we are trying to grapple with online is just the core challenge of humanity and how we interact and how we come to understand ourselves and our world is in some ways concentrated online. But it is the same problem — all of the problems are the same. We don’t need to solve them in a way that is drastically different in the real world. We have so much more potential to solve them online because we can guide people with technology in the way we can’t guide them in the real world.

Our social platforms don’t have much motivation to do this well so they don’t do this well and aren’t aiming to do this well. But they could make an effort to help educate people about empathy through the comments. Facebook does have a subdivision of people trying to guide teens to learn empathy through Facebook so that they are bullying less. In one of the apps, when there are certain words included in a message, it sends a little note to the teen: “This includes some negative words. Are you sure you want to post this?” After that, most of them don’t. I think that we have a lot of potential to educate people through technology, and we see it as a terrifying place where it is going out of control but the world is a terrifying place going out of control, and technology is the place we have the most potential to fix and change it. I’m very optimistic about this place where we could learn to be better humans, if we had more investment in building our technology to do that for us.


Bretty: Right, whether or not we have these platforms, we still have ourselves. The platforms might illuminate a wider reach, but what I say offline is not that different to what I say, or present, reflect, and project online.

Nadia: That’s where people get tripped up. When you think about what you might say to me in this room, I know you. I understand where you’re at and what your intentions might be. Because I know you, I can allow you a process of transformations. I recognize where you’ve been, where you’re at, and where you’re going. We catch people at a moment online when they aren’t fully evolved yet. We catch them at this point in the middle between evolved and not evolved, and we can shame them so hard for that moment. I think that is sometimes what gets lost when we don’t have the context of who they are and where they’ve been and where they’re going. We don’t approach them with the same empathy and the understanding that I might give to you here.

Maybe you are recently exposed to some issue and your thinking has started to evolve on it and you are sharing that with me right now. I think that is something to be celebrated. Say I’m at a different point in that process, further along that you might be. I would be able to hear and accept where you are at without shaming you or attacking you in anyway, but celebrating that you are moving forward and that you are trying to grapple with this issue and understand it. Because I am theoretically farther along, I might be able to offer you one little perspective that you hadn’t heard yet and nudge you a little bit more. I don’t need to give you the full brunt of what I think you should think and maybe that moves you a little further in another direction. But the necessity to helping you do that is understanding of where you’re at. When we are taken out of context and put into an environment of people who don’t know us, that is so lost. So I think we can send people backwards because we react with such intensity that we can send them into a place of defensiveness.

How do you replicate the understanding and the context in real life online? I think you kind of can’t. You have to come at it with the assumption that someone is on a continuum and has the potential to move.

Headshot of Nadia Petschek Rawls

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