How News Genius Silences Writers

I moderate Facebook comments all day. While the rest of the Internet shuts off comments on publications, Facebook comments aren’t going anywhere—they count as engagement to help rank posts in the newsfeed, and there is no way for an admin to turn them off. As the host of a large media non-profit’s page, it is my responsibility to remove comments that are hateful while not censoring our audience. I work to create positive discussion by hiding the most appalling instances of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, and by banning consistently hostile users. If we can’t turn off our Facebook comments, we need to own them.

As a result of this daily grind of filtering the worst instincts of humanity, I have a thick skin. I also know the value of sites that protect their creators. As a herpes+ sex blogger, I avoid writing for publications that do not moderate their comments, or, in some cases, even encourage negative comments through outrageous headlines. Websites that are known for their horrendous comment culture use it to drive additional traffic—online reading as public shaming that anyone can participate in. I have had my lifestyle, my intelligence, and my sanity raked over the coals in the comments of sites like BuzzFeed and The Daily Mail. The sexual nature of my writing is a beacon to the seriously disturbed. When I confided my terror in a male friend after going viral for the first time, his response was essentially: What did you expect? It’s the Internet.

My experience with comments has led me to make two choices: to write more often on my blog, where I have full editorial control, and to not allow comments to go live without my approval. This blog has become a home for me to pull out stitches and reopen wounds. I’ve written about emotional abuse, about internalized shame, about how herpes stigma has impacted my relationships and my mental health. Most of my posts have no comments, and I prefer it that way. The essays are widely shared and discussed on social media, but reader reactions, be they positive or negative, do not color the experience of other users, who are often newly diagnosed and suicidal. Comments on my blog are signatures in a yearbook: they reflect me, and they reflect that someone else has been here. I want productive signatures, and I get to make that call as the administrator of my blog. The rules here are mine.

Except that’s not true anymore, thanks to News Genius, which allows readers to annotate pages anywhere on the web. News Genius puts comment sections in the margins, just as most publishers are taking them away to protect their writers. I was introduced to News Genius last week when a woman took issue with a post I wrote about how journalists refer to people with herpes as “sufferers.” We went back and forth on Twitter a few times until she stopped responding to me, and until I noticed she was tweeting with other users who mocked me as one of the “crazies.” When I saw that she regularly brags about how many users have blocked her, I blocked her too, motivated by my desire to just not get into it. I wrote an update to my post, frustrated by her approach and our interaction but interested in rewording some of my thoughts. I also sub-tweeted about “assholes” misreading my post, because if you retweet my blog post with the comment “ffs really,” I feel confident calling you an asshole. 

Screen Shot 2016-03-25 at 10.32.26 AM
I blocked her, she took to Genius, and she admitted to punching down.

After I blocked her on Twitter, she took to Genius to annotate my post, no doubt a good faith effort to clarify her criticism. She was joined by News Genius’s editor Leah Finnegan. Their comments, while not abusive, lacked an awareness of how the media stigmatizes herpes. They suggested that my title of “stigma reduction activist” is not a real thing, pasted in links to my tweets—which theoretically they should not have had access to, as I had blocked them both on Twitter—and picked at details based on their personal experience, which were apparently more important than mine, the expert in stigma writing the post on her own website.

actual job title
Yes, yes it is. Stigma reduction has a long history in the sexual health field.

Obviously I was frustrated. No one likes being questioned, and no one likes having their wording pulled apart by strangers. But it is not unusual for my work to be a hate-read, and I frequently get traffic from r/NotTheOnion, 4chan, and hard right-wing websites. I can live with having my writing mocked, even by women, even by feminists, even by journalists.

What I cannot accept is how News Genius works. Although the coverage of News Genius praises it as a feature hosts can code into their site, anyone can lay comments on anything by adding some language to a URL address. That is the entire point: according to the annotator’s Twitter bio, “The Genius Web Annotator lets you add line-by-line annotations to any page on the Internet.” Because my blog is currently a free WordPress website, anyone can use Genius to annotate my posts without my control. It is not opt-in for the creator, and if I want to engage with the annotations, I have to sign in using a Genius account. I see no way to report an annotation for abuse or harassment—perhaps that is only available for users?—and I see no way to block a user from annotating my content. 

Genius is officially worse than Twitter: I can block a user on Twitter, and they can then go and scribble whatever they want on my website using Genius.

I wouldn’t even know this extra layer existed over my blog if one of the women annotating it hadn’t tweeted the link. A creator receives no notification if someone has annotated their content. Opening my post using Genius was like discovering graffiti over some of my most personal work. Annotations display more like passive aggressive Post-It notes, but for someone who has been gaslit by partners, diminished by journalists, and harassed by mobs online, Genius annotations are an invasive violation. The design itself doesn’t help in this regard. I expect line edits from my actual editor, a thesis advisor, or even a friend sharing their thoughts on an early draft; I have no established relationship of trust and respect with the denizens of the internet.

I am nervous to publish this post because I know it will be annotated, and not in good faith. I am afraid to talk about how Genius can be used for harassment and abuse because Genius’s code offers no way for me to protect myself from the harassment and abuse I will receive for writing about it. Considering one of the people who annotated my blog is a News Genius editor, I’m not confident we agree on what harassment and abuse even is. That same editor has concern-trolled other women writers who have published personal essays about intimate topics. The very loss of control that boxed me into writing just for my site has been exacerbated by a tool originally built to annotate hip hop lyrics.

respected virusNews Genius was probably created as a way to speak truth to power, but it has incredible potential to punch down. I am not a highly paid journalist at a huge publication; I am a survivor with a blog. You can hate-read my content all you want—I know that is a risk of being a person who says things on the Internet. But when you create a tool that pastes commentary directly on top of my work without letting me opt-in and without providing a way for people to turn off the annotation on their pages, you are being irresponsible. You are ignoring the potential your tool has to be abused, and you are not anticipating the real harm your tool can do. News Genius adds one more way for people on the Internet to be made unsafe. The potential it has to intimidate and silence marginalized voices needs to be recognized. Snarky journalists are not who I am afraid of. A tool that allows my abusive ex-boyfriend to interact with me and my content is a tool that should not exist. 

Screen Shot 2016-03-25 at 10.44.38 AMWhen I reached out to Genius and News Genius to ask how I could opt-out of annotations on my website, I was told to not use the Genius URL or its extensions. As I had not downloaded the extension in the first place, their advice was basically just don’t look at the annotations. I told them that wasn’t good enough, and I’ve yet to get a reply.

News Genius, I am asking you to provide a simple, accessible way for creators to disable Genius annotations on their sites. I am asking you to respond to genuine criticism from survivors with respect and consideration, not tell us that you’re doing us a favor by sending us thoughtful engagement and traffic (as happened to me on Twitter). That is the bare minimum required to keep people safe and not contribute to an online environment hostile to women, the LGBTQ community, and people of color. Give me the same ability that the New York Times has to select which articles are available for annotation. Or better yet, make Genius truly opt-in.

All I am asking is for you to give me my blog back.

Recommended reading: Citation, Appropriation, and Fair Use: News Genius Picks Up Again Where Failures Left Off by Glenn Fleishman

Everything 2015 Taught Me About Harassment

Why Peeple Is Dangerous To Survivors… And, Really, Anyone

 

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Ella Dawson is a rowdy millennial who cares too much about The Bachelor. Her passions include sexual health and education, feminist erotica and social media.

54 thoughts on “How News Genius Silences Writers

  1. If you host your own website and can put a firewall in front of it, block any requests coming from News Genius, though that could be a never-ending game of cat-and-mouse if they change what IP address they run their service from. You might consider starting a kickstarter or similar campaign to hire a really good copyright lawyer since what they are doing is creating an illegal (in the USA, anyway) derivative work of something you hold copyright too. Or spend a few bitcoin and hire someone to DDoS the shit out of them until they agree to exclude your site from their service queries. Option 3 isn’t legal in the USA and other countries, btw, but it could be effective.

  2. I solved this on my WordPress site with a simple hack (not tested thoroughly yet – but it seems to work quite well) – see as an example: http://genius.it/arnowelzel.de. However I run my own server. But technically it should be possible to be implemented this as a generic WordPress plugin as well. If anyone is interested, let me know – I’m a software developer and already worked on other WordPress stuff in the past.

  3. Reblogged this on WanderinPoet and commented:
    How some people treat others on the internet is amazing.

    Obviously with “reviewers” abusing bloggers by punching down, then tweeting with the creator as she’s mocking the person she’s “annotating” the prospect of @newsgenius treating consumers with anything less than total disdain is nil.

    https://archive.is/43s6g

  4. What worries me as well is just how many women are participating in online harassment – your obnoxious visitor up there was an example. She just didn’t give a shit that she was being a huge douche. Looking up a bunch of other annotations, they too are female users. Interesting…and annoying…

  5. Thank you for sharing this story. You presented the information clearly and thoughtfully, and, though I don’t agree with your conclusion, I understand and respect your perspective. I appreciate you and I’m sorry that unhappy people are punching you down.

  6. I made a small bit of javascript that will redirect the genius.it wrapped sites back to the original: https://github.com/kevinmarks/savant

    Ella, you probably won’t be able to use this as wordpress.com won’t let you add arbitrary javascript to your site, but others may find it handy. Genius really should respect robots.txt when they proxy the site. To do that they’d have to sue a recognisable useragent rather than just cloning the client’s.

  7. I have a lot of respect for your writing and for you continuing to do it in the face of adversity.
    But I really, genuinely, struggle to understand your point. I have a plugin installed that checks reddit for whether the page I am on has been submitted to reddit, and if it has, i can jump to the discussion in one click and praise, criticise or ridicule (which I try hard to avoid). This seems functionally equivalent to News Genius. Is this a problem as well? Or do you see the user interface of News Genius as the problem? Or is it something else entirely…? Thank you for your time and effort.

    1. Here’s a big difference between Reddit and Genius: Reddit embeds a link, whereas Genius scrapes my entire blog post and republishes it so that they can annotate it. The comments aren’t “on my blog” which means my work has been stolen.

      1. I think you’re partly correct, but there’s some interwebs nuance here.

        When an end-user adds “genius.it” to the front of a web address, then genius’s servers are the ones responding to their browser’s request for the page. Those servers need to grab your blog post so that it can be returned as the content (along with annotations.) ((technically speaking I think that the content is served from a cloudflare cache right now, but I think that’s just a technical detail since cloudflare presumably is acting as an agent for Genius.)) In that case, there may be a case for copyright infringement as Genius is replicating your content without your permission on their servers as they transmit it to the end-user.

        But there are multiple ways that Genius users interact with websites. In particular, users can also use a Chrome plugin or a bookmarklet. ((I haven’t actually dug under the hood to confirm the following, but as a dog on the internet for some 10+ years with some training in the area, it is likely that the following is true, and I could maybe dig into the technical details if it would be helpful to others.)) When a viewer of your blog uses either the Genius Chrome plugin or the Genius bookmarklet, they request and receive your blog post directly from you (or your wordpress host, technically.) This is what authors on the internet expect when they publish on the internet. But in addition to that, the bookmarket/plugin also requests additional information from Genius (all the annotations) and applies those to the page in-place *on the end-user’s computer.* So Genius has not needed to reproduce your content. What Genius has done in this case is 1) store, retrieve, and transmit annotations at the request of the user and other users who have opted-in to the Genius service, and 2) provide tools for displaying the annotations in-place *on the end-user’s computer.* I think this could be said to be similar to a user downloading your webpage and adding comments to it locally on their computer. They might also ask their social networks to provide comments to them so that they could also see these comments on the page. But the basic point here is that *this modification is happening on the end-user’s own computer. Your blog post was not modified in transit, and it was not copied by Genius as part of their service.

        Now I imagine that this sounds kind of like a technical distinction, because the end result seems to be the same. But consider some other plugins that modify webpages locally for end-users: adblockers, the Language Immersion for Chrome plugin (for learning foreign languages), the ‘drumpfinator’ Chrome plugin (thanks, John Oliver!), etc. I think that Genius should have a process for moderating inappropriate annotations. I also think that end-users of web pages should be free to modify what they are viewing on their own personal machine, even with the help of services.

        ((As one additional nuance, Genius must store parts of a blog post on their servers in order to locate the targets of their annotations, and this might also constitute copyright infringement. We’d need an internet dog lawyer to look into that one…))

  8. OK, hi, I’m Max, an editor at Genius. Personally, I rarely ever use Web Annotator for the rest of the Web, except to scan past the occasional music review article on Pitchfork or whatnot to express my own sense of disdain and/or agreement (though I try to keep it as less acidic as possible). I don’t do any work for News Genius, but Genius as a whole generally has a mellifluous set of communities (including News), so I think my opinion on this matter still is valid. While I do not consider myself necessarily a good/qualified representative of Genius as I am not a moderator nor a staff member, I do think I’ve been around this community for long enough to speak on it.

    Essentially – I apologize for any immature, bitter actions/words that were expressed to you. To be honest, this sort of behavior is a horrible representation of the Genius community. I am horrified that part of common public sees Genius as some scummy, malicious cesspool of hate and ridicule, because it simply isn’t true. Though there are users on the website who do engage in toxic behavior – as they did towards you, Ms. Lawson – the vast majority are helpful, intelligent, diligent people who engage in active, productive analysis of the world’s work & culture. It’s imperative to understand that Genius is often a positive, wholesome community – it’s one that seeks to spread knowledge, not hate. There definitely is a culture of malicious intent brewing in certain niches in the website, as @Andre mentioned earlier; however, at least from my year-long experience with the website, it’s more limited than you might suspect. A lot of Genius is positive social commentary and lyrical dissection, not toxicity and venom.

    I have to agree with you, though, on some aspects. Genius’ Web Annotator does need some revising. Though I think an “opt-out button” might not be the best way to approach the situation, I definitely think creators should have some control over their content. I am not a hundred percent sure what this entails, but I do hope there is a way without complete censorship of commentary, because I feel like websites would probably generally all choose the “opt-out” option if there really was one, which in turn represses intelligent commentary. Speaking of intelligent commentary – there really is plenty of it floating around on the internet. I cannot deny that Web Annotator is used for passive-aggressive, snarky comments, because it clearly is – heck, I’ve probably even done it myself unwittingly to a review I didn’t agree with – but you also cannot generalize the entire function to simply a tool to comment unproductively on things. Users like, for example, ewokABdevito, if you want to check him out, are able to actively and intelligently make use of Web Annotator to provide insight and commentary on articles around the web. I’m unqualified to comment on the legality of Web Annotator, but I think the function itself definitely can be positive.

    All in all – I am very sorry that you had a load of negativity dumped on you. I am in awe that you continue to write and blog about your condition. From a feminist perspective, seeing a woman being open about her sexual condition is empowering and I think you’re brave. I am sorry if you are hurt by these people, and while I cannot speak for them, I am personally regretful that this happened to you. This incident is unrepresentative of our community as a whole – at least from my perspective. Genius has helped me grow as a person and a writer, and I have grown to love a lot of the community I’m apart of. I hope you can learn to love us too and give us a second chance. In the meantime, we’ll be sure to continue discussion on how/if we need to modify this website. In fact, we’re kind of locked in that right now – like it or not, you’ve sent parts of the community into a complex discussion of how we should treat situations like this.

    Thank you.
    Max (@sereinik on Genius)

    1. god i made the number one sin in journalism by spelling your name wrong rip me

      sorry about that lmao you don’t need to let this comment through i just wanted to tell you because idk

    2. I think if you’re an editor at a Genius, then you have a responsibility to call out the abuse of people within your company, like Leah of NewsGenius. It doesn’t really matter if there’s an intelligent community of people *somewhere* on the Internet within Genius, because that’s not really how the Internet works. The Toast can have a healthy, well-maintained comment section, because it works at it—that doesn’t mean that Breitbart does. Ella being a social media manager, I think you could learn a thing or two about the great amount of emotional and physical effort it takes to maintain an intelligent commenting community, because they don’t appear naturally—or usually at all. Genius isn’t putting in that effort, so the intelligent commenters will disappear and the offensive hordes will overtake it without intervention.

      And if what NewsGenius is tweeting out at this moment is any indication, the community of Genius is most interested right now in shaming women who are telling personal stories and writing condescending grammar nit-picking. If that’s how you’re advertising your product, then that’s what you’re going to get. Therein lies the issue with your argument about “censoring commentary”—these blogs are already commentary. In fact, you’re adding commentary to it right now in this comment section. “Censorship” is simply a distraction. What Genius does is supersede the needs and rules of site owners, who will allow for commentary when they want it or can handle the task of maintaining it. But they should make those decisions for themselves. You don’t see represented in these comment sections the people who just come to this blog to insult, slut-shame, and even just be outwardly cruel, because cleaning the blog of their filth is a daily task.

      It’s good that the company is now discussing how to deal with issues of harassment. Maybe next time, think about that before you make the product.

      1. Misunderstanding of terms. Serenink is a volunteer curator on genius, something like a Wikipedia administrator, a position we call “editor”. Editors play a huge part in accepting, editing, and curating annotations on our lyrics pages. Leah is a paid staff member in charge of News Genius, who’s job title is “Managing News Editor”.

        1. (to make my relationship clear: I am a volunteer moderator on genius. my powers are the same as an editor, plus I’m empowered to create new editors and moderate the forums sections of genius)

      1. Genius does not have a “crawler”. It has a proxy, which adds a little bit of javascript to a page and then serves it on the request of a user, and a browser extension, which adds the same little bit of javascript. Websites can opt out of the proxy (normally for ad network concerns) but there is no technical way to prohibit users from using the genius browser extension on pages.

        Not sure how this whole “crawler”/”cloning” meme got started…

    3. Max,

      If you don’t want to make this opt-in only, if you are going to continue to do this against a website owner’s wishes, then we have nothing to talk about. Yeah, a lot of sites would NOT opt-in because lifting our content is gross and vile, and pasting your code over it and scrawling annotations over it without our permission feels like vandalism. That should be the right of site owners and writers. Some people mod comments on their blogs for good reason and your platform gets around that. So what, now they have to check out what’s being said on your platform? If they’re worried about harassment they have to be part of your platform and spend more time and energy on something they thought they already deal with via moderation on their own site?

      No one is *censoring* you if they don’t want this and want to block it. We are not obligated to allow this but you are obligated to respect our wishes to not annotate us or lift our content. You wanna talk about censorship? Well, here’s its close cousin: Silencing. Your platform has a silencing effect. I have a blog under a different name and I am now seriously considering nuking it since I don’t want to deal with a bunch of presumptuous assholes who will do whatever they want with MY content despite what I say.

      Site owners have the right to control their websites and their content. You do NOT have the right to lift content and scrawl bullshit all over it. You are free to post your opinions and takes on your own blog (both WordPress and Blogspot are free, go to town), in a Facebook post, on Twitter. You are out of line in lifting the content–the entire post, the graphics, the comments, etc–of a blog and scrawling graffiti on it. I don’t fucking care how intelligent you think the annotations are (from what I’ve seen, most of them are either missing the point, nitpicky, or ‘splainy hot garbage). If your platform isn’t welcome and you do this, you are out of line, period. It should tell you something that you acknowledge most sites would probably not opt-in to your platform. That should be enough. Their reasons shouldn’t have to pass muster with you. The no exists and that’s all you need to know.

      I have written blogs as a way to blow off steam, for fun, etc. and I don’t particularly want random assholes on the internet giving me “advice” about my writing or comments about grammar, snark about what I’ve said or my experience, or misinterpretations about something I said (see: the continued bullshit being flung about in your discussion forums over Ella’s use of the word survivor. One of you mods decided that she’s saying she’s a survivor of herpes when in fact she’s been clear that she’s a survivor of abuse). Professional writers and freelancers (like Alana Massey) already work with editors and don’t need a glorified troll like Leah posting shitty one-liners about her work. It’s arrogant to think you’re providing some indispensable service, that you’re making people better writers, that you’re providing thoughtful and WELCOME critiques. They are neither thoughtful nor are they welcome.

      I don’t particularly trust you or anyone in that community to take complaints or reports about harassment seriously seeing how dismissive you have all been to Ella’s concerns and the concerns of other content providers, small bloggers, writers, and editors. Saying “Well, we’re gonna keep doing it” is incredibly shitty. You aren’t the good guys here. You aren’t fostering discussion. You aren’t making content better. You’re tearing people down, ignoring the no, and trying to sound reasonable and nice while you say that the no doesn’t matter to you.

      There is NO compromise on this. If a site owner doesn’t want News Genius to annotate their site, News Genius shouldn’t annotate the site, period. If you assume automatic opt-in, then you’re going to continue to have problems with this. This is NOT wanted, and all of the nice-sounding “let’s be friends and compromise” bullshit is not going to change that.

  9. I guess I don’t understand how not looking at is any different than blocking someone on Twitter: as you yourself say, people talk about your content all the time. They’re just doing it on a platform you’re not on.

    1. Here’s the thing: I can currently see in my website analytics that hundreds of readers are coming to my site through Genius. I can’t not see that people are using the tool, and it takes an unreasonable amount of restraint to just not look at what they’re saying. Besides, the concept and coding of Genius is legally and ethically dubious. Glenn did a great breakdown of why it’s in a tech grey area here, if you’re interested: https://medium.com/@glennf/citation-appropriation-and-fair-use-news-genius-picks-up-again-where-failures-left-off-d640719a82ab#.g39zpupyb

  10. 1. Unfortunately genius is keeping the “editorial” voice of its ousted insensitive jerk of a co-founder.

    2. There might be grounds for a DMCA takedown to have your content removed from Genius. It’s pretty brazen for a website not to allow opt-outs from what amounts to content scraping. Even Google allows you to choose not to be indexed.

  11. The idea itself is actually fantastic, I think. The problem I see is the culture that is being set up there. But if it’s just used for snarky one-liners which are mean spirited by definition, it’s nothing I want to engage in.

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