Online Speech Is Now An Existential Question For Tech
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Online Speech Is Now An Existential Question For Tech

Content moderation rules used to be a question of taste. Now, they can determine a service’s prospects for survival.

By Christopher Mims
Wed, Feb 24, 2021 3:15amGrey Clock 6 min

Every public communication platform you can name—from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to Parler, Pinterest and Discord—is wrestling with the same two questions:

How do we make sure we’re not facilitating misinformation, violence, fraud or hate speech?

At the same time, how do we ensure we’re not censoring users?

The more they moderate content, the more criticism they experience from those who think they’re over-moderating. At the same time, any statement on a fresh round of moderation provokes some to point out objectionable content that remains. Like any question of editorial or legal judgment, the results are guaranteed to displease someone, somewhere—including Congress, which this week called the chief executives of Facebook, Google and Twitter to a hearing on March 25 to discuss misinformation on their platforms.

For many services, this has gone beyond a matter of user experience, or growth rates, or even ad revenue. It’s become an existential crisis. While dialling up moderation won’t solve all of a platform’s problems, a look at the current winners and losers suggests that not moderating enough is a recipe for extinction.

Facebook is currently wrestling with whether it will continue its ban of former president Donald Trump. Pew Research says 78% of Republicans opposed the ban, which has contributed to the view of many in Congress that Facebook’s censorship of conservative speech justifies breaking up the company—something a decade of privacy scandals couldn’t do.

Parler, a haven for right-wing users who feel alienated by mainstream social media, was taken down by its cloud service provider, Amazon Web Services, after some of its users live-streamed the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Amazon cited Parler’s apparent inability to police content that incites violence. While Parler is back online with a new service provider, it’s unclear if it has the infrastructure to serve a large audience.

During the weeks Parler was offline, the company implemented algorithmic filtering for a few content types, including threats and incitement, says a company spokesman. The company also has an automatic filter for “trolling” that detects such content, but it’s up to users whether to turn it on or not. In addition, those who choose to troll on Parler are not penalized in Parler’s algorithms for doing so, “in the spirit of First Amendment,” says the company’s guidelines for enforcement of its content moderation policies. Parler recently fired its CEO, who said he experienced resistance to his vision for the service, including how it should be moderated.

Now, just about every site that hosts user-generated content is carefully weighing the costs and benefits of updating their content moderation systems, using a mix of human professionals, algorithms and users. Some are even building rules into their services to pre-empt the need for increasingly costly moderation.

The saga of gaming-focused messaging app Discord is instructive: In 2018, the service, which is aimed at children and young adults, was one of those used to plan the Charlottesville riots. A year later, the site was still taking what appeared to be a deliberately laissez-faire approach to content moderation.

By this January, however, spurred by reports of hate speech and lurking child predators, Discord had done a complete 180. It now has a team of machine-learning engineers building systems to scan the service for unacceptable uses, and has assigned 15% of its overall staff to trust and safety issues.

This newfound attention to content moderation helped keep Discord away from the controversy surrounding the Capitol riot, and caused it to briefly ban a chat group associated with WallStreetBets during the GameStop stock runup. Discord’s valuation doubled to $7 billion over roughly the same period, a validation that investors have confidence in its moderation strategy.

The prevalence problem

The challenge successful platforms face is moderating content “at scale,” across millions or billions of pieces of shared content.

Before any action can be taken, services must decide what should be taken down, an often slow and deliberative process.

Imagine, for example, that a grass-roots movement gains momentum in a country, and begins espousing extreme and potentially dangerous ideas on social media. While some language might be caught by algorithms immediately, a decision about whether discussion of a particular movement, like QAnon, should be banned completely, could take months on a service such as YouTube, says a Google spokesman.

One reason it can take so long is the global nature of these platforms. Google’s policy team might consult with experts in order to consider regional sensitivities before making a decision. After a policy decision is made, the platform has to train AI and write rules for human moderators to enforce it—then make sure both are carrying out the policies as intended, he adds.

While AI systems can be trained to catch individual pieces of problematic content, they’re often blind to the broader meaning of a body of posts, says Tracy Chou, founder of content-moderation startup Block Party and former tech lead at Pinterest.

Take the case of the “Stop the Steal” protest, which led to the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol. Individual messages used to plan the attack, like “Let’s meet at location X,” would probably look innocent to a machine-learning system, says Ms Chou, but “the context is what’s key.” Facebook banned all content mentioning “Stop the Steal” after the riot.

Even after Facebook has identified a particular type of content as harmful, why does it seem constitutionally unable to keep it off its platform?

It’s the “prevalence problem.” On a truly gigantic service, even if only a tiny fraction of content is problematic, it can still reach millions of people. Facebook has started publishing a quarterly report on its community standards enforcement. During the last quarter of 2020, Facebook says users saw seven or eight pieces of hate speech out of every 10,000 views of content. That’s down from 10 or 11 pieces the previous quarter. The company said it will begin allowing third-party audits of these claims this year.

While Facebook has been leaning heavily on AI to moderate content, especially during the pandemic, it currently has about 15,000 human moderators. And since every new moderator comes with a fixed additional cost, the company has been seeking more efficient ways for its AI and existing humans to work together.

In the past, human moderators reviewed content flagged by machine learning algorithms in more or less chronological order. Content is now sorted by a number of factors, including how quickly it’s spreading on the site, says a Facebook spokesman. If the goal is to reduce the number of times people see harmful content, the most viral stuff should be top priority.

A content moderator in every pot

Companies that aren’t Facebook or Google often lack the resources to field their own teams of moderators and machine-learning engineers. They have to consider what’s within their budget, which includes outsourcing the technical parts of content moderation to companies such as San Francisco-based startup Spectrum Labs.

Through its cloud-based service, Spectrum Labs shares insights it gathers from any one of its clients with all of them—which include Pinterest and Riot Games, maker of League of Legends—in order to filter everything from bad words and human trafficking to hate speech and harassment, says CEO Justin Davis.

Mr Davis says Spectrum Labs doesn’t say what clients should and shouldn’t ban. Beyond illegal content, every company decides for itself what it deems acceptable, he adds.

Pinterest, for example, has a mission rooted in “inspiration,” and this helps it take a clear stance in prohibiting harmful or objectionable content that violates its policies and doesn’t fit its mission, says a company spokeswoman.

Services are also attempting to reduce the content-moderation load by reducing the incentives or opportunity for bad behaviour. Pinterest, for example, has from its earliest days minimized the size and significance of comments, says Ms Chou, the former Pinterest engineer, in part by putting them in a smaller typeface and making them harder to find. This made comments less appealing to trolls and spammers, she adds.

The dating app Bumble only allows women to reach out to men. Flipping the script of a typical dating app has arguably made Bumble more welcoming for women, says Mr Davis, of Spectrum Labs. Bumble has other features designed to pre-emptively reduce or eliminate harassment, says Chief Product Officer Miles Norris, including a “super block” feature that builds a comprehensive digital dossier on banned users. This means that if, for example, banned users attempt to create a new account with a fresh email address, they can be detected and blocked based on other identifying features.

The ‘supreme court of content’

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently described Facebook as something between a newspaper and a telecommunications company. For it to continue being a global town square, it doesn’t have the luxury of narrowly defining the kinds of content and interactions it will allow. For its toughest content moderation decisions, it has created a higher power—a financially independent “oversight board” that includes a retired U.S. federal judge, a former prime minister of Denmark and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

In its first decision, the board overturned four of the five bans Facebook brought before it.

Facebook has said that it intends the decisions made by its “supreme court of content” to become part of how it makes everyday decisions about what to allow on the site. That is, even though the board will make only a handful of decisions a year, these rulings will also apply when the same content is shared in a similar way. Even with that mechanism in place, it’s hard to imagine the board can get to more than a tiny fraction of the types of situations content moderators and their AI assistants must decide every day.

But the oversight board might accomplish the goal of shifting the blame for Facebook’s most momentous moderation decisions. For example, if the board rules to reinstate the account of former President Trump, Facebook could deflect criticism of the decision by noting it was made independent of its own company politics.

Meanwhile, Parler is back up, but it’s still banned from the Apple and Google app stores. Without those essential routes to users—and without web services as reliable as its former provider, Amazon—it seems unlikely that Parler can grow anywhere close to the rate it otherwise might have. It’s not clear yet whether Parler’s new content filtering algorithms will satisfy Google and Apple. How the company balances its enhanced moderation with its stated mission of being a “viewpoint neutral” service will determine whether it grows to be a viable alternative to Twitter and Facebook or remains a shadow of what it could be with such moderation.



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Clocking out to Turn Back Time—Vacations That Will Help You Live Longer
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Booming demand for wellness tourism shows no slowing, with travel related to health and well-being projected to have reached $1 trillion last year and to hit $1.3 trillion by 2025, according to the Global Wellness Institute, a nonprofit based in Miami.

Curated wellness travel programs are especially sought-after, specifically holistic treatments focused on longevity. Affluent travellers not only are making time to hit the gym while gallivanting across the globe, they’re also seeking destinations that specifically cater to their wellness goals, including treatments aimed at living longer.

“I believe Covid did put a spotlight on self-care and well-being,” says Penny Kriel, corporate director of spa and wellness at Salamander Collection, a group of luxury properties in places like Washington, D.C., and Charleston, South Carolina. But Kriel says today’s spas are more holistic, encouraging folks to understand the wellness concept and incorporate it into their lifestyle more frequently.

“With the evolution of treatment products and technology, spas have been able to enhance their offerings and appeal to more travellers,” Kriel says.

While some growth is connected to the variety of treatments available, results and the digital world are also contributing to the wellness boom.

“The efficacy and benefits of these treatments continue to drive bookings and interest, especially with the support of social media, influencers, and celebrity endorsements,” Kriel says.

While genetics, environmental factors, and lifestyle choices such as regular exercise, a diet free of processed foods, sufficient sleep, and human connection play essential roles in living well and longer, experts believe in holistic therapies to help manage stress, boost immunity, and ultimately influence length and quality of life.

Anti Ageing and Beyond

“For years, people have been coming to spas, booking treatments, and gaining advice on how to turn the clock back with anti ageing and corrective skin treatments,” Kriel says. However, today’s treatments are far more innovative.

On Marinella Beach in Porto Rotondo, on the Italian island of Sardinia, guests at the five-star Abi d’Oru Hotel & Spa can experience the resort’s one-of-a-kind “longevity treatment,” a unique antiaging facial using one of the island’s native grapes: Cannonau. The world’s first declared “Blue Zone”—one of five designated areas where people live longer than average, some into their 100s—Sardinia produces this robust red wine varietal, the most widely planted on the island.

Known as Garnacha in Spain and Grenache in France, Cannonau supposedly contains two to three times more antioxidants than other red-wine grapes. By incorporating Cannonau, Abi Spa says its unique 50-minute longevity session increases collagen production for firmer, younger-looking skin.

Maintaining a youthful appearance is just one facet of longevity treatments, which range from stress-reduction sessions like massage to nutritional support and sleep programs, Kriel says. Some retreats also offer medical services such as IV infusions and joint injections.

Keeping with the trend, Kriel is expanding Salamander Collection’s existing spa services, such as detox wraps and lymphatic drainage, to include dedicated “Wellness Rooms,” new vegan and vegetarian menu items, and well-being workshops. “Sleep, nutrition, and mindfulness will be a big focus for integration in 2024,” she says.

Data-Driven Wellness

Skyler Stillings, an exercise physiologist at Sensei Lanai, a Four Seasons Resort—an adults-only wellness centre in Lanai, Hawaii—says guests were drawn to the social aspect when the spa opened in November 2021.

“We saw a huge need for human connection,” she recalls. But over the past few years, what’s paramount has shifted. “Longevity is trending much more right now.”

Human connection is a central draw for guests at Sensei Lanai, an adults-only and wellness-focused Four Seasons Resort in Hawaii.
Sensei Lanai, A Four Seasons Resort

Billionaire co-founder of tech company Oracle Larry Ellison and physician and scientist Dr. David Angus co-founded Sensei. After the death of a mutual close friend, the duo teamed up to create longevity-based wellness retreats to nurture preventative care and a healthy lifestyle. In addition to the Lanai location, the brand established Sensei Porcupine Creek in Greater Palm Springs, California, in November 2022.

Sensei has a data-driven approach. The team performs a series of assessments to obtain a clearer picture of a guest’s health, making wellness recommendations based on the findings. While Sensei analyses that data to curate a personalised plan, Stillings says it’s up to the guests which path they choose.

Sensei’s core three-day retreat is a “Guided Wellness Experience.” For spa treatments, each guest checks into their own “Spa Hale,” a private 1,000-square-foot bungalow furnished with an infrared sauna, a steam shower, a soaking tub, and plunge pools. The latest therapies include Sarga Bodywalking—a barefoot myofascial release massage, and “Four Hands in Harmony,” a massage with two therapists working in tandem. Sensei Guides provide take-home plans so guests can continue their wellness journeys after the spa.

Sensei Lanai, an adults-only and wellness-focused Four Seasons Resort in Hawaii.
Sensei Lanai, A Four Seasons Resort

Sanctuaries for Longevity

Headquartered in Switzerland with hotels and on-site spas across the globe, Aman Resorts features an integrative approach, combining traditional remedies with modern medicine’s advanced technologies. Tucked behind the doors of the storied Crown Building in Midtown Manhattan, Banya Spa House at Aman New York—the brand’s flagship spa in the Western Hemisphere—is a 25,000-square-foot, three-floor urban oasis.

Yuki Kiyono, global head of health and wellness development at Aman, says the centre provides access to holistic and cutting-edge treatments benefiting physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social well-being. Aman’s customisable “Immersion Programs” consist of a three- or five-day immersion. “The programs encompass treatments and experiences that touch every significant aspect to create a path for longevity, from meditation and mindfulness to nutrition and movement,” Kiyono explains.

Banya Spa House at Aman New York.
Robert Rieger

The spa’s “Tei-An Wellness Solution” features 90- to 150-minute sessions using massage, cryotherapy, and Vitamin IV infusions. Acupuncture is also on offer.

“With its rich history of Chinese Medicine, modern research, and the introduction of sophisticated electro-acupuncture medicine, acupuncture has been proven to assist with problems and increase performance,” Kiyono says.

Resetting the Mind and Body

Beyond longevity, “healthspan”—the number of years a person can live in good health free of chronic disease—is the cornerstone of Mountain Trek Health Reset Retreat’s program in British Columbia, Canada.

Kirk Shave, president and program director, and his team employ a holistic approach, using lifestyles in long-living Blue Zones as a point of reference.

“We improve our daily lifestyle habits, so we live vitally as long as we’re meant to live,” Shave says of the retreat. He built the program from an anthropological stance, referencing humans as farmers, hunters, and gatherers based on their eating and sleeping patterns. Food includes vegetable-centric meals sans alcohol, sugar, bread, or dairy.

Guests wake at dawn each day and have access to sunrise yoga, several hours of “flow” or slow hiking, spa treatments, forest bathing, calming crystal singing-bowl and sound therapy sessions, and classes on stress reduction—one of Mountain Trek’s primary goals. The program motivates people to spend much of their time in nature because it’s been proven to reduce cortisol, the stress hormone that can lead to inflammation and disease when elevated for extended periods.

While most guests aren’t aware of how immersive Mountain Trek’s program is when they arrive, they leave the resort revitalized after the structured, one-week program. Set in the Kootenays overlooking its eponymous river, the resort and adventure promise what Shave calls a “visceral experience of transformation.”

“They’re interested in coming to be in nature,” Shave says of the guests. “They hit a wall in their life and slipped backwards, so they know they need a reset.”

Banya Spa House at Aman New York provides access to holistic and cutting-edge treatments benefiting physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and social well-being.
Robert Rieger

This article first appeared in the Winter 2024 issue of Mansion Global Experience Luxury.

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