Arbitrary automated censorship at Edublogs

This term, I’m running a class blog for a module about Music on the Screen – not film music, but the representation of music making in different forms of film and video. Because the blog tools on the University’s digital learning platform (we use Moodle) aren’t very good, I’ve been using an external platform called Edublogs, which is basically a version of WordPress set up for ease of use in educational environments.

So far, so good. Until now. A few days ago, a student posted on representations of identity in hip hop and rap, in relation to ‘the ideologies put forward by certain artists surrounding self-worth, self-esteem, gender and sexuality’. It was an intelligent and critical piece, but it slightly misquoted from an item at the Huffington Post, ‘Homophobic Attitudes Likely To Be Stronger Among Those Who Have Repressed Same-Sex Attraction: Report.’
As I went to post my comment in reply, I was stopped short by an error message:

‘Sorry, your comment has been rejected because it contains one or more of the following words: sex. Please try posting your comment again, but without these words.’

The offending word occurred in a quote from the Huffington Post: ‘that homophobic attitudes are likely to be more pronounced among those who’ve experienced unacknowledged attraction towards members of the same sex’. Who is going to find the use of the word ‘sex’ in this sentence offensive? That is not a rhetorical question. One thing is certain: it’s not a call that can be made by an automatic algorithm, whose results, we know, are arbitrary. There was a report I saw in passing the other day about sex abuse help sites being blocked. Moreover, in this case, the post I was commenting on included the words sexuality, sexual, and even fuck (within a quote from the lyrics of a song by Ice Cube); and the word ‘sex’ occurs in a URL, twice.

I got round the bar by amending the quoted sentence and wrote to Edublogs support, pointing out that this is a class blog for a university module in which the discussion is entirely legitimate. Their swift reply (the support team is very efficient) was quite bland, said they had no control over the banned words list, and expressed a worry that various words had got through on the original post. Naturally this does not encourage me. The least to be said is that the administrator of the blog needs to be able to choose whether to employ the banned words or not (and anyway is able to moderate everything). Otherwise students are subjected to an arbitrary restriction of their academic freedom, which is also ours, as teachers. Meanwhile, despite the inconvenience, I shall transfer the blog to another free platform, and hope it doesn’t happen again.

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