Want to build safer online communities? Drop the ban.

Creating safer and more equitable communities — both in real life, and online — is an important undertaking. Undoubtedly we are in agreement that those who cause harm and havoc should be stopped and made accountable for their actions. The broader (and more difficult) question comes in what we do next. 

To make this less abstract, in “real world” parlance, this is often called re-entry: the process of people returning to their lives, families, and communities after involvement with the justice system. 

In online communities, perhaps the most countervailing of concerns has been ensuring safety from sexual harms and exploitative material. Even to this day, media reports indicate that it is a fear that remains present. Undoubtedly, technology platforms and policymakers take these missions seriously. To that end, numerous social media platforms have adopted policies banning anyone who has ever been convicted of a sex offense from participation. Most notable of these platforms include Facebook and Instagram, who have a combined monthly userbase of more than three billion people.

These corporate policies are similar to laws passed in many states, essentially banishing people convicted of sex offenses from living or even being physically present in certain neighborhoods. As these laws banish people from physical communities, so do these policies banish them from virtual ones.

Do blanket bans keep children safe?

While well-intentioned, these blanket, exclusionary policies are ineffective and — ultimately — undermine our safety. This is the case because these laws and policies suffer from a misunderstanding of how these harms occur, and who perpetrates them.

Of all sexual harms that are reported to police, 95% involve someone who has no prior record of sexually offending, and therefore would not be subject to any of these policies. 

While this figure is focused on crimes reported in the real world, it is remarkably similar to research focusing on technologically-facilitated crimes against youth: 96% of cleared cases involve someone who was not on a registry. 

The understanding, of course, that spawned digital banishment is the same that spawned America’s massive sex offense registries: that the people on them are dangerous and bound to repeat their crimes. With that belief, it makes sense to each for exclusion-as-solution — but as decades of research into the question have demonstrated, people who have committed sexual offenses repeat their crimes at rates far lower than commonly believed

In short, while these exclusionary policies have a strong emotional and intuitive appeal, the reality is that the framing of the problem that they adopt is wholly out of odds with what is known. Because of this, worse than being merely ineffective, they cripple our ability to effectively grapple with the problems that they seek to address. This is so for several reasons. 

Worse than merely being ineffective, [these policies] cripple our ability to effectively grapple with the problems that they seek to address.

Generally, these policies work to create a false sense of security. In other words, even if one assumes they are effective at stopping the 4% of offenses committed by people who would even be subject to these policies to begin with, (more on that below), they ignore the 96% of individuals who would never be subject to such a ban. 

But to believe that these policies would be effective in the first place fails to consider the obvious: that someone who wants to commit a crime online might, quite simply, lie about who they are and evade the impact of these policies altogether. In other words, these policies only burden people and their families who are doing their best to live lawful and productive lives in their communities. 

While the temptation is both strong and understandable to forever write people off who have committed crimes, this works to our own collective detriment when that punishment ends. In other words, to the extent that we invest in the success of people returning to their communities, we all succeed. 

Social media is now the public square

As the United States Supreme Court observed in 2017’s Packingham v. North Carolina, social media is now the public square. People who have jobs, who have housing, who have support, who have friends, who have a stake in the community have reasons to stay out of prison. Virtual communities have, in some regards, become as essential for full participation in modern life as physical communities have traditionally been. While Packingham declared such bans unconstitutional when crafted in legislatures, it is powerless when those same bans are crafted in corporate boardrooms.

There are now more people on sex offense registries in America than there are in its jails. Because periods of registration are lengthy — sometimes for life — and untethered to any consideration of actual dangerousness, this number will only continue to grow. Policies that banish an enormous population of people for life from essential platforms cripples their ability to reintegrate and meaningfully participate in society. As the Michigan Attorney General recently observed in the context of sex offense registries, policies that banish people from their communities are “contrary to the desired goals of rehabilitation, stability, and re-integration into community life.”

To the extent that we continue to isolate people who have paid their debt to society, our good intentions work at cross-purposes with our stated goals. As research has found, isolating people makes re-offense more likely by turning people into irredeemable pariahs who have no support, nor incentive to better themselves. 

Undoubtedly, safety is something that we should take seriously: and so we should endeavor to take it seriously. Nothing written here would prevent platforms from continuing to police individual behavior and ban individuals, as opposed to unpopular classes of individuals, who violate community standards. 

In the quest to make our physical and online communities safe, too often we have fallen victim to well-intentioned ideas that sound in fear rather than fact. A fully-informed path that recognizes the realities of sexual harms and also invests in the outcomes of people seeking to lead productive lives after justice involvement is not radical: to the contrary, it’s common sense.

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