Participants in a virtual paleontology meeting were not permitted to use the words “bone,” “sexual,” or “Hell” in early digital Q&A sessions, sparking amusement and frustration from researchers attending the online conference.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) opted to hold its annual meeting, which runs from Monday to Friday this week, as a virtual event. At the end of presentations, attendees can ask written questions, but it quickly became apparent that some words and phrases—including many that are utterly ubiquitous in paleontology—were verboten.
The platform that the virtual meeting used, provided by Convey Services, came with “a pre-packaged naughty-word-filter,” explained Stephanie Drumheller, a paleontologist at the University of Tennessee and a member of the SVP, in an r/askscience Reddit thread about the meeting on Wednesday.
“After getting a good belly laugh out of the way on the first day and some creative wording (my personal favorite was Heck Creek for Hell Creek), some of us reached out to the business office and they've been un-banning words as we stumble across them,” she added. “It takes a little time to filter from Twitter to the platform programmers, but it's getting fixed slowly.”
Convey Services was not immediately available to comment.
Thomas R. Holtz Jr., a paleontologist at the University of Maryland, created a spreadsheet of banned words so that meeting organizers could keep up to date on the issue.
“As soon as we were alerted to this, we took steps to correct it,” said Emily Rayfield, the outgoing president of the SVP and a paleobiologist at the University of Bristol, in an email. “We contacted the virtual platform provider and they rectified the situation promptly—as you can see from the updated spreadsheet.”
While some of the banned words prompted jokes, others were a source of consternation for attendees. For instance, Z. Jack Tseng, an assistant professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley and an assistant curator at the University of California Museum of Paleontology, noticed that the word “Wang” was banned, but not the word “Johnson,” and tweeted about it.
“At first, when fellow conference attendees noted on Twitter that ‘Hell’ and ‘bone’ were banned, I was very amused by it,” Tseng said in an email. “I figured the filter was simply over-tuned to prevent many slang words used by schoolchildren from being shown in a professional meeting.”
“I became disturbed when I saw that the crowd-sourced list of banned words included ‘Wang,’” he continued. “I personally know of several vertebrate paleontologists by that surname. It didn't seem right, so I typed in other synonymous slangs into the Q&A platform and realized the bias that I tweeted about.”
Content moderation and filtering on digital platforms is an important part of countless online exchanges and virtual events. These measures are intended to ensure that discussions remain civil and safe for participants.
“I would hope that actual swears or slurs would be censored, since paleontology is not a field that's immune to racist/sexist jerks,” noted Brigid Christison, a masters' student in biology at Carleton University, in an email.
The hiccup at the SVP conference is a reminder that these platforms don’t always have a “one size fits all” setup, however. Moderating platforms at scale using filters or algorithms often comes with unintended consequences. “Words like ‘bone,’ ‘pubic,’ and ‘stream’ are frankly ridiculous to ban in a field where we regularly find pubic bones in streams,” Christison said.
Tseng noted that the “immediate action” taken by the SVP organizers was “an example of the best first line of response for others who encounter similar issues.”
“In general, text filter algorithms probably involve human decisions at some point in their creation and implementation, so recognizing these biases at the design level, even if it takes more time to develop, would go a long way in creating a more welcoming environment for all participants,” he said. “We are in such a well-connected world today, that our technology should continue to change with the times.”
While the banned words caused some spirited conversations on social media, the main focus of the SVP meeting—fascinating finds about fossilized vertebrates—continues uninterrupted. You can follow the conference on its website or with the hashtag #2020SVP.