Silicon Valley’s premier news source is halting all political debate—at least for a week

Keep your politics to yourself.
Keep your politics to yourself.
Image: Reuters/Kacper Pempel
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The brilliant minds who hang around Hacker News—the tech-oriented social news site run by the famed Silicon Valley startup incubator Y Combinator—can talk about anything on the site. But not politics, it turns out.

Following one of the most divisive elections in US history, Hacker News has called for a week-long refrain on all political talk, which has been running amok on the platform, Daniel Gackle, the head of Hacker News’ community, announced Tuesday.

“For one week, political stories are off-topic. Please flag them,” said a post by Gackle, who goes by the Hacker News username ”dang.” He added: “Please also flag political threads on non-political stories. For our part, we’ll kill such stories and threads when we see them. Then we’ll watch together to see what happens.”

What happened so far is, the post has incited more political debate on the site than perhaps would have occurred had Gackle said nothing at all about leaving politics out of discussions.

He called the moratorium a “cleanse.” Critics called it censorship that, no matter how well-intentioned, could threaten diverse voices on the platforms. Many others, meanwhile, applauded the break from the politics that have engulfed Americans for more than a year, and called for it to continue indefinitely.

Yet it comes at a time when politics is weighing heavily on Silicon Valley. Venture capitalist Peter Thiel is one of Donald Trump’s most high-profile backers and is advising him on the transition. The president-elect has taken positions on privacy and net-neutrality, among other issues, that put him at odds with tech companies including Apple and Netflix.

Elon Musk’s Tesla and SolarCity also rely heavily on government subsidies for clean energy that could be sidelined by Trump’s administration. And the president-elect is planning to meet with tech leaders, including Thiel, in New York next week.

Hacker News is not the only forum struggling to manage political discourse after the US election. Facebook and Google have become inundated with fake news. That has forced Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who previously said in no uncertain terms that the site is not a media company, to start acting more like he’s running one. He said Facebook will begin asking users to flag potentially false news reports and enlist third-party factcheckers. The company is also developing news tools to automate the removal of fake news.

Neither Google nor Facebook, to Quartz’s knowledge, has gone so far as to ban political debate for a period of time, however.

Some users on Hacker News were confused about what constitutes “politics,” which prompted Gackle to post a clarification:

The main concern here is pure politics: the conflicts around party, ideology, nation, race, gender, class, and religion that get people hot and turn into flamewars on the internet. We’re not so concerned about stories on other things that happen to have political aspects—like, say, software patents. Those stories aren’t going to be evicted from HN or anything like that. For this week, though, let’s err on the side of flagging because it will make the experiment more interesting.

One user, “mattnewton,” astutely pointed out that many relevant and important discussions about technology on the site are also politically charged, such as privacy and the ethics of technologies that replace workers. That makes it difficult to draw a line between politics and other topics.

Gackle told TechCrunch that the experiment was not designed to silence political issues tied to the tech industry, but rather as a reaction to the influx of accounts on the site that focus solely on politics, which is not what the community is meant for.

“The idea came about because there has been an uptick in political flame-wars and, worse, accounts that use the site exclusively to argue about politics and don’t appear interested in anything else,” he reportedly said. “We already ban such accounts, but the trend in that direction made it seem like a good time to clarify what HN is and what it is not.”