Civil Rights CAPTCHA makes you pick the correct emotion before you comment

A new spambot prevention technique asks you to prove you're human by "showing compassion and empathy."


Jennifer Abel


Published Oct 9, 2012   Updated Jun 2, 2021, 9:43 am CDT

There’s definitely value in raising awareness of civil rights and abuses thereof: Nobody can stop injustice unless they first know it’s there.

And there’s definitely value in CAPTCHAs (even though nobody really likes them): deciphering those wavy letters and numeric characters proves you’re a genuine human posting an actual comment, not a spambot set to spew a thousand malware links onto a comment thread.

Wouldn’t it be great if webmasters could kill two birds with one stone, raising civil rights awareness and keeping spambots off their blogs at the same time? That’s the rationale behind the Civil Rights CAPTCHA, introduced by a Swedish human-rights organization called Civil Rights Defenders.

Harnessing people’s captcha efforts for benefits other than spambot deterrence is nothing new. Google Books’ reCAPTCHA program uses scanned content from old newspapers and books, so every person who fills out a CAPTCHA is also helping to digitize those texts.

By contrast, the Civil Rights CAPTCHA works more like a multiple-choice test. Its website says:

Civil Rights CAPTCHA is unique in its approach at separating humans from bots, namely by using human emotion. This enables a simpler and more effective way of keeping sites spam free as well as taking a stand for human rights.

And here’s how it’s supposed to work:

Instead of visually decoding an image of distorted letters, the user has to take a stand regarding facts about human rights. Depending on whether the described situation is positively or negatively charged, the CAPTHA [sic] generates three random words from a database. These words describe positive and negative emotions. The user selects the word that best matches how they feel about the situation, and writes the word in the CAPTCHA. Only one answer is correct, the answer showing compassion and empathy.

Not everyone online likes the sound of that. On Twitter, Tim Maly commented: “Civil Rights Captcha tells you about a rights violation then asks how you feel, locking out robots & thought criminals,” while Matt Ruff said he loves “the irony of a CAPTCHA that ‘supports human rights’ by forcing people to express proper emotions.”

Commenters on group blogs had room to express their concerns in more detail. On metafilter, “Chocolate Pickle” wrote.

This concept really disturbs me, because it amounts to a Political Correctness filter…. I can see this as being subject to considerable abuse about issues (e.g. gay marriage, abortion) which are not so straightforward, about which there are legitimate disagreements. In other words, it filters out bots, but also conservatives. (And yes, there’s a difference.) It also disturbs me because it reminds me of the test in Bladerunner that they use to detect replicants.

Replicants aside, the concern that the CAPTCHA actually weeds out conservative political opinions appears well-founded. There is, of course, no single all-encompassing list of questions available for study, nor individual examples one can link to; visitors to the Civil Rights CAPTCHA’s example page find a different question every time they visit, or refresh the page.



On our first visit, we got a question that does, arguably, measure not the ability to feel emotion, but conformity of political opinion: “Alexander Lukashenko has changed the Belarusian constitution so that he can be president for life. How does that make you feel?” The options were “peaceful,” “truly hurt,” or “hungry”.

The “correct” answer is “truly hurt,” yet it’s possible for an authoritarian type – or a naïve but sincere fan of Lukashenko’s governance – to feel “peaceful.”

The CAPTCHA questions also assume that only spambots oppose LGBT equality. We got this question after correctly expressing true hurt over Belarusian constitutional changes:  “In 2010 the first Pride parade could take place in Serbia thanks to great efforts from authorities and police. It was a step forward for the rights of LGBT people. How does that make you feel?”

The choices were “wounded,” “fearful,” or “happy.” While we may not agree with those who feel “wounded” or “fearful” at the thought of gay equality, denying that such people are human might not be an effective way to promote “compassion and empathy.”

Photo via Civil Rights CAPTCHA

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*First Published: Oct 9, 2012, 6:43 pm CDT