Political (and other contentious topics) moderation strategies

I thought this was a great article examining the challenges Nextdoor faces moderating their “local neighbors only” platform

Lots of thoughtful advice here applicable to many platforms. It’s a problem I see many Discourse instances facing as well.

We’ve long observed that there are basically two types of discussions: the easy(ish) ones, and the hard ones. The latter tend to be of the traditional “avoid discussing these topics at thanksgiving dinner with your extended family” type. The moderation strategy for the tougher discussions are so much more challenging and almost require a completely different set of tools, or at least tools you basically never need to use outside those areas.

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We’re setting up expectations ahead of the problem. We’ve asked people to post political discussions in a particular (out of the way) location so that people who wish to opt-out can do so. I don’t think this is something we can automate into behaving, so we monitor them closely. We also have ground rules for discussions (respect, no -isms, etc).

FOr American political debates, I’ve set up monitored threads ahead of time so that people have an expectation that there is a specific thread to post such discussion in. We have a general election thread, and spin out other conversations as needed.

Nextdoor’s problem is that its community moderator tools are GARBAGE. There aren’t really moderators, in the sense we have them. I’m a community lead myself, and have no power at all. I can “vote” with the other community leads, but there’s no mechanism for actually doing anything other than reporting to the PTBs and hoping they take action (which they never do.) They don’t empower locals to take the reins. They let us kinda have some influence, but it’s not vetted, and it’s literally the first person to create the neighborhood, rather than some kind of application process that would involve training or vetting. For example, one situation we had involved the public display of the picture of a minor and shaming his parents online (he had the audacity to ride down a driveway, the horror) and the other leads voted to take no action. So the post remained up. Leads are NOT moderators.

In my community, we take a proactive approach. We know that politics are going to come up, so when they do, we keep a close eye on it and take action when needed. People who can’t play nice get the silences as needed, and we make it clear what’s going to happen, publicly. Thus far, we haven’t had much problem, but I expect we’ll be using slow posting soon.

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I think the new feature ‘set slow mode’ will be of great use here…

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Thanks for sharing this, @codinghorror. It sparks a lot of thoughts for me. As someone who tends to stand more in the middle of the political spectrum than at either of the ends, I personally have felt the need to navigate these types of conversation very carefully. It’s difficult as it can feel like walking through a minefield.

This article brought up a number of ideas to mind in regard to moderation.

  1. Set the example. Leaders set the culture by the example (not the rules) they set. If you want a community that values open-minded, thoughtful discussion, make every effort to act that way yourself. Don’t get tempted to hop on the personal attack train. Ask great questions instead!
  2. Don’t allow ad hominem attacks. It’s perfectly normal to build up or tear apart a position in political discourse. Have strong opinions! However, when the discussion devolves into attacking a person (can be a candidate or a person involved in the discussion), allowing the conversation to continue only further fosters the divisive rhetoric causing so many problems.
  3. Cut off the discussion when needed. Your community is not a democracy. Set the expectation for civil conversation, but if it is not followed, do not hesitate to close the topic. And if users get particularly problematic and do not respond to moderator feedback, it’s perfectly acceptable to silence or suspend them for a while to give them a chance to cool down and re-approach their engagement.

I noticed this from the article, too. That’s kind of sad. Empower the people, I say! :stuck_out_tongue:

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This is really, really important. Our more argumentative members will occasionally pull the “freedom of speech” nonsense, and we are very explicit that we aren’t the government, we’re not making a law, and you don’t have “Freedom of speech” on our website. I’m learning that conciliatory is not effective. You can be polite, but firmness is a must I make it clear with open discussion what is going to happen, and our public moderation policies are very effective and making it clear head of time what we expect. I call people out by name, and explain that if they continue, X will happen… and then follow through.

Posts not made in good faith are moderated heavily.

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That’s a great thought. I’d also say that you’re not telling someone they can’t say something at all, they just cannot say it here and in the way it’s being perceived.

I mentally liken an online community to real-life relationships. People earn trust with you over time and can eventually be great friends if you share similar core values. But consistent outbursts of aggression or attacks will immediately cause me to put up boundaries with that person and eventually not have very close relationship with them because they haven’t respected me as a person. However I can still choose to be respectful toward them, just with firm boundaries.

It’s so easy to forget there’s a person on the other side of the avatar online, especially when things get heated. However I personally think it’s imperative as community leaders to remember this. Set boundaries, be clear on expectations, enforce limits, but remember these are also real people, too.

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Always makes me laugh. The forum is operated by the staff, and when you sign you agree to the sites ToS. This lets staff decide / set the tone of what is acceptable or not in a topic etc. That’s my line of argument.

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Here’s an actual post I’ve made on our site in response to this particular argument:

Freedom of speech

Not in this thread, no.

Freedom of speech is a principle that applies to government. Specifically, the 1st amendment states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

We are not the government. This is not a government entity. Discussions here are subject to the guidelines (which I recommend you read carefully. You’ll even get a badge if you do!) To be blunt, freedom of speech does not actually apply here. While we do strive very hard to create a place of open discussion about many topics, including intellectual discussions of topics that some may even find offensive, it is not “anything goes” and discussions that marginalize anyone will not be tolerated.

It is everyone’s concern here to engage in discussions in good faith and do their best not to actively hurt others. Insensitive statements (particularly broad stereotyping of entire populations) DOES hurt and can cause serious damage. I’m sure many here have plenty of examples of careless speech. As writers, we have a unique understanding of the power of our words and a distinct responsibility to use them carefully.

This particular individual immediately jumped into a controversial topic, posted only there, and quit replying after we made it clear the trolling wouldn’t be tolerated. Probably a sockpuppet.

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I don’t think it’s the contentiousness of the topics, but the polarization of topics at issue. I’ve personally seen many complex/incendiary topics discussed with respect in situations where nuance was still possible. Unfortunately, especially this year, the number of non-polarizing topics has rapidly diminished.

When folks decide that their position is so self-evident that disagreement is either ignorance or malice, and opposing viewpoints have nothing to contribute, and worse, that there is only one opposing viewpoint in the first place, it becomes very, very difficult to try and foster discussions in that environment.

In tight-knit communities, I’ve seen the behaviour applied to someone who posts an unpopular view range from “ignore the comment” on the light side (or possibly noncomittal affirmation of their post) all the way to the “I knew this person wasn’t really our type” discussions in back-channels.

In more public communities though, this is especially difficult. A particularly polarizing post may well draw in new posters on either side of the debate, and depending on the dominant position of the established community, this usually leads to vitriolic or abusive retaliation on the part of “regular members” against the newcomers. Worse, because the newcomers are likely unaware of the nuances and culture of the community they are trying to join, the likelihood that they will make a mistake and get moderated for it is extremely high - doubly so if their experience until now has been on non-discourse forums with lax moderation or community cohesion.

I’m not sure what the solution is. “Slow mode” definitely helps, I’ve seen the effect already in the brief trials we’ve had of that feature - on contentious posts, the number of replies remains high while the number of contributors overall increases, but this also increases moderator workload to 1) identify this mode needs to be enabled for a given post quickly enough to keep it from derailing, and 2) to aggressively moderate the responses that do come in and/or post themselves to set the tone for the discussion. But this is just a bandaid to help with the symptoms of a larger issue - how do you encourage and support nuanced discussions on polarizing topics?

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This is so true. Unfortunately, there is only so much moderation can do on this end.

I think this goes even further than ‘moderating based on rules’ and back to what Justin mentioned earlier.

When the leaders communicate and value open-minded, and thoughtful discussion (even about things they vehemently disagree with), this will hopefully translate down into the conversations of others. I believe aiming our sights in the direction will eventually set things in the right direction.

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Late to the party, but this was something we baked into our foundation—our core three rules:

  1. No a-holes. Everyone here is cool.
  2. No religion or politics. We’re all gearheads.
  3. Make it time well-spent.

A year in, it’s working out nicely. Our core group so far is made up of almost equal parts left and right, but we all agree to leave the labels and wedge issues at the door when we hit the forum.

Then again, we’re real small right now, so it’s relatively easy to do, but we’re setting the standards and I like that.

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This is sort of orthogonal to the point of this topic, though. You’ve solved your issues by declaring them offtopic for your forum. That doesn’t work for most. Even the OP’s article gives a great example of how ND’s service can’t escape politics because the very type of messages posted differs depending on your political affiliation.

The approach we’ve taken has appeared to be extremely effective: don’t try and police opinion or tone, and instead outline, in broad general swaths not to invite rules-lawyering, what is inappropriate. Bigotry, name-calling, personal attacks. Then, be absolutely transparent when you take action, and explain your thinking so the community is clear on where the boundaries are.

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Fair enough.

I agree with your thoughts on establishing clear rules and enforcing them transparently. These are things many of us addressed 10 years ago in the form of blog commenting policies. To the point I’m pretty sure I saw most of these things—name-calling, personal attacks, doxxing, promotion of illegal activities, et al.—in the Discourse boilerplate that ships with the software.

At scale, it all comes down to fair enforcement without discrimination. We shouldn’t have to formally publish rules around not being a deplorable POS in the community, but we were also promised flying cars and jetpacks by now, right?

Strip the rules to the bone. Remove anything which might be considered bias. Then frame them with the core values of the community. If a simple pinned topic can remind members why the rules are what they are, I would hope anyone with moderator or tl3+ authority would be able to handle things as they feel best. After all, these are the most tenured, engaged, and active members of the community, right?

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The transparency part of this is critical. On Ken’s site, he set up a special topic where he posts every time there is a significant moderator action. It’s worth taking a peek at that to see how effective it is… @tgp and anyone else interested in great moderation practices, give it a skim:

On larger, more mature sites with communities established over a period of many years (even decades!), this kind of moderator transparency is very effective. I don’t know that it’s strictly needed on smaller sites, but as time goes on and communities grow, it becomes so important.

You could also do this kind of stuff inline to the topic with staff notes, replies, etc but having a dedicated moderation topic on a large site is a Very Good Idea™ … there’s already a “site feedback” category seeded in every Discourse so we’re good on that part.

I wonder if some part of the above advice could be provided Just In Time. The last example I thought of, was, in the specific situation when there are a lot of outstanding flags to display a little banner urging the existing staff to either add staff, add category moderators, add TL4 users, etc.

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I can really, solidly emphasize this. Our community is decades old, and very large; we had some issues a while back with accusations of moderator ignorance, malfeasance, and bias… by switching to a more public moderation policy (which is publicly posted and can be commented on) and major actions documented where they can be discussed, it has increased goodwill AND reduced misbehavior. People don’t WANT to be publicly called out for their misbehavior, and there’s no more hiding behind “privacy” when it comes to moderation. Their actions were public, the response should be too.

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