In the previous posts of my Troll fighting series, I described some core damage control techniques for community managers when abusive behavior starts to show up on the sites or social media networks they moderate. These have included the need for solid House Rules as well as defensive tactics such as the Passionless Voice and the Hall of Shame. For those managing spaces where passions flare and it is important to maintain an open and respectful atmosphere, I feel a need to add prescriptions for a written Moderation Protocol. Beyond the House Rules established on most large discussion groups or social networks, the Moderation Protocol explains HOW these rules are to be applied. This is a must if you are delegating the moderation of your spaces to junior staff as missteps in applying rules, such as overzealous moderation or subjective preference of some points of view over others, can lead to damaging spinoff reputation issues for the host of the space.
Having managed explosive online spaces for some time, I recommend the following as the necessary elements of a Moderation Protocol:
1. Strategic considerations:
Begin by establishing what kind of space you are moderating. Are you dealing with a feel-good subject or a sensitive issue? If it is the latter, then your audience is likely to be polarized and it then becomes very important to be even-handed in your moderation decisions or else cries of censorship might erupt as a negative by-product of your choices. Often, the victims of perceived censorship will mount a crusade against your space that will come to dominate the discussion if it goes unaddressed. All staff moderating a space need to be briefed on the politics and dynamics of the community before they are assigned this task.
2. Strike system and user banning
When members of your community overstep the bounds, how do you intend to deal with it? Will they be warned that they might be banned if they are repeat offenders? Finally, if they are banned, are they banned for life or for a limited span of time? Again, consistency is important so it is a good idea to nail down the answers to all of the above and have everyone moderating the space apply them evenly.
3. Defining profanity
Most House Rules include bans on vulgar language. Still, it is good to define what vulgar means for your team. It probably means ‘shit’ but does ‘crap’ apply or ‘bs’? These kind of questions come up all the time on a lively forum so it is good to come to a group consensus on what gets deleted and what is tolerated.
4. On/off topic boundaries
All discussion spaces define topics for discussion. Given the variety of community members that will join and their various personal interests, many are bound to stretch the limits of relevance and bring the discussion in directions that may frustrate other members. It is important for moderators to be able to bring discussions back in line without being draconian. This requires consensus among the community management team on just how far you will allow certain topics to be ‘stretched’. In your protocol, it would be helpful to list out different variations on the main topic that can be accepted.
5. “Sensitive” and “non-sensitive”
Ideally, all violations of House Rules or challenges to the moderator of a space should be answered quickly. In practice, if a discussion space is generating dozens of postings every hour, you have to define priorities. That is why definitions of ‘sensitive’ and ‘non-sensitive’ situations are helpful for defining response times. Sensitive situations may include profanity and personal attacks on other users. Obviously, these should be dealt with as soon as possible. ‘Non-sensitive’ situations may include off-topic posting or posting links without explanations etc. This kind of behavior needs to be dealt with eventually but can wait for several hours if urgent ‘sensitive’ issues need to be dealt with.
6. Different protocols for follow up
Most community managers are instructed to keep things clean on the spaces they manage while also being on the lookout for statements that may be damaging to client hosting the community. When defining protocols for deleting vulgar content or statements that are abusive towards the moderator or other users, suggestions include taking screenshots before deleting to be able to justify your decisions later. If things are getting out of hand, consider activating a Hall of Shame as described in this post. On the other hand, if material is published that is potentially damaging to reputation of your client, whether or not it goes against the House Rules, there should be protocols set up for alerting a point person on the client side within a reasonable time frame.
Moderating online spaces, especially feisty ones, is a constant learning process. A good Moderation Protocol however, codifies learnings and greatly helps knowledge transfer and training when sharing the moderation duties with new team members.
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