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Per our forum rules, profanity is deleted and, in extreme cases, the user receives warnings or cumulative infractions which then trigger repercussions for the account. Publicly discussing a moderator action also yields these actions.

A user posts a message that includes some profanity. A moderator chooses to delete the entire message, rather than editing out the offensive part. In the heat of the moment, the offending user reposts the message and complains about the moderator not giving a reason, and calls out a specific moderator, despite the system not revealing any such information to the user.

The moderator then proceeds to remove this post as well, leading to escalation: The user reposts, the moderator deletes - this cycle continues for a while, until the user gets banned.

Could this have been handled without issuing a ban?

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For something like this, I would actually think a tech solution would be better. If you aren't restricted from modifying your forum software, I would suggest finding a mod that would immediately notice the profanity and refuse the post, with an error message about the profanity along with the post in a text box (allowing them to edit it.) This would make it completely impersonal. (Not making this an answer, because people don't always control the software of their forums.) –  trlkly Aug 11 at 5:47

6 Answers 6

up vote 9 down vote accepted

It's best if, when deleting a message, a moderator explains why to the user, but sometimes that doesn't happen for whatever reason. The real opportunity for the moderator to change the course of events here came with the second posting (first reposting). Instead of just deleting it again, the moderator should have contacted the user, explained the (now) two problems (profanity, and calling out a moderator by name), and suggested a different path forward. The moderator could do both of the following:

  • Ask the user to edit the message to remove the profanity, at which point it can be undeleted. Or if your platform doesn't support a user editing a deleted post, invite him to post again without the profanity. If he needs a copy of his original, supply it to him.

  • Instruct the user on how to properly raise an objection to a moderator action. If it's the specificity that's the problem, tell him to describe the problem without naming names. If it's that he raised it publicly at all, tell him how to get in touch with whomever the moderators are accountable to. Help the user escalate his complaint in accordance with your site rules.

The moderator should also warn the user that further infractions will be met with harsher penalties. Ideally you have a page on your site that explains that and you can link to it.

At this point the ball is in the user's court. If he takes the moderator's instructions to heart, then there's no need for it to go further -- no more post/delete cycles and no banning. If he chooses to ignore instructions and continues with the problem behavior, then whatever penalties, including bans, that are in place for your site apply.

Finally, if there are other moderators, it's a good idea to involve them, especially if the user thinks he's being picked on by one moderator. If he continues the bad behavior it would be best if a moderator other than the one who deleted his first messages were the one to ban him. I've seen this help with users who think it's just one mod who's out to get them -- when they're contacted by a second or even a third moderator, sometimes they get the message. It's also important to maintain proper appearances; even though one moderator isn't biased against this user, if it looks that way, that can damage your community. If you're in the middle of an argument with a user, recuse yourself and let somebody else handle it if at all possible.

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Excellent all-round answer. Especially for adding the part about the user feeling picked on, and the view to the rest of the community. –  Styphon Aug 11 at 12:27

Certainly going around multiple times with the user is not a good way to handle the situation. If content needs to be removed, it should be due to a clear, and probably relatively strong, violation of the community rules and policies. In that case, the deletion should be clearly explained to the user to ensure they understand what is proper behavior.

If they repost despite this warning, I might make one attempt to make sure they got the warning and not that they simply thought their message disappeared (unless I had talked to them directly). If they continue to post it after having had the content removed and had a warning clearly given that it was not welcome in the community, I would immediately suspend at least their posting privileges for a short time to let them know they can't simply ignore community policy. If they are willfully breaking policy despite being made aware of it, there isn't much else you can do other than prevent disruptive behavior.

In the event of such a suspension, it should also be made clear to the user why they were suspended. Continue to explain why the community policies exist and why they will not be allowed to participate in a manner contrary to those policies. The initial suspension could be short (maybe even as little as 15 minutes or an hour), but enough to get their attention. It should grow rapidly from there if they don't intend to follow the rules though.

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the offending user reposts the message and complains about the moderator not giving a reason, and calls out a specific moderator, despite the system not revealing any such information to the user.

The moderator then proceeds to remove this post as well[...]

The moderator shouldn't have deleted the post against them. They might want to edit it if the user included inappropriate content. This has several advantages:

  • This will be a reference to prove to other users that this behavior isn't allowed.
  • The user won't get mad... think about it. You delete something of theirs and when they protest, you delete that, too. Eventually, trying to get a reason to why their content was deleted, they are banned.
  • They might not do this again.
  • It allows transparency. A little bit of transparency is always good for a community, but don't release any personal information!

[...] leading to escalation: The user reposts, the moderator deletes - this cycle continues for a while, until the user gets banned.

At this point, I'd say contact them if you can. If your site features a private contact form, make sure to tell them why their post was deleted. If you feel necessary, apologize for the ban, but make it clear that their behavior isn't allowed.

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Whenever a moderator deletes a message, the user should be directly notified of that, with a reason given. More often than not, this already de-escalates the situation, because the user now knows what they have done wrong.

Of course, a user might also complain about other aspects of the moderation now ("You are far too strict!"), but the primary complaint about the reason not being given is already handled.

Deleting the message outright might also not necessarily be the best course of action. If you have a problem with profanity on your forum, a better profanity filter (and, by extension, a public list of what is and isn't profanity) could be a good idea. Or, if you want to avoid people evading the filter (or false-positives from the filter), introduce rules that address the effect of profanity ("harassment", for instance), rather than the profanity itself.

As for banning the user for continually reposting the message: If the user does not (after the reason has been given) follow the originally made moderator word ("Stop posting profanity!"), a ban might be in order. This seems like a heat-of-the-moment situation, however, so a simple cooldown for a few hours/days should be sufficient.

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Could this have been handled without issuing a ban?

In short, yes. But, should it have been?

Per our forum rules, profanity is deleted and, in extreme cases, the user receives warnings or cumulative infractions which then trigger repercussions for the account. Publicly discussing a moderator action also yields these actions.

It sounds like your moderator followed forum guidelines. The user violated the rules by posting profanity. The moderator took the action of deleting that profanity by removing the post entirely. This is not an unreasonable course of action on a web forum. In fact, if the forum does not have a way of publicly showing that a post has been modified by someone other than the author, I believe this is preferable. Otherwise, any moderator could change any message and none of the users would know.

A user posts a message that includes some profanity.

The way this is described does not sound like an "extreme case", thus the user isn't warned. Again, per forum rules. When the user reposts the message, he has taken strikes two and three (more profanity and violating the rule of publicly discussing moderation actions). The cycle continues, leading to at least one violation per repost. At some point in this cycle, I'd assume that "extreme" was crossed and a warning should have been issued. A common sense approach to this would be perhaps the third round of post removals.

From all of this, it sounds like the one step your moderator missed was issuing a warning to the user at some point in the cycle. The ban itself, though, seems entirely justified by your forum guidelines.

Something you may wish to consider in this instance is: What is the expected outcome of the ban? Is it slamming the door in the user's face and telling them to go find somewhere else to hang out? Or is it simply a cooling down period (for both sides) where the user will be welcomed back in X period of time? If it is the former, then I believe the missed warning by the moderator should be corrected and communicated to the community that policy will be followed. If the ban is designed as a cooling off period, then the missed warning is minor and though it was warranted, not a large problem. The user can return and someone (either the moderator that missed the step, or another) should at least explain to the user how the step was missed. This also makes a perfect time to explain how to legitimately raise a complaint about moderator behavior, without violating forum rules.

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I think communication is key here: moderators and users need to work together to remove any barrier that may begin to build up between people who use the site and people who keep it running smoothly.

Cycles like this should never occur: at a certain point, a ban is inevitable because you can only do so much to suggest that a user follow your rules. If they choose not to do so, a ban is proper because that is the punishment for violating rules.

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