Discourse Norms: Moderators Must Not Bully

One of the ab­solute worst things that can hap­pen to a civic/​pub­lic com­mu­nity on­line is for mod­er­a­tors to be bul­lies or for mod­er­a­tors to take the side of the bul­lies. Once that hap­pens, the com­mu­nity is at grave risk of ceas­ing to be a pub­lic com­mu­nity and in­stead em­brac­ing cliquism. If the mod­er­a­tors en­force the will of their friends rather than good dis­cus­sion norms, the space is no longer go­ing to be a space for good dis­cus­sion but rather one for a cer­tain friend group.

The most com­mon way I’ve seen this hap­pen goes some­thing like this. A new­comer with lo­cally un­usual ideas joins the com­mu­nity. Con­flict be­tween their ideas and the more es­tab­lished norms arises. Be­cause these ideas are un­pop­u­lar, peo­ple push back against them, of­ten in mean or un­char­i­ta­ble ways. If left unchecked, the new­comer may soon be­come a tar­get of bul­ly­ing and sniping. [1]

At this point, mod­er­a­tors need to in­ter­vene in fa­vor of the new­comer, be­cause mean and un­char­i­ta­ble be­hav­ior shouldn’t be al­lowed to stand in a civic/​pub­lic space, even if it’s to­wards ideas that are lo­cally un­pop­u­lar. Moder­a­tion is needed to rein in the at­tacks and keep things civil and pro­duc­tive. How­ever, in prac­tice what of­ten ends up hap­pen­ing is that the mod­er­a­tors in­ter­vene against the new­comer, en­forc­ing the lo­cal so­cial hi­er­ar­chy rather than good dis­cus­sion norms.

This is toxic to a civic/​pub­lic space and, if left unchecked, drives out views or dis­cus­sion styles other than those that are lo­cally pop­u­lar.

One po­ten­tial an­ti­dote to this sort of be­hav­ior is hold­ing mod­er­a­tors to sig­nifi­cantly higher stan­dards than users. If a mod­er­a­tor and a user are in an an­gry, in­sult­ing ar­gu­ment with one an­other, the mod­er­a­tor should be re­moved from mod­er­a­tion or at min­i­mum re­cuse them­selves. If a mod­er­a­tor posts in­sults against an­other user—es­pe­cially some­one who isn’t pop­u­lar—they are at fault and should apol­o­gize or be re­moved from mod­er­a­tion.

Yes, this is a harsh stan­dard. Yes, this means that be­ing a mod­er­a­tor limits what you can say in some cir­cum­stances. But that’s what you need to do to keep the bul­lies at bay, and ul­ti­mately, be­ing a mod­er­a­tor shouldn’t be a po­si­tion of power but rather a po­si­tion of re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Lastly, I want to point out that it’s to­tally fine for a space to ex­ist for a friend group or for those who agree with cer­tain per­spec­tives—and for those sorts of spaces, it’s en­tirely fine for mod­er­a­tors to en­force lo­cal so­cial norms or lo­cally pop­u­lar opinions! How­ever, there’s a big differ­ence be­tween that and a civic/​pub­lic space, and if you’re go­ing for civic/​pub­lic norms a higher stan­dard is needed of mod­er­a­tors.


[1] This ob­vi­ously doesn’t ap­ply to Nazis and the like, which should IMO be banned out­right.

[2] Note that foot­note [1] should not be con­strued as an ex­cuse to go around call­ing ev­ery­one you don’t like a Nazi in hopes of get­ting them banned, and such rules should be clearly ar­tic­u­lated be­fore­hand—the in­tent is merely to point out that you can have a civic/​pub­lic space that still pre­vents cer­tain ob­jec­tion­able con­tent.