401: Transparency in Moderation

Transparency in moderation is the idea that moderator actions and the reasons for those actions should be made publicly visible and clear to the users of the server. Without transparency, users may have difficulty understanding how server rules are enforced and may also find it difficult to trust that the moderation team has their best interests at heart. However, too much transparency may lead to users testing the limits of the rules or harass others, both users and moderators, for their actions. Therefore, balancing the need for users to understand the thought process and actions of moderators with the need to ensure a reasonable level of privacy for each user and deter harassment is vital to a successful moderation system.

Pros and Cons of Transparency

While there are certain “best practices” when it comes to moderation transparency, there is no single system that is right for everyone. The amount of transparency you need for your moderation system ultimately depends on your server rules, culture, and vision. This article will explain the pros and cons of transparency and ways that you can apply transparency to your moderation system.

Though the idea of moderation transparency is generally considered to be a good thing, it is important to understand that there are both pros and cons to transparency in moderation. Some of these pros and cons are described below.

To help you understand how the pros and cons apply to transparency, consider an example in which a moderator publicly warns another user not to call someone a “retard” because it violates an existing “No Slurs Allowed” rule.

Pros
  • Accountability: A transparent moderation system holds moderators accountable to their own rules. For example, if a moderator were to call someone the same word, other users would know that behavior isn’t acceptable and could report it to an admin.
  • Community: Allowing the community to see when someone gets warned and why helps foster dialogue between moderators and regular users regarding server culture and rule enforcement and encourages cooperation. Users that may not understand the reason why calling someone that word is prohibited can become educated on the moderators’ position. Moderators may also be able to clear up any misunderstandings community members may have about what slurs are included in the rule and can update the rule accordingly if need be.
  • Comprehension: Providing users with practical examples helps them understand the difference between right and wrong. Users that were previously unfamiliar with what an “ableist slur” looks like now have a practical example to reference.
  • Compliance: Users can proactively and correctly encourage good behavior themselves without moderator intervention. Once users know that calling someone that word is unacceptable, they can echo that message throughout the server and let others know that that behavior isn’t tolerated.
Cons
  • Testing the Limits: Malicious users may take advantage of transparency to skirt the rules without punishment, or to manage their infractions to just barely avoid being banned. In the example above, users may try to censor or alter the word to have it slip under the radar of any watching moderators
  • Rules lawyers: Transparency may encourage “rules lawyers”  in which users will attempt to use the letter of the rules without reference to the spirit of the rules to appeal their warnings and punishments in bad faith. Explaining that the slur in question was used to insult those diagnosed with mental disability and is thus prohibited may prompt a bad faith counterargument that “fa****t” should be allowed because it used to mean “a bundle of sticks.”
  • Harassment: Moderators taking action or users that were punished may be subject to harassment by server members. Users may also feel harassed if they are publicly warned by a moderator. The person who was warned may carry a stigma with them in future interactions or be made fun of. Even if no one treats them differently in the future, they may feel embarrassed at being publicly criticized for their behavior. Conversely, those who sympathize with the warned user may start harassing the mod for being “too sensitive.”
  • Privacy: Transparency may cause moderators or users to feel that their privacy is insufficiently protected in relation to moderation issues.The lack of privacy can result in harassment or embarrassment as mentioned above. Furthermore, if the evidence for the case is preserved in public view then additional messages and usernames may be visible even if the original messages are later deleted by their authors.
The Moderation System

Now that you are aware of some of the pros and cons of transparency in moderation, you must next understand the components of the moderation system so that you can consider ways in which these components can be made more or less transparent. Broadly speaking, a moderation system can be split into the following components:

  • Server rules and penalties for breaking them
  • Guidelines for the moderation team to ensure consistent enforcement of the rules and penalties
  • Logging and communication of user infractions and applying the appropriate penalty
  • Processing appeals from users related to their logged infractions

Transparency and communication go hand-in-hand. The more you communicate these components to relevant users and the server as a whole, the more transparent your moderation system is.

Implementing Transparency

There are several ways to implement transparency in each of these components, each with their own pros and cons. Each section here will establish ways in which a component can be made more or less transparent and a recommendation of the appropriate level of transparency for each. However, please keep in mind that every server’s needs are different and some of the pros and cons discussed may not apply to your server. It is always important to consider your specific community when it comes to implementing transparency.

Server Rules and Penalties

Your server rules are the backbone of your moderation system. They describe how your members should conduct themselves and what happens if they don’t meet those expectations. In general though, your rules should be specific enough to ensure comprehension and compliance without being overly wordy or attempting to provide an exhaustive description of prohibited behaviors.

For example, giving a couple of examples of NSFW content for a “no NSFW content rule” may help people understand what you interpret as being NSFW, compared to other servers or Discord itself. However, too many examples may make the list seem fully comprehensive, and people will assume that items not on the list are fair game. Disclaiming that examples of rule-breaking content are non-exhaustive and that the moderators have the final say in interpreting if someone is breaking the rules can help to address users that are interested in testing the limits of the rules or being rules lawyers to escape punishment on a technicality.

Moderation Guidelines

Developing moderator guidelines is another important part of your moderation system. Similar to your rules guiding the conduct of your server members, your moderator guidelines help guide the conduct of your moderators.

Keeping your moderator guidelines visible to the rest of the server will encourage compliance from members, and enable them to defuse incidents without moderator intervention. Furthermore, providing basic standards of moderator conduct will help users know when it’s appropriate to report moderators to the server owner for misconduct and hold them accountable. However, you should avoid putting too much of your moderator guidelines out in the public in order to avoid rules lawyers deliberately misinterpreting the spirit of the guidelines to their advantage. After developing your moderator guidelines, balancing these pros and cons will help you determine how much of your guidelines you should present to the public.

Infraction Logging

Logging user infractions is key to ensuring that the entire moderation team has the same understanding of how often a user has broken the rules. Transparency between the mod team and the user in question is important for the user to understand when they have received a warning that brings them closer to being banned from the server. Informing the user of which moderator warned them is important for holding moderators accountable to the warnings they issue, but may leave moderators open to harassment by warned users. Having a procedure to deal with harassment that stems from this, is one way to achieve accountability while still protecting your moderators from bad actors in your server.

Although the communication of infractions is vital to ensure understanding among your server members, it may be prudent to withhold information about exactly how close a user is to being banned so that they do not attempt to toe the line by staying just under the threshold for being banned. Furthermore, even though a public infraction log may be a good way to promote cohesion and transparency by showing examples of unacceptable behavior to the rest of the server and fostering discussion between the mod team and community, others may think that such a log infringes on user privacy or that these logs may constitute a “witch hunt.” It may also leave mods and users open to harassment over warnings given or received.

If you want to encourage a sense of community and understanding without taking away user privacy or inadvertently encouraging harassment, a better option may be to encourage users to bring up criticisms of rules or enforcement in a feedback channel if they wish to. Provided that the mod team ensures these conversations remain constructive and civil, creating a public medium for these conversations will help others understand how the mod team operates and allow them to provide feedback on how the server is run.

Managing Appeals

Everyone makes mistakes, and moderators are no exception. It is important to have a process for users to appeal their warnings and punishments if they feel that they were issued unfairly. If you decide to have a public infractions log, you may receive appeals on behalf of warned users from people who were uninvolved in the situation if they feel the warning was issued unfairly. While this can help with accountability if a user is too nervous to try to appeal their warning, it can also waste the time of your mod team by involving someone that does not have a complete understanding of the situation. In general, it is better to keep the appeal process private between the moderation team and the punished user, primarily via mediums such as direct messages with an administrator or through a mod mail bot. During the appeal process, it is best to ensure that you clearly and calmly walk through the situation with the appealing user to help them better understand the rules while maintaining moderator accountability.

Summary

In the end, there is not a single “correct” way to manage transparency in your moderation system. The appropriate level of transparency will vary based on the size of the server and the rules that you implement. However, walking through the steps of your moderation system one by one and considering the various pros and cons of transparency will help you determine for yourself how to incorporate transparency into your moderation system. This will help you build trust between moderators and non-moderators while preventing abuse on both ends of the system.