Moderator's Dilemma: The Risks of Partial Intervention

byChris_Leong2y29th Sep 201714 comments


If you ever end up moderating a forum, or just becoming deeply involved in the meta section of one like me, it is almost inevitable that you will become involved in disputes over exactly what one is and is not allowed to say on it. You may find these choices can be very difficult as, more often than not, there are no good options. You typically have two choices:

(Note: This post touches on hot-button issues more than I'd like. I'll probably come back later and edit it to avoid these)

  • Libertarian approach to moderation

In this approach, you refuse to get involved in particular kinds of disputes. The standard example is that you may refuse to moderate posts based on political opinions so long as the poster is polite and they stick to all the other rules. Or you may decide not to moderate insults and flaming, so long as no-one engages in doxxing. This approach has a major downside in that if you aren't moderating based on politics, you'll have to let through posts from white supremacists so long as they are polite and if you aren't moderating insults, you'll get a bunch of jerks using the forum. I'm not saying that this approach is flawed, just that this is what is likely to happen.

  • Non-libertarian approach to moderation

In this approach, you concede a need to at least occasionally intervene in a particular kind of dispute such as banning the white supremacists or deleting comments that contain racial slurs. It is really, really good to be able to do this. On the other hand, once you intervene in a particular manner, you create the expectation of intervention. Suppose you've banned the white supremacists, but since people expect you to be consistent you end up extending the ban other hateful ideologies too. Quite quickly, you'll find yourself being forced to render a verdict on a whole host of ideologies, not just the clear cut examples. Before you intervened you could refuse take pick sides in certain disputes, but once you've intervened your decision not to intervene in another situation will be taken to mean that you don't consider a particular ideology hateful. If this is a contentious issue, then people will be unhappy no matter how you decide; often you would much prefer to not have to make a ruling on this issue. Again, I'm not saying that this approach is flawed, just that if you choose it, you will most likely run into this issue.

Broader principle

Even if you don't moderate a forum, you will see this dilemma crop up in many other situations.

  • Suppose you are in charge of a company that is deciding whether or not to have a policy on what its employees post on social media. If you don't have such a policy, they may say horrible things that are offensive and destroy your company's reputation. If you do have such as policy and you choose not to fire someone over something they post, it will be seen as you believing that it is not hateful. So you may actually end up with a worse reputation than if you didn't have a policy at all.
  • Suppose that you on a government panel that is deciding the extent to which you should regulate the safety of toys. You might decide to take a minimal regulatory approach and only ban the most unsafe toys. This would allow to protect a number of people from harm, but you've now also created the expectation that any toy not banned must be safe. You could try writing the opposite on your website or try spending some of your minimal marketing budget informing people, but realistically most people will make this assumption regardless of what you do. You might even end up increasing the total number of injuries by luring consumers into a false sense of security.
  • Suppose you write up a set of rules for your club. This makes it easier to ensure that everyone is aware of them. However, in the absence of any written rules the expectation is that you should use your common sense. When these rules are written down, people will start to assume that if something isn't in the rules, it must be allowed, particularly if it would have been easy to put it in the rules if they had wanted to. So you may actually find that more people end up doing the things that you don't want.

This is scary. In many of these cases, it seems incredibly obvious those in power should at least, even if they do nothing else, regulate the worst cases. But quite quickly we see that this isn't as obvious as it sounds.

The mechanism in the Moderator's Dilemma is that refusing to ban a particular action is seen as either implicitly endorsing it, or at least claiming that it is "not bad". If this isn't the case, then you don't run into the Moderator's Dilemma. For example, you may be able to avoid the Moderator's Dilemma if you have a "Historical Schelling Point". For example, if you ban racial slurs there may be disputes over what counts as a slur, but because there is precedent of treating these differently from other things that are offensive, you may be able avoid having to adjudicate a flamewars where no slurs occur.

Relationship to Other terms

This is related to a few other terms:

  • Precedent is a term most associated with legal contexts. Courts try to keep the law consistent so that people can follow it, so once one court rules one way, other courts will tend to rule in a manner consistent with this. However, while Precedent is primarily about consistency and only secondarily about how the rules might later expand, the Moderator's Dilemma is primarily about expansion, but also more about being forced to issue a ruling than about the outcomes.
  • Slippery Slopes are an argument that is often claimed to be a logical fallacy, but which is only poor reasoning if you fail to justify why we are likely to inevitably progress along the slope. The Moderator's Dilemma is a kind of slippery slope, but while the focus of the Slippery Slope is the endpoint and how bad it is, the Moderator's Dilemma is more about being forced to issue a ruling when you don't want to.


I believe that Terminology is Important and so the purpose of this article was to describe a particular situation that I have seen in multiple contexts, but which I did not already have a name for. Group rationality is hard because you can't just look at the immediate effects, but all of the effects that might occur downstream. This is a small attempt to grapple with these problems by identifying one particularly common downstream pattern.

Note: Please try to avoid turning the comments section into a debate on the political examples included in this post. I tried to avoid discussing these topics more than necessary, but these were the clearest examples that I could think of.