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These posts all have spam flags on SO right now (some more than one):

I have no idea what's going on with the Postgres one, but I assume the baby names ones were flagged as being NaRQ, and the star pattern one for being homework. It's unclear if people are flagging because they don't understand what spam flags are actually for, or intentionally misusing them because they don't like the post. If it's the former, is there any way they could ever realize they're using flags wrong? If it's the latter, are there any repercussions?

I don't think there's any way to automatically detect it; mods would have to notice that the same people keep flagging posts that don't actually warrant flags and e-mail them directly, which I'm guessing doesn't happen a lot (this answer indicates some mods regularly clear invalid flags, but that doesn't help with stopping people from using them wrong in the first place). Allowing 10k users to disagree with flags would be sufficient; the system could track if the same user is disagreed with multiple times and alert mods, but that system doesn't exist yet

Of course, all this assumes it's the same people regularly misusing flags; if it's actually different people every time this might not be worth dealing with

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To repeat my previous answer: meh. – Shog9 Aug 20 '10 at 3:34
@Shog9 I do pretty regularly flag already-flagged posts for mod attention; particularly if they were flagged as being questions posted as answers (which seems to happen a lot). I'm more interested in stopping people from intentionally abusing flags as an extra way to downvote a post; flags seem to be a void in the checks and balances of the site; you need almost no rep to flag, it doesn't cost any rep like downvoting, and nothing bad happens if you flag posts at random for no reason – Michael Mrozek Aug 20 '10 at 3:57
well, that's why Jon B's answer is probably the best... Since the flags "evaporate" after time, there's not a lot of harm anyone can do with them on their own. As for nothing bad happening... I know of one user who is banned for a very long time for over-using them. – Shog9 Aug 20 '10 at 4:13
this post currently has an offensive flag for some reason... – Kip Aug 20 '10 at 13:07

You bring up a good point.

Unfortunately the downside of a community moderated website is that if a person really hates a post they will do anything in their power to "harm" it. For example, if someone posts a question that doesn't fit any of the close reasons (not even "noise") some people will try (sometimes successfully) to close it as "too localized" or similar, even if they are fully aware that it's not a valid close reason.

The same happens - many times more often - with flags. If someone really hates an answer, since they can't "close" it, the only thing they can do to "harm" it is flagging. There are three types of flags:

  • Spam. This one according to official policy should be used only in case advertisements that are against the rules. This is probably the most misused flag, maybe perhaps of the fact that spam is a very overloaded term. Jeff once confirmed here on meta that "spam" is used with the meaning of not permitted advertisement (too lazy to dig up the post), but many people didn't read that post, and probably some decided to ignore it.
  • Offensive. The definition of offensive is sometimes stretched too, for example someone once said they flagged an answer because the idea contained within was "offensive to the spirit of the community", which I think is a pretty ridiculous stretch.
  • Flag for mod attention. This one doesn't cause the post to be auto deleted, and is also - as the name implies - constantly checked by moderators, so it's not abused.
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When To Flag

  • Spam: When a post is mass-targeted. This means advertisements or bot posts.

  • Offensive: Should be considered the general sense. This should be things that offend you as a human being not things that offend you as a programmer. This excludes matters of ethics.*

  • Flag for mod attention: This should be used for cases that are exceptional. This should be largely based on negative user behaviour.


When a post is mass-targeted. This means advertisements or bot posts.

If a user is "trolling", that is, trying to start flamewars or elicit an emotional response. This is not spam. It is not appropriate, but it is highly targeted, and therefore the user needs to be brought to attention and dealt with by moderators.

Flagging for spam is for posts which you believe are not hand crafted, but rather mass produced. If you want to call it spam, but it doesn't meet those criteria, consider flagging for a moderator. If it doesn't warrant a 'flag for moderator', then don't flag it at all.


Should be considered the general sense. This should be things that offend you as a human being not things that offend you as a programmer. This excludes matters of ethics.*

Swearing, Racism, Sexism, vile abuse upon users, or groups. These are all examples of offensive. Advocating the use of "GOTO" is not.

Ethics, that is practices which you consider unethical, are not offensive either. If a user wants to ask how to view what websites his employees are using, this would offend me as an employee but it is not the technical question that is offensive. If you consider this particular instance to be specially egregious, then flag for moderator attention. If it doesn't warrant a 'flag for moderator', then don't flag it at all.

Flag for mod attention

This should be used for cases that are exceptional. This should be largely based on negative user behaviour.

This should not be used for cases where you do not have the rights to accomplish your purpose. If it needs to be re-tagged, edited or closed, do not flag for moderator attention. There is a reason why these functions have been delegated to the community, and a reason why the reputation thresholds were set where they were. Allow the community the chance to deal with these.

In cases where the community is conflicted or unable to provide appropriate responses (locking, deleting, banning) in those cases you should flag for moderator attention.

Additionally, issues like merging two questions, trolling behaviour, comment-answers. These are all things which should be flagged for the moderators, because there are no regular tools to deal with these situations.

share|improve this answer
Flag for mod if they spot: a comment-answer; questions that need closing in a community that doesn't have the velocity of 3k yet to close by votes. – random Aug 20 '10 at 12:55
@random: by "community" do you mean SO niche, or a separate site? I'm making the assumption that we're talking about an established or semi-established community. I'll leave it to rcarataino to talk about how to create and build a community. – devinb Aug 20 '10 at 13:08
If I manually type "hey, you should try my product at [url]" doesn't that count as spam even though it is hand crafted? (Assume I'm not adding value to the post - I'm just begging people to buy my stuff). – user27414 Aug 20 '10 at 13:17
Also, I disagree with your description of flagging for mod attention. This has been encouraged over and over again as a way to get help from mods for any reason. I've never heard a diamond mod or Jeff or anyone else say "stop flagging so much stuff for attention!". – user27414 Aug 20 '10 at 13:19
@Jon B: There has been discussion of that before. Basically, if you are writing "Hey you should try my product" and it is a relevant, useful, pertinent product. Then it is not spam. If they type that on every question that has the right tag, then it would be considered "mass produced", and be included in the Spam flag. – devinb Aug 20 '10 at 13:31
@devinb I'm responding to your "hand crafted" language. I think we've seen lots of spam that's clearly spam but still "hand crafted". You might consider revising your post to elaborate on that (did I really just suggest that?) – user27414 Aug 20 '10 at 13:33
@Jon B: Currently, there are enough moderators to easily handle all the flags. However, this doesn't mean that we should flag more. Or that anything should be flagged for mods. There are still guidelines. The mods have just generally said "when in doubt, flag for mod attention" which is what I said in both the Offensive and Spam sections. – devinb Aug 20 '10 at 13:35
@devinb - "This should be used for cases that are exceptional" this is a lot more restrictive than "when in doubt, flag for mod attention". I think we're in agreement here, in general, but I think your wording is too tight. – user27414 Aug 20 '10 at 13:36
@Jon B: I'm trying to think of a way to succinctly say "Situations which are not covered by Spam,Offensive, or not-having-enough-reputation" Except that it isn't restrictive or prescriptive enough. Because it doesn't prescribe when you should, only when you shouldn't. – devinb Aug 20 '10 at 13:53
Stop coddling the moderators, @devinb. If they really wanted fewer flags, they'd just start boxing people flagging. I'm flagging your answer because it needs revisin'... – Shog9 Aug 20 '10 at 15:29
If a user wants to flag for mod attention on retag, edit or closing, they're fine to do so. – random Aug 20 '10 at 15:44
There really isn't that much of a difference between janitor and moderator job. Flagging for mod should help lower rep users get a feel in how the community breathes and what kinds of actions are good. – random Aug 20 '10 at 17:09
I think that spam flags remain appropriate for lovingly, hand-crafted, unresponsive advertisements. Though if there was a community consensus to just downvote them, I would live with it. – Rosinante Aug 20 '10 at 18:35
@devinb: your definition of spam is way way too tight (and this has been discussed before) -- it doesn't just mean mass-advertisement, and it isn't even restricted to any kind of advertisement. It can also include inappropriate or misplaced posts, e.g. answers which should be comments, or answers which are nothing but a regurgitation of information from elsewhere (e.g. a blatant plagiarazation of another post, or a post consisting of nothing but a link). – Ether Aug 20 '10 at 18:46
@devinb: if there are 5000 retag flags per day, that would seem to indicate a more fundamental problem with the system: either the people who care about tagging don't have the ability to do it, or the people who can do it aren't. Either way, asking people not to flag when they see a problem they can't solve seems like sweeping it under the rug... – Shog9 Aug 20 '10 at 19:26

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