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At times I come across users who frequently post either partially or outright incorrect answers, and who are resistant to constructive criticism when it is politely given to them in comments. Normally you downvote incorrect answers, but if you're downvoting almost all of a particular user's answers you're going to get flagged for serial downvoting. And if you comment on all the wrong answers it's going to feel like a personal attack. And they just don't listen when you comment. Ever.

What's the best way to handle situations like this (both as a user and a moderator?) One concern I have is that on smaller sites, wrong answers aren't always downvoted enough to warn away future readers. The other warning sign could be a comment explaining the problem, but again if I leave too many of those it'll look like a personal attack. What's the best way to handle this? Is there another step I could take to try and help rehabilitate the user, or get them to respond to criticism? If not, how can we mitigate the effects of having these bad answers floating around undeterred?

Ideally I'd like to be able to point out the incorrect portions of the answer, explain what the right thing is, and have the OP take the criticism, learn, and edit the answer to be correct (and then get my upvote!) But I'm not sure I know how to make that happen, and if it can't I'd like strategies for handling the aftermath.

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  • related (possibly a duplicate): Fix serial downvoting reversal to not apply to users spamming site front page with bad answers. I for one have learned to vote crap bombers down in a way that goes under the radar of the braindead script (hint - if you find at least one upvote-worthy post of them /I know I know often there isn't one/ - vote it up) – gnat May 21 '14 at 11:35
  • At Arqade, we've had at least one user who's produced so much bad content that the serial downvote script has been triggered, even just using normal browsing. That tends to be a problem, and without a very good solution, short of suspensions to indicate current actions are not acceptable. Sadly, that's not what happened in our case. – fbueckert May 21 '14 at 16:24
  • I have had that happen with a few users at the workplace where they post a horrible or non answer to every question and then of course since the answers are terrible I downvote them, and then see the votes reversed the next day. – Chad May 21 '14 at 18:56
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  1. What problem are you aiming to solve?
  2. What are the long-term options?
  3. What are the short-term options?

What's the problem?

Wrong answers will always exist. Always. We may wish it weren't the case, but the system was built with the assumption that they will come in. That's why the downvote button hover says:

"This answer is not useful"

Enough downvotes grey out a post and make it less visible. Downvotes also shift it to the bottom of the pile. And incorrect answers that have downvotes do provide value to SE (as much as we may dislike them) because they indicate to people looking for an answer, "This is not the answer you're looking for".

The problem with incorrect answers are when they provide a poor signal (they don't provide any value as a resource to people looking for an answer) -- this happens if an incorrect answer is not obviously incorrect, and the voting doesn't suggest it is incorrect (if it is equivalent in score to other more correct answers, or the only answer and not negative score).

If the answers in question are not going to be mistaken for the proper answer to the question by the people reading, I don't think it's a crisis that requires immediate attention either as a user or a mod. Voting and moving on is fine. That may be hard to do as a mod (especially when you see a pattern), but trust that the people reading have a brain and can properly grok the signal that the community has given on the value of the post.

Focus on the content, but don't ignore the user

Focusing on the content is usually the best way to become a good resource (users come and go, but hopefully your content will stay around forever), but if the user is actually the problem (in that they violate the guidelines in the help center regularly, particularly the parts about playing nice with each other), then don't hesitate to inform the mods (or as a mod, handle it appropriately by bringing it up with the user).

Long-term options

In the long-term, your signal should get stronger as more users come across the question/answer and vote. The better answers will move up, the incorrect answers will move down, and nobody will mistake an incorrect answer as the appropriate one for the question. So long-term this problem should get less significant so long as you put some effort in getting your community to vote early and often.

Our community was struggling with poor answers not getting downvoted, so our community discussed it on meta. Now we are pretty good with downvotes.

So long-term, this should resolve itself if you encourage your community and let it grow naturally. Take a look at some of the questions/answers from SO in 2008/2009, and you will notice that despite the issues people thought the site was facing then, time heals all wounds (and introduces new problems, like joint pain).

Short-term options

There are likely problems short-term with some answers giving a poor signal to people looking for resources, and acting as broken windows that can give a bad message to the community. These are the ones you should focus on (regardless of who posted them). In addition to a downvote, I encourage a friendly comment that will add to the signal rather than creating more noise:

Hey Wendi, could you clarify something on your answer please? You say that the proper answer here is to foo the bar, but this other resource says that you should foo the baz instead. Could you [edit] your post to clarify the disconnect a bit better? Thanks in advance!

This will serve three purposes:

  1. It will clearly point out the objection with the answer and give the author a chance to fix it on their own
  2. Even if the person doesn't fix it, it will act as a clear statement explaining that not everyone agrees with the content of the answer regardless of voting
  3. It is assuming good-faith on the part of the answerer, using some 1920's psychology to inspire them to improve

If you have even more time, I would encourage writing a better answer and trusting that the community will upvote that in the long-term to make a clear signal even if/when your comment gets removed.

  • All excellent points; I especially love your sample comment. Pointing out what's wrong with supporting evidence and specifically asking them to edit are great ideas. I'll start trying this and hope I see an improvement! – WendiKidd May 22 '14 at 1:01
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I know who you mean. Oh, wait, different site. Well, I know exactly who you mean¹.

Definitely keep downvoting and commenting. You need to give some signals that the answers are wrong. Even if you've decided that the bad user is incurable, your downvotes and comments help readers figure out what is wrong. (This is especially important when the answers are not testable, e.g. stating that a formulation is or isn't idiomatic on a language site.)

If you downvote answers during normal browsing, as opposed to by going through a particular user's posts, then your votes should not be treated as serial downvoting².

You may try to engage the user in chat. Explain how their low quality answers are problematic, give incorrect advice to unsuspecting readers and waste people's time. It's all good and well to want to contribute, but if you can't contribute effectively, don't. A tentative answer once in a while is fine, but if you keep throwing stuff at the wall to see if it sticks, you should expect it to fall back on your head after a while.

If the user doesn't improve and keeps posting a lot of low-quality questions or answers, this can be grounds for a suspension. As a user, if you notice a pattern of low-quality contributions (not just a handful of bad answers, but a steady pattern of mostly posting incorrect or redundant answers), flag one of the user's posts and provide extensive detail as to what is wrong (for this situation, you should provide as much as will fit in the flag message limit). As a moderator, start with the “consistently low quality questions over time” template, and adapt it if the pattern is of consistently low quality answers. The first message should generally be a warning, the second time you should start suspending.

If the user responds rudely to your comments, flag the offending comments or posts. (Always be polite on your end, of course, but firm.)

¹ Funny how exactly comes to be a self-antonym here.
² At least, since the details of the serial downvote protection are kept secret (for good reasons), I hope so. Though I do wish, specifically for that reason, that there was a way to find out about serial voting reversals without compulsively checking your reputation or vote history.

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    I think this is a lot of good information, and that a mod message could be a good tool for trying to handle the problem. I wonder, though, how exactly to word it when the contributions aren't actually LQ, they're just wrong. We're getting medium-to-long, fleshed-out answers with examples and reasoning and clear effort... They just aren't right, and efforts to correct them don't work. They aren't trying to be disruptive on purpose; they honestly think they're correct and giving helpful information and everyone who's telling them differently is wrong. – WendiKidd May 21 '14 at 15:43
  • So I guess I'm wondering... Can you suspend/mod message for just being wrong, but not low effort/LQ? I haven't seen precedent for that before, so I wasn't sure if it was appropriate or not (or how I'd word it if so. "Hey, a lot of your answers are wrong. Learn things properly before you answer." -> Not A Good Idea. I could try for something like "please try to accept constructive criticism and realize that not everyone is right all the time and it's okay to make corrections based on comments" but if they still think they're right.... – WendiKidd May 21 '14 at 15:44
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    @WendiKidd A large number of incorrect answers is disruptive, regardless of intent. If you want help with wording, I think it would be best to discuss it in the private moderators' room. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' May 21 '14 at 20:57
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The answers already posted here are excellent. However, they focus on things from a moderator's perspective; perfectly reasonable, since the asker here is a mod (as are most if not all of the other answerers). What might an ordinary user be able to do to help this kind of situation?

Generally speaking:

  • Upvote correct answers.
  • Downvote incorrect answers. This is the clearest signal that can be sent outside of moderator only actions. Try not to trigger the automated serial voting script; the downvotes need to stay in place to be fully effective.
  • Comment on why the answers are wrong, but do so judiciously. If the user is openly hostile or extremely sensitive to criticism, they are likely to take such comments as personal attacks, no matter how politely worded. Even if they aren't, constant comments from one particular user might feel like nagging or harassment.
  • Discreetly inform the moderators. They're much better equipped to handle the situation than you are. A custom "other" flag is the best option for this.

Voting may not seem like much, since it's anonymous and passive, but it's really the best tool for resolving the situation without direct diamond intervention. The system is pretty effective at managing users, but it requires community input to function. Many users will delete answers attracting lots of downvotes, and if there's enough bad content, they'll get answer banned. It would be great if they started posting right answers instead of wrong ones, but the goal here is elevating signal above noise. No more poor answers (whether not posted, deleted, or because of a ban) helps the ratio. And even if the wrong answers continue piling up, downvoting them helps everyone else identify that they're wrong.

After receiving a lot of downvotes, "here's why you're wrong" comments, and/or post notices, the problem user inevitably will end up complaining via meta, comments, or chat. This is the time to be frank (but still diplomatic) about the fact that the user is consistently posting objectively wrong answers. During any discussion...

Do not:

  • Publicly raise the issue yourself. I can't stress this enough; name and shame is not the way to fix this.
  • Coddle the user. Their answers are consistently wrong, and that needs to be communicated politely but firmly. At this point, "just keep trying" is flatly bad advice.
  • Have a discussion in comments. It's not relevant to the post at hand. Tell the user to ask on meta or in chat if they really want to talk about it.
  • Tell the user they suck or should quit the site. This is just rude and won't help things.

Do:

  • Contribute to the discussion, even if only with votes. In order to get through to such a user, the community has to send a very strong, unified signal.
  • Upvote content which signals that the user's answers are wrong, and downvote content which says otherwise.
  • Remind them that downvoting isn't personal (or at least shouldn't be).
  • Point out that a pattern of getting answers persistently downvoted is a very clear indication that they're habitually objectively wrong.
  • Suggest ways they can improve relevant skills, so they can answer correctly.
  • Offer to help in chat by functioning as a sounding board for potential answers. Other users will likely follow suit.
  • Warn about the possibility of an answer ban; this might scare the user into improving their contributions.
  • Expect revenge downvoting if the user is taking things personally, and ignore it if it happens.
  • Promptly flag any inflammatory content, no matter who made it. It's critical to keep things calm and polite.
  • Know when to keep silent. There may come a point when anything said only causes the situation to deteriorate further, and you can't force another user to listen to you.
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I would advise you to consider carefully each time you go to down vote that user when you have your moderator hat on (even though votes are anonymous). With any action you carry out you know you're not being unfair, we know you're being reasonable, but the disruptive user will never see it that way and because of that you'll be open to claims of moderator bias. Of course the claim is not true, but it gives the person another platform to continue their disruptive behaviour.

As a mod, make use of the post notice where appropriate because it's hard to argue against. If you need to delete comments, don't just delete them but flag them (which ends up deleting them with the flagged reason) - this leaves a trail that you can refer back to.

The few users like this that I've had to deal with have either become productive members or have not returned after suspensions. While being super nice to them is, well, nice, it isn't necessarily the most productive and efficient way of dealing with them. If you've tried nice and it hasn't worked then bring out the stick. You'll probably always have a few of these types of members, and even the reformed ones could still get prickly occasionally. But if your actions have been fair, objective and dispassionate to date then they'll tend to see reason when you have to engage with them.

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    Post notices are a good idea; I'll start implementing that. The strange thing is, I don't think they're being purposely disruptive. They think they're right, and just won't listen when we try to tell them otherwise. I know some users who've given up trying to reason with one specific offender, because it just never gets them anywhere. – WendiKidd May 21 '14 at 15:39
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    For suspensions, are we allowed to suspend for posting wrong answers? I can warn them for being rude in comments, but being obtuse isn't always the same as rude. And if the answers were LQ I could send that message. But these are long-fleshed out answers--they would be great except they're wrong. They're based on false assumptions. But the answerer thinks they're right. – WendiKidd May 21 '14 at 15:40
  • @WendiKidd Nah, you can't suspend for wrong answers, unfortunately you're limited to post notices, down votes and comments. – slugster May 21 '14 at 20:28
  • “you can't suspend for wrong answers” — why? Not for one wrong answer, or even a handful, of course. But for a user who posts a large number of answers, of which a majority is wrong, and who has been told constructively how he could improve? Why not? – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' May 21 '14 at 20:58
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    I strongly disagree that being a moderator should affect how I up/downvote. The user can't even know who voted, so I don't get your point about “claims of moderator bias”. Not that it would matter if the user knew: moderator bias would be if a moderator treats users differently, and that isn't in question here. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' May 21 '14 at 21:00
  • @Gilles as a mod you are not supposed to adjudicate on technical accuracy. That doesn't mean you can't leave a comment or the community can't pressure the user to correct their answer. Suspension is for misbehaviour, I think it's a hard call to stretch that to wrong answers (best action for those is down votes). BTW I left a comment in TL for you. – slugster May 21 '14 at 22:29
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    @slugster I don't adjudicate on technical accuracy as a mod, but I do so as a user. Being a moderator doesn't mean that I can't act as a user. I continue to post questions and answers, to vote, to edit, etc. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' May 21 '14 at 22:35

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