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In this thread on meta.academia.se it emerged that apparently SE has "(not public) guidance to moderators" which regulates aspects such as how to behave with regard to suspensions (bans).

  1. Is this true? Are there secret instructions for the moderators?

  2. Why are these instructions not public? It goes against the spirit of transparency, in my view. Is there a valid reason why they should be private?

  3. Can someone post a copy of these instructions, just so that the public can know what is in them? For instance, on this anonymous wiki that keeps no logs. Thanks!

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    For what it's worth, this particular issue you raise is documented on meta, in public — see Why don't we keep public records of suspensions? – Aurora0001 Jan 3 '18 at 18:04
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    Where can you see them? Hint: they're private :P – ArtOfCode Jan 3 '18 at 18:06
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    "It goes against the spirit of transparency" Why is transparency desirable or even applicable in this case? – Semaphore Jan 3 '18 at 18:10
  • @Semaphore Why would I want to know the rules of a site I am contributing to? It's supposed to be a community building content here. That was the spirit of SE, at least initially. I am not here to be treated like a kid that you have to hide stuff from. – Federico Poloni Jan 3 '18 at 18:20
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    @FedericoPoloni It's not rules though. It's instructions to moderators, as you yourself stated, not rules for other community members. – Semaphore Jan 3 '18 at 18:21
  • @Semaphore I think you are approaching this from the wrong side --- in my view, the question to ask is always "why should X be private?", not "why should X be public?". – Federico Poloni Jan 3 '18 at 18:24
  • @Semaphore And we are speaking about instructions that affect me as a member of the community as well, if they are something like "we cannot discuss when we ban users". I am at least entitled to ask. – Federico Poloni Jan 3 '18 at 18:30
  • @Aurora0001 It is partly documented. There are still secret instructions, as confirmed by Mithrandir's answer. – Federico Poloni Jan 3 '18 at 18:31
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    agree there is some conflict in that suspensions are sometimes done with no transparency, have seen 2 cases of this in Physics where users were suspended 1yr apparently mainly for chat behavior and then no further discussion on specifics is allowed by the mods who then reject all such discussion as "speculation". afaict/ afaik it seems to be a locally-enforced policy in Physics not exactly contained in any official guidelines incl the private ones. understand suspensions are exceptional case where some degree of transparency is in conflict with protecting users privacy. – vzn Jul 4 '18 at 19:01
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First off, a crucial bit of clarification: there are no private / secret rules for moderators. There are private instructions, guidelines, tools and instructions for using those tools. In the rest of this post, I'll attempt to explain why we have these things.

Private moderator guidance is always based on public discussion; as with just about everything else in the help center, it exists to summarize policy, not originate it.

In the case you cite (not discussing suspensions publicly), the reasons for this have been discussed here on meta numerous times over the years, and recently summarized publicly by Jon Ericson in Why don't we keep public records of suspensions? - the private guidance exists as a more utilitarian version of this.

Now, you ask:

Why wouldn't we make all of this public?

Well, for years we did: everything was documented here on meta or in the moderator newsletter. Tools, guidance, etc. - if it couldn't be made public (for example, questions on specifics of how personally-identifiable information is displayed on the moderator-only pages of user profiles), it wasn't documented at all...

...In practice, this meant that a handful of long-time moderators knew how the tooling worked and how to use it effectively, and hundreds of other moderators either didn't use it at all or used it badly.

Eventually, the moderators themselves started to compile documentation here on meta under the and tags. This was a great improvement, but still suffered from a few deficiencies:

  • It still wasn't practical to document very specific details about how certain bits of functionality worked; there are a handful of pages that simply cannot be rendered in public without redacting nearly everything on them or violating the moderator agreement. The former option was used to good effect, but at the cost of making documentation that was (and is) unnecessarily confusing.

  • It's inconvenient for new moderators. For the same reason that we have a public help center (expecting new users to read the is naive), we needed something short, to the point, and readily-accessible to help new moderators get up to speed quickly. One-on-one chat conversations and email threads don't scale to hundreds of moderators; a section of the help center does.

  • A lot of it is confusing or misleading if you can't actually use the tools being discussed. It's hard to overstate how much this matters: for better or worse, a lot of the mod tools suffer from "programmer UI" - the way they display information is very closely attached to how the system is implemented behind the scenes. As a result, there's an entire page in the help center that tries to document the meaning of... well, an enum whose values are displayed on a certain screen. This is frustrating enough for even seasoned moderators who look at that page frequently - it likely makes zero sense to anyone who can't see it at all, and may very well imply capabilities (or deficiencies) in the system that don't really exist. Imagine trying to learn to use the Windows 10 operating system by reading the Win32 API documentation and you have a reasonable picture of where this could go very wrong.

  • There are bits of "folk wisdom" (for lack of a better term) that are extremely useful to moderators but which aren't actually rules as such; more... observations on human behavior. Things like, "don't make empty threats" or "don't talk about people behind their backs" are nice bits of guidance that can be written succinctly in a larger bit of documentation but require a tremendous amount of explanation and hedging outside of that context. Most of this also exists in public somewhere, but collecting the more useful bits right next to the documentation for the tools where it comes in handy is a nice thing to do.

Caveat: we kinda suck at this

All that said... The current private moderator documentation is woefully inadequate; there are lots of tools that aren't documented at all, the documentation isn't consistently linked to from the tooling, and there are all too many places where a new moderator might find [TODO: explain this in English] or [put screenshot here] in place of something useful. The sad truth of all this is that we write it mostly on-demand and rarely have enough time to do it properly; with a bit of luck, it'll eventually be a much more useful onboarding tool and handy reference than it exists today, but that's probably a long time away. Part of the problem is that - unlike meta - moderators cannot themselves contribute to the improvement of this documentation; that's something we hope to change in the future, though what form that may take remains to be seen.

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    This does not answer the question "why are these instructions not public?". On the contrary, if these instructions simply summarize public policies, it seems perfectly natural for them to be public, too. – Federico Poloni Jan 3 '18 at 18:33
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    Primarily because it is useful to include specific examples and screenshots when documenting tooling, and this can include sensitive information about users or the system itself. In practice the bulk of it could be public (and is, here on meta, in some form), but having a private space for it leaves less opportunity for error. – Shog9 Jan 3 '18 at 18:37
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    (there's a secondary benefit as well though: there are bits of guidance - NOT rules - that we occasionally pass on to help moderators do their work more effectively that would tend to get used as a cudgel if attached to public policy. For example, "don't moderate your own posts" isn't a rule as it would be impractical in many situations, but it is a very good guideline.) – Shog9 Jan 3 '18 at 18:41
  • I agree with you that it is much easier to rely on private instructions without being held publicly accountable for what you write in them. And this is exactly the reason why I believe these instructions should be public. – Federico Poloni Jan 3 '18 at 18:56
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    @FedericoPoloni The policy that the instructions are based on is public, and any action that any mod takes can be discussed publicly. It's not like there's no accountability. If the instructions the mods are given aren't in line with the public policy (on meta), and the mods follow those (incorrect) instructions, then call them out on not following policy, and they'll be forced to change the instructions. It's no different than discussing the instructions directly. – Servy Jan 3 '18 at 19:18
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    @Servy ...so why are they secret if they contain nothing more than the public guidelines? It feels like you guys keep repeating "there is nothing unusual in our secret instructions, believe me" with different words. It's much easier to argue for it if there are no secret instructions. – Federico Poloni Jan 3 '18 at 19:28
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    @FedericoPoloni I never said that they only contain the public guidelines. They contain the means by which the mods have to enforce the public rules/guidelines. If those instructions result in the rules being correctly enforced, the instructions have worked. If they don't, you can call them out on it, and they'll be forced to change them. So you know what goals the mods are trying to accomplish them, and you know if they have succeeded or failed. You don't necessarily know certain things about how they are trying to accomplish those goals, by design. – Servy Jan 3 '18 at 19:32
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    If I have to write something like the example I gave in public, @FedericoPoloni, I'm going to write it like this (and in fact did write it like this) - much more nuanced with tons of caveats on scenarios where such a "rule" doesn't apply. That's essential for public discussion, but terribly inefficient for onboarding. – Shog9 Jan 3 '18 at 20:33
  • @Shog9 Can you copy and paste these instructions to the anonymous wiki that I suggested, then? That would not constitute an official source, so people cannot refer to them in future public discussions, but it would be a good start to show that there is nothing problematic in them. – Federico Poloni Jan 3 '18 at 20:39
  • I've added such a thing to Mad Scientist's answer, @FedericoPoloni, as he requested permission to do the same. – Shog9 Jan 3 '18 at 20:53
  • @Shog9 Thanks; that is a step forward, but I suspect there is more than three lines in those instructions. – Federico Poloni Jan 3 '18 at 20:57
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    Of course; the entire article is several pages of detailed explanation for the system which exists to compose messages, suspend and unsuspend users, and track current or past suspensions, @FedericoPoloni. It's exceedingly dry, and irrelevant to your concerns except for the bit I quoted. I'm not going to spend my afternoon debating explanations for every option in a dropdown, which is typical of the sort of thing you would find in such an article. – Shog9 Jan 3 '18 at 21:00
  • @FedericoPoloni: Note that Servy is not a mod anywhere on SE to my knowledge, and indeed never has been. – Nathan Tuggy Jan 25 '18 at 4:16
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  1. Is this true? Are there secret instructions for the moderators?

Yep. We have mod pages in the help center, that we can access at /help/mods.

  1. Why are these instructions not public? It goes against the spirit of transparency, in my view. Is there a valid reason why they should be private?

Yes - this stuff is private. ;) It contains details about the flag system and other systems that are available to moderators, and that information should not be public - otherwise, users will have an easier time doing stuff that they shouldn't and avoid getting detected. We have to keep the workings of our tools somewhat secret, so as to prevent people from getting around them.

  1. Can someone post a copy of these instructions, just so that the public can know what is in them? For instance, on this anonymous wiki that keeps no logs. Thanks!

Nope, sorry, no can do. I'm afraid that there's a big warning at the top that says we're not allowed to do this:

this information is intended for moderators only; please don't share the specifics in public

  • I think this is bad practice. As the folks as security.se know perfectly well, if your security system is based on secrecy and obscurity, it's a bad system that should be changed. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Security_through_obscurity and stackoverflow.com/questions/533965/… . – Federico Poloni Jan 3 '18 at 18:22
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    @FedericoPoloni How is moderating a website related to security? – Modus Tollens Jan 3 '18 at 18:36
  • @ModusTollens It's written right in the answer: otherwise, users will have an easier time doing stuff that they shouldn't and avoid getting detected. We have to keep the workings of our tools somewhat secret, so as to prevent people from getting around them. – Federico Poloni Jan 3 '18 at 18:37
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    @FedericoPoloni Yes, it's to prevent users from gaming the system. Still not security related. – Modus Tollens Jan 3 '18 at 18:39
  • @ModusTollens Isn't "prevent malicious users from doing harmful stuff that they shouldn't and avoid getting detected" basically the definition of security? Add "...with a computer" if you want to restrict to IT security. – Federico Poloni Jan 3 '18 at 18:42
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    @FedericoPoloni If they were attacking the site, sure. If they use a sockpuppet or rage quit, not so much. Comparing moderating guidelines to web security is a bit lopsided, imho. – Modus Tollens Jan 3 '18 at 18:44
  • @ModusTollens In some sense, upvoting using sock puppets is an attack: it prevents you from seeing the information you want to see, and shows you potentially malicious information instead. Not much different from a DOS attack, or from defacing a site. If they do it by getting around SE's tools, even more so. – Federico Poloni Jan 3 '18 at 18:49
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    I agree that obscurity isn't a great defense by itself, @federico - but it is a great convenience when combined with other measures. For vote fraud, I'd say probably 90% of attempts are exceedingly naive and easily handled - the remaining 10% chew up the vast majority of resources. Giving folks a public roadmap towards making their abuse harder to detect just makes more work for me if they follow it. – Shog9 Jan 3 '18 at 19:04
  • @Shog9 Can the non-security related part such as the section about suspension mentioned in MadScientist's answer be made public? – Federico Poloni Jan 3 '18 at 19:13
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    @FedericoPoloni So what mechanism would you suggest to ensure that this information could be made public without enabling people abusing the system to more effectively subvert it? When it comes to most traditional security systems, there are lots of highly effective and well know systems that don't rely on obscurity. Putting a lock on a door and having a key works great, even if a would be attacker knows that there's a door with a key on it. So how would you build a system to, say, find users creating multiple accounts to vote on their own posts that works even if the technique is public? – Servy Jan 3 '18 at 19:15
  • @Servy Actually I find it hard to imagine the opposite --- a sockpuppet detection system that can be broken more easily if you divulge generic information on how to use it such as suspect sockpuppets are flagged automatically and will appear in tab #2 of your moderator interface; please review them. – Federico Poloni Jan 3 '18 at 19:26
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    @FedericoPoloni That's not the kind of stuff that's private. You already know that there's an automatic detection system that identifies possible sock puppets, and that mods evaluate them, so those types of things are already public. What's private is things like how the automatic detection system decides what accounts to flag, or specific examples of valid flags and red herrings that mods can use to learn what's expected of them. – Servy Jan 3 '18 at 19:35
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The private help pages for moderators are mostly about the tools that are available to moderators, and some advice on how to use those tools. The only truly secret part are the tools to detect and handle vote fraud and sock puppets.

Some sections of those pages are essentially just summaries of broader meta discussions, for convenience and easy access. I just read the section about suspension again, and there is nothing in there that hasn't been mentioned on meta somewhere. In the example you mentioned on Meta Academia, the instructions aren't actually secret, they are mentioned in the moderator-only help section, but that is just a summary of publicly available information.

There are no secret instructions on suspensions, all the guidance we receive from SE on this is public, though maybe a bit scattered over the meta sites. I'll now quote the relevant paragraph of the section on suspensions as an illustration:

As with moderator messages, the details of a suspension are a private affair. The public is only presented the aforementioned abbreviation, additional information regarding the exact nature of the suspension are not to be spoken of without the consent of the user who was suspended.

That's almost certainly what the moderator on Academia was referring to; as you can see, there's nothing particularly novel to it.

This paragraph is also, strictly-speaking, a straight-up lie. Moderators most certainly can and should speak of the details of suspensions without the consent of the suspended user, albeit only in certain circumstances - for example, when discussing the suspension with other moderators or staff, or when responding to the user themselves if that user posts misinformation about the suspension on meta. This sort of nuance is mostly absent from the help center as it detracts from the main purpose of getting new or inexperienced moderators up to speed quickly without bogging them down in details that most of them will never need or be able to remember - but it is present in the public discussions should a situation arise where a more nuanced understanding of the rules are needed. Being private, they cannot readily be thrown in the face of a moderator who dares to correct bald-faced lies by a suspended user, but they remain useful guidelines for the vast majority of situations in which discussing a suspension publicly would be counter-productive. In this regard, you might consider the private help center pages (or indeed, all help center pages) to be lies to children - simplified and often inaccurate explanations intended to help new users learn the basic concepts that enable them to use the system, after which they can be introduced to the more subtle exceptions.

  • My comment above applies to this answer, too: It feels like you guys keep repeating "there is nothing unusual in our secret instructions, believe me" with different words. It's much easier to argue for it if there are no secret instructions. – Federico Poloni Jan 3 '18 at 19:32
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    @FedericoPoloni You have to trust the mods (and SE staff) to some extent. If you don't trust them to tell you "these instructions on this moderator-only page aren't really that interesting" then I don't see how you can ever be happy. If you want to verify that mods are doing the right thing, then looking at their actions will tell you far more, and is a much better use of your (and SE staff's) time than what you're asking for here. – Cascabel Jan 3 '18 at 20:49
  • @Jefromi But how can I look at their actions? As written in an earlier answer, there is no public record of suspensions. Unless I happen to look at the right page at the right time, I cannot even know what they did. – Federico Poloni Jan 3 '18 at 21:00
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    You can talk to the person who was suspended, @FedericoPoloni. Or maybe you can't, because maybe they don't know you or want to talk to you. In which case it's none of your business. Which is pretty much the entire reason for keeping that particular bit of information private to begin with, and the reason Jon put this together. – Shog9 Jan 3 '18 at 21:06
  • @Shog9 I disagree with "it's none of your business". If I care about a particular community, I am also interested in knowing why some people cannot participate in it anymore. If you want to keep this information private, fine; that's your right, but that does not magically eliminate my interest in it. Anyway, that is only a tangential concern; I have raised it only because Jefromi mentioned that impossible thing to do. – Federico Poloni Jan 3 '18 at 21:14
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    @FedericoPoloni the suspended user is free to make the entire thing public. This guideline of keeping the details private is about protecting the privacy of the suspended user. – Mad Scientist Jan 3 '18 at 21:16
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    @FedericoPoloni Your desire to know juicy details (or to audit the goings-on to make sure that the site is run properly) doesn't override a suspended user's desire for privacy. If they choose to make it public, awesome. Otherwise, sure, you can be interested, but that doesn't give you any right to know. And for essentially everything besides suspension, moderator actions are visible. – Cascabel Jan 3 '18 at 21:54
  • @Jefromi I spoke about "interest", not "right to know". In any case that's just your opinion on priorities; mine is different. And what you write about moderator actions being visible is simply false: comment deletion leaves no trace (and moderators have been accused of abusing it in the past). Deleted questions and answers are visible only to users with sufficiently high reputation (and deleted questions are particularly well hidden). In fact, the only moderator action that is displayed clearly is closed questions. And even there, closing vote reasons are often displayed wrongly. – Federico Poloni Jan 3 '18 at 22:20
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    There's generally enough visibility in the things you mention to make sure things work properly. If you're worried, again, snippets of summary guidance aren't going to help you. And many of the answers about how it's dealt with are already all over meta - start there. – Cascabel Jan 3 '18 at 22:59

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