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I am cross-posting this (with some edits) here to get a wider audience on this matter as it can be an issue for other communities. In that sense, consider this incident as an example and try to address election moderation issues in general.


Incident:

I came across this thread: Why was this comment chain removed from the moderator questionnaire? (now deleted by a moderator), about a chain of comments removed by a moderator under the SO Community Moderator Election - Questionnaire post.

After some discussion, the decision was reversed and comments were restored. But then the post itself was deleted by a CM. I am not against removing that post since it no longer serves any purpose as the nominee decided to leave the network and their privacy matters.

But removing the other thread which was disputing moderation decisions concerns me (same mod who deleted the comments originally, deleted this post).


Why should the trace of moderation actions and disputes be removed?

After all, that post talks about some moderation actions during an election and could've been used as a future reference if something similar happens. So in general, should there be a guideline for preserving disputes specially when they carry some valuable information (e.g. Cody's answer here could be used as a reference).


I mainly agree with Cody Gray's points about what should be done when moderating election-related content (on the deleted thread). I am quoting parts of their answer here;

Please note that since they were answering a question about the specific incident there are references to that; however, I tried to generalize the points into the scope of this question.

I deferred answering this Meta question or doing anything about it until after I could discuss it privately with the moderator who made the original decision. After doing so, it seems we are not going to see eye-to-eye on this issue. I am not going to overrule that moderator's decision (if only for practical reasons, because it simply doesn't make sense to have a moderator deletion-undeletion war), but I cannot in good conscience just stay quiet about this.

It indicates that there are (were) different opinions among moderators about some actions. Of course there is nothing wrong with that in general. Usually, those differences should be discussed within mod rooms and a decision can be reached. But election-related content has a higher stake, so, there should be a higher standard as well. I think community's opinion should be considered in moderating election-related content. It doesn't mean that everything should be shared with the community but some more transparency is needed.

For instance, moderator who has deleted the comments has not posted a comment saying that they were removed and explaining why (if one has reasons to end an ongoing discussion, should instruct users to do so with reasons). If it wasn't an election, I wouldn't have said this, but here it can arise to be considered censorship or bias.

deleting comments critical of a candidate during an election is extremely dangerous and should be avoided at nearly all costs because of the danger of appearance of bias towards/against a particular candidate.

It is really important to keep the information available to electorates. I understand that on the main sites and even on the meta (when the election is not discussed) we try to steer clear of personal issues and criticizing one's actions, if not directly related to the matter. But obviously, an election is different.

I surely believe that CoC should be applied always and any insult, bigotry, or false information should not be tolerated. But there is a fine line between criticism and insult. We need to make sure that a nominee is worthy of our vote and will act in the community's best interest. We need to make sure they have the qualities expected as listed on the election page (among which is being "patient and fair") and that's mainly possible through discussion and constructive criticism.

The community needs to be able to ask questions, many of them difficult, about their candidates. This is key to a legitimate democratic election, and it is absolutely necessary on Stack Overflow, where an extremely high level of trust is placed by the community in their moderators. Moderator candidates need to be able to withstand being asked and be willing to answer difficult questions to the community's satisfaction. That entire process is subverted if such comments are deleted. Asking questions is not "harassment"—it's the process.

A democratic process needs transparency and I don't think our community election is different. The main structure of the process is very clear and I, personally, don't see any major issues. But deleting some information in the midst of an election is worrying. So, I suppose we should put up a guideline to avoid such incidents which would make moderation a tad more straightforward.



I want to ask the community, moderators, and CMs to clarify and explain their points of view on Election Content Moderation so we can reach a standard that the majority of us agrees with.

My main concern here is about transparency. Again, Cody phrased it perfectly:

There does have to be a higher standard for moderators when moderating election-related content, in order to preserve trust on such a sensitive issue where there is almost no transparency. Stuff that would normally be inappropriate in a comment (like questioning a person's behavior) has to become permissible during an election, because that's the whole point of an election.


One should not get fixated on the incident as it has already been dealt with and there is not much left to do. The discussion should mainly focus on establishing standards or pointing out potential similar challenges, using the incident solely as an example. Please note that I am only trying to clarify my intent, and am not demanding anything.

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    For those that cannot see, it was the same moderator who deleted the comments from the questionnaire and deleted the question about why they were removed. – OrangeDog Aug 1 at 12:49
  • You say moderator once and CM later who deleted content. Is this one and the same person? – Trilarion Aug 2 at 17:15
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    @Trilarion summary of what happened: Mod.A removed the comments, got disputes, comments were restored (dunno if by the same mod). Nominee left the network, a CM removed the post. Mod.A later closed and deleted the post that was disputing their decision. – M-- Aug 2 at 22:04
  • It wasn't the same mod that restored the comment. That was in the deleted post I think. Has the community asked to undelete that post? If not it probably can if it wants to. – Trilarion Aug 3 at 7:00
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    @Trilarion Well I voted to reopen the deleted question (not my best decision though. I think it should be closed but not deleted) and asked for an explanation on deletion in SO meta chatroom but got no response. Beyond that, I don't want to make a fuss. I am more concerned about this pattern of actions than one incident itself. – M-- Aug 3 at 16:53
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    I have to wonder if such issues would be solved if we had a more robust way of discussing candidate questionnaires. If I post a comment on a candidate's questionnaire, it is almost always to ask a question they didn't cover or ask for clarification on something they wrote. If we had a mechanism by which people could ask questions and only the candidate could answer them but everyone could see the questions and answers, it might stay more focused than a free ranging discussion in comments that might be emotionally charged for some people. – ColleenV Aug 4 at 13:46
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One finds that moderation's often about handling the things the system doesn't quite handle, and often context matters. Effective moderation isn't just about application of the rules; it's also about deciding on what's best for the users and community.

And sometimes members of the team may disagree, or we need to balance correct, but diametrically opposite needs of the community.

Elections make people emotional. Especially in times like these

There does have to be a higher standard for moderators when moderating election-related content, in order to preserve trust on such a sensitive issue where there is almost no transparency. Stuff that would normally be inappropriate in a comment (like questioning a person's behavior) has to become permissible during an election, because that's the whole point of an election.

Is true. But sometimes, the line between "questioning a person's behaviour" and "personal attacks" can get blurred. And balancing openness for the community, and the human touch for the specific candidate is important, and well, sometimes you can't make everyone happy.

I wish it was possible to get everything right all the time. We're however fallible at times - and often make the decision to mitigate harm first then talk to our fellow mods later.

The candidate has left the network. Potentially with these comments, and the overall situation as a contributory factor. Transparency isn't more important than humanity to me. So at this point, considering everything we know now - I'm not sure if it was the right choice, or if it would be the right choice in future situations. However, in this situation, it was the choice that the moderators went with, presumably with the information they had, and after discussion.

We need to make sure that a nominee is worthy of our vote and will act in the community's best interest. We need to make sure they have the qualities expected as listed on the election page and that's mainly possible through discussion and constructive criticism, which sometimes may touch previous actions.

We also need to consider the welfare of the candidate and moderators to an extent, and not all criticism is constructive, and the current situation, as well as the volume (in both senses of the matter) can affect how said critique is seen.

On the other hand, posts like this and others - such as this one on meta that deal with specific aspects of the problem, separate from the chaos of the election work perfectly well in documenting the decisions made - more so since we can talk about the situations, not the candidate.

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  • Thank you for your answer. While you talk about general aspects of my question you also talk about that specific case which is not my concern. As I said, CoC should be applied. Criticism has an adjective in my question, that is constructive, which should not be taken away. If it is not constructive as you say, it'd be a different case, but I specifically mentioned constructive criticism and it carries a meaning. – M-- Aug 1 at 1:39
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    Besides that, what really concerns me is removing the trace of those actions. The nomination post should've been deleted as it had sensitive discussion about a user who is not longer on the network. The other post was referring to that nomination post so it could go away as well. But the trace of what happened shouldn't have been erased altogether. A mod could post a new thread, explaining the situation without referring to the posts. That thread could just lay out what had happened in general and what's been the verdict so it can be used as a future reference. – M-- Aug 1 at 1:44
  • And what is constructive can vary on context and situation. While I refer to the specific case, and it's difficult not to, most of what I talk about is pretty general – Journeyman Geek Aug 1 at 1:44
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    And my answer talks about the criteria and context one needs to consider, and gives a general example of how the knowledge was preserved. And well a new thread at the heat of the moment might not have helped. – Journeyman Geek Aug 1 at 1:46
  • One more question; do you think when a discussion is removed there should be a comment by the moderator explaining why it has happened and maybe instructing users to not discuss that topic again? Without that, there is not transparency as Cody mentioned. – M-- Aug 1 at 2:07
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    From experience - that dosen't always work as planned. I feel that it is a determination that is best made by the folks dealing with the situation. – Journeyman Geek Aug 1 at 2:30
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    I strongly disagree with any implication that we had any "blame" in this. As someone who had a lot of accusations hurled at them and was quite involved in moderating the whole situation, I forcefully reject any such implications or allegations. I would not have handled the situation any differently had I had foreknowledge of the outcome, and knowing the outcome now does not change how I would handle similar situations in the future. The fact that someone might get offended does not change how the process should be handled. It merely proves the suitability of that individual for that role. – Cody Gray Aug 1 at 3:53
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    If there's any such implications in my answer, let me know where so I can fix it cause none was intended. – Journeyman Geek Aug 1 at 4:47
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    "The candidate has left the network. Potentially with these comments, and the overall situation as a contributory factor. Transparency isn't more important than humanity to me. So at this point, considering everything we know now - I'm not sure if it was the wrong choice, or if it would be the right choice in future situations." – Cody Gray Aug 1 at 9:54
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    .... I choose my words poorly. I meant right not wrong – Journeyman Geek Aug 1 at 11:38
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    That single word swap doesn't change the meaning. Whether you say "right" or "wrong" there, the meaning is the same: you're uncertain whether it was the correct decision. I am not uncertain. I am certain that the right decision was made to prioritize transparency and the ability of the electorate to ask questions. I further think that this choice should be made in future situations with similar circumstances. I do not accept blame for driving any candidate off the site, and I don't think anyone else should be shouldered with that blame or guilt, either. – Cody Gray Aug 1 at 12:00
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    And that choice may not be the right thing for another site, or another circumstance. That is intended. And when a user left, I personally feel at this point that prioritising privacy is important. – Journeyman Geek Aug 1 at 12:07
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    You say "I'm not sure if it was the right choice". That is about the decision which is already made not about another site. If you intend to talk about potential similar cases in future, you may want to take that part out of your sentence. Besides that, I see a discrepancy in your answer and comments. You mention privacy is now important but you also object my suggestion about posting a general post describing the situation without mentioning any names. – M-- Aug 1 at 16:10
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    Well no. Cause I don't think there's a certainty, only a decision made on the best information available. That's a pretty critical part of my answer. And I personally always lean towards privacy - but even anonymised it's going to be obvious who and what it's about, especially soon after the event. It's a balancing act – Journeyman Geek Aug 1 at 16:15
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Here is my try on it.

To first answer the question in the title: Asking that is equivalent to ask for comparably lower standards for moderation of non-election rated content. I thought about it and I think it's not constructive. We should always aim for the highest possible standard in moderation regardless of if the content is election related or not. That includes that all contributions must be respectful. I expect moderators to always give their best and remove exactly the right amount of content to the best of their knowledge. I expect people to be able to voice concerns in a respectful tone. If there is a dispute and if interest in the community is sufficiently large it should be possible to discuss that on the respective Meta.

Remains the question if it should be allowed in general to question past behavior of a candidate on this platform below the nomination/questionnaire posts. Again this must be respectful and also a pile on effect must be avoided, i.e. not asking about the same issues repeatedly. I think this is overall useful and increases the quality of the moderator selection process. Having other people looking critically at your past is never the most pleasant experience but it's anyway what every single voter should do. Again, this scrutiny of a candidates past must happen respectfully and that's why moderation must pay attention.

In this case I think I still remember roughly the content of the deleted comment and the deleted question about the deleted content and I think that moderation seems to be in the right range. The comment could have been formulated even more polite but it wasn't that bad either. A case on the edge where every decision is at least partly wrong.

Remains the deleted question asking about the deleted comment. This is not really election-related: wherever a question asking about a deleted comment is deleted I would get a bit suspicious and would question the necessity. If the community is really interested in that it should just keep questioning the actions until some kind of specific explanation is given. Otherwise just trust that moderation got it right as we do most of the time. But this is nothing new.

Summary

The moderation and the community scrutiny of moderation for election-related content should be as for non-election related content with one exception: respectful inquiries about past behavior on the site are allowed. Otherwise all the usual rules and mechanisms apply.

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    I guess that in this case a specific explanation for the deletion of the question could be that because a candidate left the election means that questions asking about a comment are simply not relevant anymore. – Trilarion Aug 2 at 21:28
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    lower standard on other content... Well, no. That really doesn't translate to that. If you read what I quoted from Cody, you'll see what does that mean. – M-- Aug 2 at 22:02
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    @M-- Yes, I read it and I think he mostly means that it should be allowed to question the candidates past in comments, nothing more. Is there more? – Trilarion Aug 3 at 7:02
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    Yes.That's an example. If one wants to provide a quality answer, they should not limit themselves to the example. – M-- Aug 3 at 11:19
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Why should the trace of moderation actions and disputes be removed?

(you should probably have asked this on MSO, but here's my guess:)

Circumstances. And while you ask not to focus on the incident, circumstances mean that this is so closely tied up that I'll have to touch upon it to explain further. I know it isn't a very satisfactory answer, but in this case, it's most likely no more than a last, kind act for this person and a way of putting this all to rest.

You mention the post on the removed comments and how it could be applied as a reference for future issues. I'm going to say that, with all that was going on in the background, having a q/a pair that's so tied up to one particular user and their problems isn't going to be as helpful as you might want it to be.

For that question to be remotely useful as a discussion that could apply to all future elections as well, one would have to ignore that this was about a person that had created two groups around them, and managed to polarize these against each other. You would have to ignore that these groups of people had met on meta several (perhaps numerous) times before. You would have to ignore that (for either side) it looked like it was always the same people that would either support or be critical. And for an outsider, they'd miss stuff that people that interacted with this person would know.

That much history is a ticking timebomb, it'll blow eventually. The question about removed comments was one of the shards of that bomb. And unless you know the things I said above, no one will ever be able to see that question in the proper context. They will end up trying to apply a context to a situation that doesn't have a similar context. That alone makes it less than ideal as a reference for future trouble, in my opinion.

Any lessons learned from a specific situation that aren't only related to the specific context could be conserved into a new question and answer pair. If there are any lessons that can be valid guidance they can go into a broad canonical question that has no ties at all to the specific situation they were learned in. Of course you'll probably only realize after a few more specific situations have shown the same baseline.


Now, on to the general moderation of elections

I want to ask the community, moderators, and CMs to clarify and explain their points of view on Election Content Moderation so we can reach a standard that the majority of us agrees with.

The answer is going to be 'it depends'. And it depends on a lot. I've watched some election 'dramas' from the sidelines now, and in each case, there wasn't a 'right' answer that could've been applied to all, except perhaps 'this would've never happened if this person hadn't nominated' (but then the same user might've caused drama on other's nominations that might've caused other issues).

It's going to be hard answering this for a general case. Because general cases often go fine. And the exceptions often come with circumstances that require custom work instead of a one-size-fits-all.

For general election content moderation, there's really not much more to do than making sure people keep with the Code of Conduct, and preferably provide their criticism in such a way that the candidate has a chance to address specific concerns.

For non-standard election content moderation, moderators and CMs preferably take into account as much context as possible. For example, the CoC says 'no harassment' and a candidate may feel some of the people critical of their nomination are harassing them. Things like this will need context, how the content is going to be moderated will depend on the (recent) history between these users.


My main concern here is about transparency.

Moderators handle flags. And we try to be as transparent as possible about it, but if we left comments for every comment(s) we deleted, we'd clutter up the site faster than we could clean. And most of the times, not everything fits in a comment, especially with things like elections.

That's why we work from an understanding that most of the times, people are free to ask about why some things happened the way they happened. And I think, for non-standard election content moderation, this should be the standard way of understanding why things were done the way they were done. Just try not to prolong any drama. As a moderator, I find it very annoying if I'm cleaning up drama in one place, just to have it pop up in another.

So, if you ever see an election like the one that sparked this question again, as long as you can do so constructively, you're free to search for as much transparency as you can find, and you'll likely see it be given too: Both the moderator that deleted the comments and the moderator that reinstated them answered the question on why they were deleted.

If you want to know why the question about the comments was deleted for the sake of transparency, I encourage you to ask on MSO. I can only offer the best guesses in my first section, and argue that in this case, perhaps it's better to celebrate and support the new moderators than to keep picking at the scabs of this election drama ;)

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