I've become concerned for one particular user who's extensive content I really value on SE.

Some time ago this user began to complain of "arbitrary" and "unfair" moderator decisions against them. This has gone on for a couple of years and the user's description of such moderator/staff interactions has progressed into describing them as "harassment".

I recently noticed that the user is currently suspended from all SE sites for over six months. If I'm really honest, their suspension doesn't fill me with trust that moderators are acting both fairly and within the rules.

I'm specifically concerned about the ramifications of leaving these decisions confidential. This question is not about slagging off moderator decisions

The user in question behaves online quite similarly to Aspergic friends of mine. Specifically they're focussed on pedantic rules both technical and social while often (seemingly) unaware of when their actions are likely to cause irritation or offence.

Such people are prone to struggle with those in authority like managers, police, and moderators. If a person repeatedly causes offence without realising it yet remains entirely within the rules, a very human response is to bend the rules a long way out of shape to fit... Unaware of the social cause, they will just see the rules being applied incorrectly.

I say this from experience. Amongst other anecdotes, my own friend got arrested (without charge) by police just because his behaviour didn't fit what the officer expected. No law had been broken.

It's not a good idea to annoy a police officer, yet it's not illegal either.

So what I'm concerned about is a situation where a user has repeatedly complained of being "harassed" by moderators/staff, followed by them getting suspended.

  • There's no public account of there even being an investigation into these accusations.
  • There's no public account of why the user has more recently been given a lengthy suspension.

I want to trust moderators and staff to be impartial and apply the rules fairly. But I don't feel that confidentiality helps in this situation.

  • 19
    You understand that network-wide suspensions can only be given by staff?
    – Catija StaffMod
    Jul 11 at 17:59
  • 1
    @Catija Could you elaborate on how that affects my concern that these decisions remain confidential, and the user has already complained of "harrassment"? Jul 11 at 18:04
  • 8
    Yes, I think that is very safe. See also: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/293213/… and note that users can always respond to the mod message and if that doesn't solve any unforeseen mishaps they can use the /contact us link and bring their case in front of the CM team. We're not going to make this a public trial with a random jury. Worth noting that under the current mod agreement they can't share info about users and suspensions publicly
    – rene
    Jul 11 at 18:04
  • 17
    If the user wants to make the reasons for a suspension public, then they are able to do that. Moderators won't, respecting the user's privacy. Once the user does make it public, then moderators can respond publicly (with some information specific to that issue, but not wrt. other users). Largely, moderators' responses consist of correcting the typically very biased report by the user of what happened. If the user doesn't make the situation public, but is publicly complaining about "harassment" by moderators, then a very high percentage of the time those complaints have no real basis.
    – Makyen
    Jul 11 at 18:19
  • 8
    Your question implies that moderators have an ability that they do not... one of the primary ways we limit the potential for abuse is by limiting the range of their impact. Mods can't suspended for over a year at a time and can only suspend someone on their own site/s. Also, mod messages notify all mods on the site when sent, so there's on-site oversight.
    – Catija StaffMod
    Jul 11 at 18:21
  • 2
    @Catija I did't mean to accuse moderators of anything here. Now that you mention it, the user in question mentioned both moderators and staff. I don't have a clear understanding of the internal process for suspensions so I can't edit to clarify the question. Only... I see the accusations, I see the suspension ... I'm concerned. Jul 11 at 18:25
  • 6
    Some users are quite adamant that staff and moderators are abusive towards them and will hold this stance for years. As explained by others, we won't comment on it until the user starts with sharing details of a specific situation themselves. What do you suggest?
    – Mast
    Jul 11 at 18:35
  • 17
    There's a concept on SE that doesn't exist in law. That of "breaking the community". It's not uncommon for someone to be technically following all the rules while still being disruptive enough that they're causing a huge amount of harm to others or work for moderators. This is a concept that can be difficult for some to understand but it's an important one. If they're barely toeing the line all the time, that's a huge stress on the community. That said, it's extremely unlikely someone would get a network-wide suspension for that.
    – Catija StaffMod
    Jul 11 at 18:37
  • 2
    @Catija it's difficult to ask this question without accidentally inferring I'm (arbitrarily) in favour of the user. Actually my views are a lot more nuanced than that. Mostly my concern is that confidentiality has historically led to abuses in most contexts I can think of. Jul 11 at 18:45
  • 4
    "Safe" for whom? The user suspended? The moderators? Concerned users who want to know more information? The community at large?
    – bobble
    Jul 11 at 19:00
  • 2
  • 13
    "Mostly my concern is that confidentiality has historically led to abuses in most contexts I can think of" As others have said, confidentiality exists to protect the users' privacy. If a suspended user wants to make the reasons for their suspension public and have it judged by the community, they are free to do so. What's the alternative you propose? That mods/staff announce the reasons for suspending each individual user? That would be terrible. And I imagine that most (suspended) users would not want that to happen.
    – 41686d6564
    Jul 11 at 19:06
  • 1
    @Catija - law actually has a very similar concept, it's called "abuse of rights" :) Functions the same way as described: if someone's allowed actions start to get abusive, they can be stripped of that right (that is, unless the right is irrevocable). And frankly, it's a good thing it exists - fully agree that some behaviours may technically be in line with the rules while being disruptive. Jul 11 at 19:37
  • 1
    "It's not a good idea to annoy a police officer, yet it's not illegal either." -> This actually isn't true and depends on the country you are from. Generally "disrespect of a State authority" can lead to an arrest. E.g. Try saying a swear word in court and you can immediately be sent to jail for disrespecting the court. (Draconian, I know. But that's how it works.)
    – bad_coder
    Jul 11 at 22:56
  • 4
    @bad_coder the statement was in context of my own country and my friend's behaviour for which he has since had an apology from the police for wrongful arrest. Yes it's not universally true across all countries and all definitions of "annoy". Jul 11 at 23:35

I recently noticed the user is currently suspended from all SE sites for over six months. If I'm really honest, their suspension doesn't fill me with trust that moderators are acting both fairly and within the rules.

Us moderators can't do this. In my experience, getting a user a network-wide suspension is incredibly difficult, and a last resort. It requires a clear network-wide issue caused by the user, a moderator doing a CM escalation, laying out the reasons for the suspension, and CM oversight.

To some extent, we've thought about, and talked about, and the system has limited, standard reasons for a suspension available.

It's also worth pointing out that the folks suspended are able to try to appeal a suspension to CMs or to talk about it. Historically the latter has gone poorly, but a suspended user is welcome to bring up his suspension in an honest, calm manner on the appropriate per-site meta if they want it public. I've rarely seen the whole truth, and calm when folks try it, but it's plausible.

The user in question behaves online quite similarly to Aspergic friends of mine. Specifically they're focussed on pedantic rules both technical and social while often (seemingly) unaware of when their actions are likely to cause irritation or offence.

I feel like that's kind of a starting of a reason. As a moderator - we moderate for the broader community. While we try to make accommodations for folks who need extra work, sometimes we end up needing to optimise for the majority.

There's no public account of there even being an investigation into these accusations

Which is usually a thing with reports of harassment. I'm pretty sure that I don't want the world to know that I reported someone for harassing me, that person knowing, and using it as a pretext for more harassment.

There's no public account of why the user has more recently been given a lengthy suspension.

I believe the proper phrase for this may be "dragging one's name out through the mud" - if the suspension was valid. We generally 'publicly' don't have any record post-suspension (of course, site moderators do), because as far as we're concerned, unless the issue reoccurs, it's past.

  • 2
    It's a shame so many have read this as me leaping to the defence of this user. Like you, I see this user's prior behaviour as potentially leading to legitimate suspension while leading them to think they're being harassed. My main concern was what checks and balances exist over the confidential process. You have made some effort explain that. Thanks! Jul 11 at 19:51
  • 3
    I'm not - its a mix of my own experiences dealing with users. I'm also aware people in authority can act capriciously and unpredictably. That said, radical open-ness may not be the best option for the affected party unless they actively make the choice to. Doing so successfully is another story. In any case the decision to go public should very much be with the affected party
    – Journeyman Geek Mod
    Jul 11 at 20:02

There's a few misconceptions in your question that addressing might help things out a bit.

Misconception 1. Reasons for suspensions must be kept confidential.

This isn't actually true. Moderators can't share the information with third parties of their own accord (e.g. on meta) but they can share an explanation publicly with the permission of the person who was suspended. While this often requires the suspension to be over so may not apply in your specific example, there is certainly opportunity for users to talk about their own suspensions and ask for public discussion.

Misconception 2. A lack of a public account is less safe for suspended users.

This is a huge misconception. While there are some risks, in the vast majority of cases having a public account of suspensions is more harmful for the suspended user's ability to rejoin the community after a suspension than keeping the reasoning private.

  • If a user was suspended for sock puppeting and falsely inflating their own reputation, this being public may lead people to continually distrust that their remaining reputation was earned fairly.
  • If a user was suspended for harassing others and their comments were retained publicly in some sort of record, those comments could perpetually make them look bad for all time, even if they'd significantly changed their behavior in the time since.

The other side of this is that a public account could continue to harm the people targeted by the suspended user. Even if not mentioned by name, having a permanent public record of the harassment they'd received (potentially revealing a complaint from them to the moderators as "evidence" of the person's harassment), they'd potentially never be able to move on from it, either.

The reality is, in most cases, lack of a public record is better for the suspended users and the people who may have been harmed by them (if any). Keeping this private allows everyone - the suspended user, the harmed parties, and the community as a whole - to move on from the past without being judged by it.

Misconception 3. There is no oversight or opportunity for redress of suspensions.

This is mostly implied in your question but it's worth bringing up. Suspensions may be private from the general users on the site but they are not private from the other moderators on the site - all mods receive a special inbox notification any time a mod message is sent to a user, so any mod message (and suspension, which requires a mod message) is visible to all moderators on the site. While they may not be reviewed by all mods, on most sites, these get reviewed by any mod who's around.

Users who are suspended have the ability to respond (once) to the mod message to ask for more information or explain what happened or why they acted the way they did. While this may not cause their suspension to be removed, it's an opportunity to communicate with the moderators to better understand what's going on.

If they attempt this and don't get a reply or they don't believe that responding will be of value, users can always contact the CMs through a form on the /contact page. We even recently updated the form users can fill out for this purpose to make it easier to collect the necessary information from the user so that we can investigate the situation.

We often get such contacts and we investigate them with as open a mind as we are able to. Over the years, many users have come to a point where it's very difficult to feel some sympathy as they have repeatedly caused drama either on specific sites or across the network - but we do our best to investigate any communication that comes to us with enough information to actually look into. Most of the complaints we get are just that - "moderators are evil and I'm innocent" - with no actual explanations or attempts to help us understand their situation.

I'd argue, as a former mod and now as a CM, that most moderators are underusing suspensions, not abusing them. I've looked into several situations that came to us in this way and in most cases, I find that moderators have generally given people more chances or been more lenient and they only suspended when there seemed to be nothing else they could do.

Third party users can also use the contact form to reach out to us to request an investigation but they will not receive any details of the outcome, or even whether an investigation will be done.

Misconception 4. Everything that happens when someone is suspended can be made public.

This is based on an extension of your questions - essentially, if you're arguing that the reasons for a suspension should be public, that implies that you believe that all elements of a suspension can be public... but they often can't.

  • Some suspensions come about as parts of investigations moderators or staff do that must be kept private as they would otherwise reveal how some of the tooling we use works - as well as potentially showing off some of the shortcomings of those tools.
  • Some suspensions come from private interactions that would potentially cause harm if they're made public. For example, if someone has been emailed by a user with content that is abusive or threatening and that person reaches out to mods or staff privately to ask for help, that may end up with the user being suspended but that should not be made public, as the person being harassed could continue to be harassed as a result.

So, all-in-all, I feel that it's better for the community that we maintain this process. I believe that there are sufficient checks and balances in place to allow users who feel they were unfairly treated to request redress and even ways to bring the issue up publicly once their suspension period has ended.

  • 1
    I don't think I held any of these "misconceptions" when I wrote my question. Even with #2, having a concern about the safety of one thing isn't the same as saying something else would be more safe. Jul 11 at 20:00
  • Much of your posts makes me think you have never actually been in this process you are writing about. Or only in the ideal, all unicorns and flowers and everthing went by the book version. Your checks and balances do not work. They are not designed to work.
    – nvoigt
    Jul 16 at 8:16

Everything is relative. But it's no less safe or unsafe to keep things confidential as making all the details public all the time. This post by Jon Ericson makes some very good points, and it makes them well enough for me to just quote the entire thing instead of paraphrase:

During a suspension, anyone can see that a user has been suspended and broadly why. There's not a lot of benefit for a moderator to do more than point inquisitive users to that part of a suspended user's profile. Since suspended users are unable to tell their side of the story on meta or chat, the less said the better. Hard to think of a better way to turn a user bitter than to humiliate them when they are helpless.

Sometimes, however, the questions about a suspension are . . . pointed. Secretive systems of justice don't tend to be very fair. Since users on the site clean up after bad behavior, it's not very easy for people to even see what the suspended user was doing. It comes down to trusting either the word of a moderator (with inscrutable power) or a fellow user. In these cases, my guiding principles for moderators and CMs are:

  • Be honest. That might mean telling truths that aren't very flattering of yourself or other people. It might mean highlighting the mistakes of a moderator or community manager. It might mean summarizing information that's not publicly available. It might mean publishing moderator messages and responses. It does not mean publishing potentially personally-identifying information, which is never allowed under the moderator agreement. But honesty must always be balanced with:

  • Be respectful. I'd say be nice, but that might be misunderstood. Correct misinformation, but don't go out of your way to make people look bad. Focus on the evidence of what happened and avoid assigning motives. Assume good faith and take the time needed to remain civil. Believe it or not, people sometimes respond positively (and rarely negatively) to this sort of generosity of spirit.

In other words, the purpose of secrecy isn't to hide from public scrutiny, but to protect users and the site from needless gossip and drama. If you already have that (and especially if the suspended user instigated it) there's no real reason to keep mum. Better to have informed turmoil than misinformed. Meanwhile, don't stoke the fire by bringing out salacious details that could be left quiet. Nobody said the job of a moderator is easy.

Now, let's analyze some points from your question. First, you say this user is complaining about abuse and harassment from moderators. Now, the quote above says moderators should 'focus on the evidence of what happened'. Talking about suspensions in terms of abuse and harassment... isn't that. So, at least one side here isn't focusing on the evidence of what happened but is giving a coloured version of events.

Secondly, this user is currently suspended networkwide. This means they've caused enough trouble, across enough different network sites, that an employee stepped in and made sure no more moderators would have to spend time moderating them for a while. This is a pretty strong sign it isn't just a single abusive moderator or even moderator team that encountered their problematic behaviour, whatever it was.

Thirdly, you state: "So what I'm concerned about is a situation where a user has repeatedly complained of being "harassed" by moderators/staff, followed by them getting suspended." This makes sense to me: Not being rude goes for interactions with moderators and staff too, and accusing people of harassing you is definitely not behavior that's in line with the Code of Conduct. If this user truly wants to have a constructive conversation about their suspensions, they have to abide by that Code of Conduct, and should not be accusing people. Again, we're back at 'focus on the evidence of what happened'.

Being concerned is kind. But I'm afraid you're not getting an unbiased account here, and as such, are having your feelings manipulated by this person. If you really want to help them and yourself, help them once their suspension is over to write a post that focuses on the evidence, that avoids accusations and keeps in line with the Code of Conduct, and you can probably get the other side of the story and make a better informed decision, much like this comment also stated.

  • "Not being rude goes for interactions with moderators and staff too, and accusing people of harassing you is definitely not behavior that's in line with the Code of Conduct" This does not make sense. Moderators have suspended me for "abuse" and "harassment". I find that insulting, given that I critized a persons behaviour on the internet without using any insults or swear words. That's neither abuse nor harassement. So they acted against the CoC?
    – nvoigt
    Jul 16 at 8:21
  • @nvoigt I can only see one suspension on your MSE account, and the message sent with that one does not mention the words abuse or harassment, so I'll assume you're talking about a different suspension from a different mod team on a different site. In which case, I simply can not answer your question since I am only getting one side of the story and lack the necessary details to make an adequate and accurate judgment.
    – Tinkeringbell Mod
    Jul 16 at 8:28
  • You are right, it was a different site. But it should be easy... is accusing someone of harassment against the CoC or not? You said it is. I would argue it only is if it's wrong. You said you'd need to see the actual suspension, so I guess you came to the same conclusion.
    – nvoigt
    Jul 16 at 8:31
  • @nvoigt you're trying to twist my words to fit your narrative... I did not 'come to the same conclusion'. I said I am not going to make any conclusions based on only your side of the story, without being able to confirm something as basic as 'yes, that's what the suspension said' by seeing it with my own eyes.
    – Tinkeringbell Mod
    Jul 16 at 8:38

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