Controversial topics are a great way to increase activity and engagement on your site(s). In order to have meaningful discussions, rules have to be laid out plainly before any discussion can happen. Without a set of guidelines to follow, the users won't know what the limitations are and you won't be able to enforce anything.
Start out with the following:
- Enlist a group of users that you trust (moderation team, superusers, etc) and discuss privately the pros and cons of allowing such discussions. You will need help in keeping an eye on these discussions and enlisting a team beforehand will make the job easier.
- Working with your newly enlisted team, create guidelines that will help users to know what the parameters will be for these controversial topics. Think about the boundaries you may want to set for these discussions and also try to be as flexible as you can. You don't want to stifle the conversations too early. Remember, you want discussions that will engage the users.
- Discuss and decide the types of behaviors that will shut a conversation down without question or further discussion. Things like posting certain kinds of images, name-calling, off-topic rants, etc should go in this category. Basically, what kinds of things will shut the thread down without having to consult the entire team first? This will help save time and could keep things from blowing up.
- Participate in the discussions and model the behavior you want the members to exhibit. Lead by example.
- Finally, don't be afraid to try new approaches to things. You never know if you'll hit a goldmine in terms of topic and community response.
Have fun! and remember to:
- Post under the assumption that not everyone will agree with your views. This is important to consider so that you don't get your feelings hurt or feel offended when you get antagonistic responses.
- Agree that all views will be considered but must be presented with the utmost respect for all parties involved.
- Make it clear that the administration has the final say in whether a thread is closed, removed, or kept open.
Finally, as an admin or moderator of the site, it will be to your benefit to refrain from getting involved in controversial topics unless absolutely necessary. Remember, these topics are to inspire conversations between members. Let them have the floor and post occasionally to model behavior or to encourage healthy participation. It will be to your detriment if you get involved in a controversial topic that does not pertain to your site niche as you will divide your membership and lose credibility as a leader. This way, should a post need to be removed or edited, you can do so without being seen as coming from an unbiased standpoint and therefore free of accusations of unfairness or capriciousness.
Example: You moderate a site that has resources for Android phone users. A debate comes up where users want to know why Android is better than Windows. It would be very natural for you to defend the Android stance. However, another debate ensues about the validity of gun control in your state. Leave that one alone and only participate to moderate a dispute between two or more users or to clarify some issue.