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I have users that wish to engage in discussions on commonly controversial topics (religion, idealology, historical motivations, gender roles, etc). These often devolve into flame wars though. How can I encourage civilized discussion without letting trolls overrun such a discussion?

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. Agree that all views will be considered but must be presented with the utmost respect for all parties involved.
  3. 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.

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    No matter how much planning you do, surprises happen -- somebody posts something that doesn't explicitly violate the boundaries but it's bad and you want to shut it down. But, especially if you've been participating in the discussion, that opens you to accusations of bias or capriciousness. Any guidelines for that? (You can edit your answer to add more information.) Thanks. – Monica Cellio Jun 23 '15 at 16:18
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    @MonicaCellio edited to address your comment – Juan M Jun 23 '15 at 16:43
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There is an easy solution for serious topics like that. You indeed have the danger of encountering trolls and flame wars, nevertheless you have the advantage of being on the internet. Nobody forces you, nor others, to look up certain content. So you could handle it like Reddit did (before Ellen Pao took over).

You are on the internet. You are to decide what you see when, therefore you are to decide if you either participate in this sensitive discussion or if you not. Be aware that statements might offend your point of view.

That's the easy solution but there is a more complex one as well.

One basic step into the direction of controversial topics is to ask why these topics should be discussed on your site.

  • Why do users think that your community is ready to discuss sensitive matters?
  • What is the advantage of discussing it on your site?
  • Do users think it might help your community to develop?

These are key question you should consider before even starting a discussion on any topic. As an administrator, moderator or staff member, it's your job to keep the site clean of harassment and trolls. You want to build up a community suitable for many people. I always ask myself these questions before introducing new discussions so I can avoid unnecessary disputes.

  1. Why do users think that your community is ready to discuss about sensitive matters?

This usually is the question on which you can determine if introducing the discussion is worth it or not. Especially in younger communities, I tend to avoid discussions on the community platform because I know that it can get messy and tense real quick. In older communities, I know that there are people feeling responsible for keeping up a civil discussion. I can rely on valuable reports.

To determine if your users are ready or not, you should ask yourself the following sub-questions:

  • Can I rely on users reporting trolls?
  • Can I rely on users who keep up a civil discussion?
  • Is the age of my community appropriate for the topic?

The last one is really important for your decision: You don't want to discuss laws in a young community. Your users aren't ready for it since they most likely don't know what to say.

  1. What is the advantage of discussing it on your site?

Probably it's worthwhile to introduce the discussion because of certain circumstances. Example: You want to discuss the issue of (cyber-)bullying in a young community because they are faced with it. This will most likely strengthen the bonds between your users. However, never lose sight of your real goal: You want to make people happy, as many as possible. So, even though you and your staff like the topic, if it's not beneficial for your community, you shouldn't begin a discussion.

  1. Do users think it might help your community to develop?

It's useless to start off a discussion when everybody's trying to enforce his point of view. This will only tempt people to be trolls. If your users don't think it will help the community in any way, then you simply shouldn't do it. Ask your users if they really think whether it's possible to keep up a civil discussion about the particular topic in your community.

Let's imagine you decided to get the ball rolling: Always consider that you have to put extra effort into a sensitive discussion. You have to clean up some insulting posts and have to calm both sides — if you feel like the work part is bigger than the actual benefit of it, close the discussion and concentrate on something else.


Let's cover the real question here, now: You've decided to start the discussion, what to do next? I've been a moderator in several communities and over the years I slowly developed a system to introduce new (sensitive) topics.

  • Define the playground.
  • Speak out warnings.
  • Control it.
  • Don't bother with it personally.

Define the playground.

It doesn't need to be you who defines the playground but someone who understands the complexity of the topic. You don't want your discussion to go into the wrong direction, the so-called off-topic. It should stay on-topic on its own as long as possible. To ensure this,

  • someone introduces the topic,
  • talks about the problems,
  • and asks some questions.

The questions are the key here. If you don't define questions in a topic, people will start to share their personal opinions and eventually start from the beginning over and over again. There most likely won't be any progress in the discussion. If you ask questions however, your users have a guide through the topic. When you now picked someone to lead the topic by defining it in the beginning, this is the person who will keep on asking questions.

Speak out some warnings.

Here goes your rule set. By defining your content playground, it's now time to define the rules. If your users (children) leave the topic (playground), you kindly remind them of your pre-defined rules in this matter. Tell your users what they are allowed to post and what not.

Control it.

This is a tough thing to do. We don't live in North Korea — censorship is referred as a bad thing here. Users don't want their post to be edited. Keep this in mind.

However, by entering the playground, they heard your warnings, hence you're legally allowed to take actions against anyone who leaves the playground and hurts your warnings. This simply means that you should strictly censor insulting posts but refrain from censoring offensive posts. Trolls usually tend to clearly insult someone for not sharing their point of view, nevertheless there are non-trolls who are just trying to convince other people. Maybe they were too quick when they pressed "Submit" and just invited some misunderstandings. There is no problem with it since these users usually try to make clear what they actually meant. Normally, you can tell when a user is trying to annoy other users.

Don't bother with it personally.

Okay, I lied. This probably is even more tough. Even if the discussion is the subject you wrote your thesis about, please refrain from participating in it. Even if you try to be objective as much as possible, some users are going to see misunderstandings. These misunderstandings hurt your relation to them. However, if you don't participate, you can't be judged.

Yes, there may be users who think that this isn't right. But you can tell them that you want acclimate a good community where everybody is warmly welcomed. If you side with a mob of users, not everyone is warmly welcomed - at least that's what new users might think. By participating in a discussion about a sensitive topic, you can strengthen your bonds with some users but you simultaneously weaken the bonds to users of another opinion. There might be users who feel suppressed because of this — no jokes on this!

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I run a board which has had successful conversations about such topics as abortion and gun control.

From a moderator's point of view, what worked was to head off problems the instant they are about to sprout, and to participate in the discussion in a way that sets an example.

Setting an example can include active listening, exploring the other's point of view and identifying common ground.

It may also have been decisive that everyone knew each other coming in to it. The Buddhist and the Marine had, shall we say, diverging opinions in the gun control thread, but before the thread started they had each figured out that the other deserved respect for living by a code. That respect carried over to the arguments over firearms laws.

Having a small community can help too, in a way that seems almost like cheating. A thread about Israel, which I dreaded and was watching closely, fizzled for lack of participation.

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