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This question is about a Stack Exchange site, but may also apply to other sites with similar voting mechanisms.

Stack Exchange, for better or worse, allows anonymous downvoting. People are strongly encouraged to downvote incorrect or useless content, but users are ultimately left to decide how they want to vote.

Now, in this particular community, we have a couple of users that are prolific anonymous downvoters. They are very active voters and they end up downvoting roughly 20-25% of the total posts on the site (questions and answers - it's a small site). Sometimes it's easy to see why the post warranted a downvote, but other times it's totally confusing. I see well-written, correct answers downvoted on researched questions, with no other competing answer on the question. It's also not a case of serial downvoting, because the downvotes are spread out across a large user base.

Where this becomes a problem is that the experts on the site - our most prolific answerers and top rep users - get discouraged from posting because they will very frequently be hit with multiple downvotes a day. We've now lost about 80% of our best answerers and a few others have complained they're getting tired of the downvotes and want to leave the site.

So, from a community standpoint, these drive-by downvotes have damaged the core of the community. Yes, new people come in to fill the answer gap, but then they too get fed up, and eventually leave. I've now seen this pattern play out for several waves of users across multiple years.

Technically, I don't think the downvoters are violating any rules, but I'm worried about the future health of the community. The community has in effect gained a negative/hostile reputation and is having a harder time attracting new users and new content.

The downvoters also have not voluntarily offered reasoning behind their votes, which they are allowed to decline, but makes it difficult to understand their perspective. I am also worried that if they revealed themselves, there would be a very messy and very public pile-on.

How can I resolve this conflict?

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    Has this been addressed on your meta site (your last-but-one paragraph suggests 'yes')? – Jan Doggen Nov 10 '15 at 10:05
  • What do the moderators think about this? If these downvoters are indeed having such a negative or even detrimental impact on your community (and if it is known who they are), the moderators should probably have a word with them via the moderator message channel. If this does not help, it might be needed to temporarily suspend them to cool down and reconsider (the impoact of) their voting practices. – just_curious Nov 10 '15 at 10:08
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    @just_curious The moderators share my opinion. They don't like it, but have a hard time justifying it as breaking rules given the current rule set determined by SE. – Troyen Nov 10 '15 at 17:40
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    @JanDoggen Attempted to multiple times, but it was a one-way conversation. Hard to engage if the other side doesn't come forward. I only know who they are through monitoring the users tab and measuring frequency and timing on certain profiles. – Troyen Nov 10 '15 at 17:41
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    @HappyMc'Happy People upvote. Post scores are generally positive. It's just the downvoter often gets to them first, so it's typical to expect a downvote within 30 minutes and then maybe upvotes later in the day. – Troyen Nov 10 '15 at 20:08
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This is just an elaboration of some points outlined in a rather messy way in comments:

Do the (local) moderators agree with the assessment of the situation?

If anything can be done about the harmful downvotes of good content in the first place, depends on how the (local) moderators assess the situation. In case they see nothing actionable happening, not much can be done apart from reasonable responsible members of the community pointing out the unjustified downvotes in comments and counter-upvoting the good posts.

If the moderators agree that the current situation is detrimental and not tolerable and that something should be done about it, giving appropriate warnings to the (to moderators) known harmful downvoters, for example via the moderator message channel, could be considered. If this does not help, giving the badly downvoting users some time to reconsider their voting practices by a time limited suspension might be the appropriate next step.

How can taking action against the harmful downvoters be justified?

However, motivating temporal suspensions for systematically and repeatedly downvoting good correct posts, even though it can be truely detrimental for a community, might be a bit tricky on StackExchange sites. Even if the offending voting practices might almost look like trolling from a practical point of view, no network wide rules are officially violated if the downvotes are not targetted at specific users. So it can not be exluded that upon getting suspended, the harmful downvoters successfully complain up the network wide chain.

Nevertheless, it seems that the "to cool down" reason for suspensions can at times be applied to catch cases of harmful user-behavior that harms a site, even if the offending behavior is strictly speaking borderline in agreement with the rules. What could help in addition with justifying warnings/temporal suspensions, is if there is some objective (not just personal opinion based) way to determine what are good and correct posts, which is for example often the case with scientific topics. In this case, the continuous anonymous downvoting of correct posts could be considered to be some kind of trolling behavior.

Are additional rules or policies (local to the community concerned) needed to deal with the situation?

Even if there are no SE (network wide) rules that cover exactly this situation and kind of harmful behavior, maybe the community could agree on new rules/policies that can be applied to the situation of a few downvoters making bad/inappropriate use of their voting privilege? On Meta Stack Exchange, it is repeatedly mentioned that individual SE sites have the right to establish their own rules, policies, and culture to some extent. There are also many discussions about how to deal with users who make bad use of their votes in the review queues, so to me personally it seems not to be off if your community decides to do something about the more general misuse of up/downvotes than on users targetted voting, if this is needed in your community to deal with the ongoing harmful situation.

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People take their reputation seriously - which is why they are upset when they lose points through down-voting. That shouldn't be diminished. However. it has been found on multiple Stack Exchange sites that there are certain people that, even if they only think they know who down-voted them, will engage in prolonged revenge down-voting sprees. It can (and has) led to bad feeling and even more anguish than the original down-votes ever could.

Firstly, have your site moderators checked that the down-votes aren't targeted? We have the tools to show voting trends and can call on the Community Managers to dig deeper. If we have evidence that the votes were cast unfairly they can be invalidated and repeat offenders can be warned and even suspended. Make sure that your moderators are doing this.

Secondly, are you really sure that the down-votes are unwarranted? I know this sounds harsh, but looking at the posts are you really sure that they were perfect and didn't deserve the down-vote? Note, I'm not arguing that the down-voting is OK, if someone is disproportionately down-voting then it is harmful to the community in the same way that someone who only up-voted would be.

One thing I would say here is that I have been asking for a long time for voters to have some indication (not notification as that would be too noisy) that a post they down-voted had been edited. That way they could (if they wanted) go back and remove the down-vote if they felt the post had been sufficiently improved. This hasn't happened yet and shows no sign of being implemented though.

In the absence of something like this you need to be editing down-voted posts to improve them if necessary. Fix spelling and grammatical errors, focus the question on what's the real problem etc. Then more up-votes should come and the increase in reputation from them will more than outweigh the initial down-votes.

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    I don't know if it's the reputation specifically versus the big "YOU'RE WRONG" marker. It's also difficult to say what specifically in the post needs editing when there are no obvious grammatical mistakes. It might even be a difference of opinion on what constitutes good/bad content or how judiciously downvotes should be used (95% of the populace rarely downvotes). – Troyen Nov 11 '15 at 2:46
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    But hard to say without getting input from the other side. I also think our moderators are uncertain if approaching them directly in private is okay or if it would be seen as intimidation, given that there's no apparent actual rule violation, and technically from the MSE point-of-view, we don't downvote enough. – Troyen Nov 11 '15 at 2:46
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    This answer assumes that the downvotes are justified and that the only minor problem is people getting put off by losing reputation. However, from the description of the situation in the question it rather seems to me, that the downvoting of good content does real harm to the community concerned and breaks the function of the votes as indicators for the quality and correctness of posts. So just editing and improving the already good downvoted content further seems not to exactly get to the roots of the problem, which seems to be some people systematically making bad use of their votes ... – just_curious Nov 14 '15 at 22:16
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    @just_curious - Everyone (and I do mean everyone) is upset when they get down-voted. Some people handle it better than others. However, I didn't assume that the down-votes were warranted. I made that argument in the second half of the answer, because it had to be made. If someone is disproportionately down-voting it should be dealt with. – ChrisF Nov 14 '15 at 22:39
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There is a basic economic answer to this question. If you can see that some people are making so many down votes, then "just" make downvotes more expensive to cast. I'm not sure if it is easy to adjust the penalties on stack exchange per community, but I would advise it. Maybe this should go to meta stack exchange.

I actually work in behavioural economics, and some of our research is indicating that about 10% of people (it varies by GDP actually, but that's a long story) are willing to "punish" – pay a cost to penalise others more than that cost – because that raises the punisher's relative standing to the object of their attack. The proportion who do this drops as the relative costs come closer to equal. It's hard to know how reputation points trade off with having a question drop in ranks, so I'd suggest playing around with the values, and making conspicuous announcements about why you are trying this.

I certainly have stopped answering questions after getting some unexplained downvotes. I do occasionally downvote, but nearly always identify & explain myself in comments, and I don't think I'd do that any less if it cost my reputation more, because I do it so seldom and always when I really worry that things are getting upvoted for the wrong reasons. I assume that's why my own answers have gotten downvoted, someone didn't like that they weren't aligned with the party line – they've often been answers at odd with leading questions.

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