New Tricks: Dealing with racism within your social realm

November 13th, 2008

If you’ve managed a community that allows commenting or hosts other types of user-generated content, you’ve seen it. Behind the shield of a screen name, the ugliest parts of society sometimes is on full display: racism.

Recently, community managers across the country have had to decide whether to zap or keep comments about Barack Obama that could be considered racist, but the issue comes up often in online communities.

There are no hard rules on this. Each community manager (and organization) has to take a lot of these on a case-by-case basis.

Here are three guidelines that we offer, but we’re interested in hearing how you’ve dealt with this:

1. If there is an clear racist word or phrase in the content, the material is toast, the user is banned and you move on with your life.

2. If the user walks the line by using code words, it’s a little muddier. You might be misreading the author’s intent. Often, it helps to grab a coworker and show him or her the material. Usually, though, your first instinct is the correct one. If you decide you have a racist on your hands using code words, warn or ban the user.

3. If the user is not clearly being racist, but you might be sensitive to a topic (e.g., the person is against illegal immigration strongly, and you see that as being racist because of your own stance), try to get a second — or even a third — opinion. As a community manager, it is still your right to nix any material, but if you come down too hard on the offender, you’ll lose credibility within your community. A heavy handed manager can kill a community.

If you’re a community manager, how far do you let people push the envelope?

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Entry Filed under: Management Issues,New Tricks,Newspaper

  • Crystal

    Is “racist” becoming the new “witch”? I know racism is a very real, and often scary topic for a lot of people. As an Black American with a background in race studies who often works, lives and plays in predominently non-Black circles, I also understand having a respectful conversation around race if REALLY hard. However, what scares me more is that in an effort to become more “racially sensitive” people are going to start discrediting, ignoring or erasing comments that, while uncomfortable to many, are culturally significant. While members of your online community have a right to feel welcome, deleting racism doesn’t make it go away. On the contrary, in my experience racism only tends to build strength when it’s sequestered to the darker realms of society and the general public is not given the opportunity to debate culturally significant issues. That’s just my two cents though. I’d love other people’s opinions.

  • Stephanie

    I’ve managed my paper’s forums for nearly five years and have run into this from time to time. Your advice is excellent – always get other opinions when the user is treading the line (sometimes they do it on purpose and then play innocent when you call them on it.)

    But it really got difficult when I did this in a liveblog during a heated story of Muslims marching to city hall to protest restrictive prayer times during Ramadan. The racial tensions were running high and the liveblog and story comments were at the center of it.

    You really have to do your best to step away from your personal views and let people say what they want to say (within the policy boundaries of course.) It’s very difficult, but to promote discussion instead of trolling, you have to allow all sides of a controversial topic speak. But if they cross the line and attack others, or start hurling racial slurs etc, then they need to go.

    I took this paragraph from the Admin Zone forums and put it in our forum registration agreement:

    “Although the constitution of the US guarantees that Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, this website is not Congress. Freedom of speech rights do not extend to this privately owned website. These guidelines govern the behaviors and activities of the members. If you choose not to follow the guidelines agreed to during registration, the result is a disabling of your account.”

    Seems to help keep them in line.

  • Rosa

    It is good to find some guidelines on how to deal with this. I encountered a lot of racist remarks throughout the election.

  • Robert Quigley

    Crystal: You raise excellent questions. I’ve heard from both sides on that within my own newsroom. We leave a lot of comments up that I think other people would take down. I do draw the line when someone is using outright slurs or vulgarity. To me, the point of having a forum for user-generated content is to allow for open, honest and civil discussion. When someone comes in and throws a bomb, it ruins that.

    One of our editorial board writers, who is black, had some slurs posted by readers on her blog. She not only left them, but then wrote a follow up blog about them. Check it out here. She makes great points, and I think she was doing exactly as you suggest – exposing people. I just wouldn’t do that in my general community, mainly because it would just get out of control and no one would be having civil discussions.

    Would love to hear more opinions on this.

  • Robert Quigley

    Stephanie – Posting guidelines and making them clear is always a good idea. When I DO zap someone’s comments (which I honestly don’t do very often), I often hear cries of “censorship.” The government “censors,” we “edit.”

    Rosa – Glad we could help. Would love to hear what you did with the comments you ran across during the election. Did you leave them? Delete them? If you deleted, what was your criteria?

  • Caitlin Rosberg

    Honestly, I’m constantly torn over this very issue. Most of my first forum mod/admin/community manager type gigs were all in two worlds: video game forums and forums that were organized by my friends for gay artists all over the country. Both were generally incredibly supportive and very embracing. That doesn’t mean there weren’t problems, but I was lucky that I wasn’t trying to deal with tougher issues.

    On the gamer forums, the only time I felt the need to take down comments was after I’d tried to contact the writer about their behavior and either a) their behavior had escalated or b) they didn’t get back to me at all; this was really only in cases of personal attacks on another community member. People could say Halo sucked all they wanted and while I didn’t agree, I didn’t take it down.

    The art forums were always trickier, partially because we did have the random homophobe coming into the forums to preach at our forum members about the error of their ways. We also had people criticizing each others’ work, or the way that the mods ran things, and especially the limits on what people were allowed to post. A few times it got really ugly, and usually that did lead to banning someone, but only after every effort had been made to accommodate them, etc. The one thing I did always run into trouble with was when people joined the community again under another name. Some of them would keep a low profile and just engage….others made it obvious immediately who they were and what was going on. But I had to start keeping records of banned users so that I could ID them if they tried to come back, and it always turned into more effort than it was worth, and I was missing out on the fun part of the job: being part of the community. Does anyone have any suggestions on how to combat this particular problem? It was always my least favorite part…

  • Bridget Cavanaugh

    Friend of mine, Jonathan Weber (remember him as EIC of Industry Standard) runs a community journalism site and here’s the guidelines you get when you leave a comment: A good example:

    NewWest.Net encourages robust and lively, but civil participation from our readers. By posting here, you agree to the NewWest.Net terms of service. You agree to keep your comments on topic, respectful and free of gratuitous profanity. Contributions that engage in personal attacks, racism, sexism, bigotry, hatred or are otherwise patently offensive will be subject to removal.

    Other than using a filter that scans for comment spam, we do not moderate contributions before they are posted and we do not review every thread, so we ask that you help us in keeping the discussions civil and appropriate. Please email to notify us of comments that may violate these guidelines. Thanks for your help and cooperation. Click here for some tips on how to best interact on NewWest.Net.

  • Robert Quigley

    Caitlin: I think the best thing you can do is deputize trusted users of your board and give them the power to ban, too. That way, it’s not all on you. If there are several people on the watch-out for the problem children, you all can enjoy the board more.

    Bridget: I think that’s an excellent posted guideline. That’s an important piece in this puzzle because you can refer back to it when dealing with abusers. They can’t claim ignorance that way. Here is the one I crafted:

    Austinites love to be heard, and we’re giving you a bullhorn. We just ask that you keep things civil. Leave out the personal attacks. Do not use profanity, ethnic or racial slurs, or take shots at anyone’s sexual orientation or religion. If you can’t be nice, we reserve the right to remove your material and ban users who violate our visitor’s agreement.

  • Stephanie

    Caitlyn – I had that very problem when I took over my paper’s forum. We had a band of bullies who dominated the place and it took nearly two years to get past these tenacious folks. (I talked a little about my problems as a moderator here, what i finally had to do was disallow any registrations coming from any free email service like Yahoo, Hotmail or Gmail.

    They were using them to create dupes and continue to antagonize the community I was trying to rebuild. some were easy to spot because they couldn’t help themselves from acting like wankers, and I got to the point of recognizing their post cadence and habitual misspellings, but I relied heavily on keeping a list of known IP addresses they were coming from and checking new accounts against it for a long time.

    Thankfully, my forums are a much friendlier place to be now, but jeez they were like leeches you couldn’t get rid of no matter what. And what sucked even more, was that they were locals. I knew their names and email addresses IRL. They just didn’t care.

    I hate trolls.

  • mguice

    A good friend of mine, who is a prison warden and is also black, gave me a bit of wisdom on this many years ago. She said, “everyone is racist, even me”. In other words, we all have some tribalism hard-wired in us. The matter becomes to what degree you will find acceptable in your community.

    For this reason, I do not ban code words. I do not even ban in N word if it is given in context as a direct quote of a piece of literature, lyric, or the statement of a public figure.

    I do toast comments that make blatant statements such as “I hate (othersubgroup)”. I also ban calling other people racist. Personal attacks are always out of bounds. If you are going to disprove a person's argument, arguments with tribalism at the core are pretty easy to refute without name calling.

    Which brings me to my over-riding principal. You can discuss any idea and any statement without being rude. Rudeness is personal animosity. ideas that are offensive or wrong will die on their own in the marketplace of ideas. I find it offensive that people attempt to shut off debate instead of sharpening their own ideas and making their own argument better.

    The number one benefit of free speech is that it forces ideas to clash and forces people to think. That is a hard thing. The easy thing is to find an excuse to cut off the debate.

    Will people oppose President-Elect Obama's leadership because he is black. Certainly they will. They will also oppose his leadership because they disagree with him on ideas, principal, or motives. BOTH arguments will have bearing on how people vote and how they act and, as such, both should be debated.

  • mguice

    You touch on the two important parts here.

    1. Positive identification of all posters is cardinal.
    2. Playing nice is essential.

    Personally, I would have granted the trolls their own discussion zone, created a few different persona's for myself and started a few wars. That is easy when you can be both a trusted ally and a hated enemy. They would be so happy in their new environment that they would soon forget all the other ones. After getting them mad as heck as each other I would withdraw so they could have their fun.

  • mguice

    There is a simple method to deal with banned persons who have assumed new identities in order to regain access. It is called verification. If they create a new fake id and use it to verify then they have done enough to be charged with using a fake email to defraud.

    You will never have to do any of this if you outline in your rules that banned means banned and that you mean it. A few legal terms should make it stick. Few people will want to “try” you to see if they really go to jail. Works great for local forums because your verification process should give you enough data to locate them in the real world.

  • dan360man

    That's a good point. I would probably be honored if I banned someone from this personal Web site and they wanted to come back that much.

    Then again, I hope we're not being that controversial.

  • Caitlin Rosberg

    Thanks for the input, Stephanie. Your solution is pretty close to what mine ended up being, which is really unfortunate, honestly.

    I have been lucky enough to watch entire communities turn their backs on trolls, who eventually leave when deprived of life-giving attention. Maybe that is the best solution after all.

  • Pingback: New Tricks: Rules of engagement: How journalists can - and should - respond to comments | Old Media, New Tricks

  • michaelmkones

    This is why renting before buying makes american flag wallpaper sense to me. After all, you are doing this to relax.


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