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  Moderating disruptive individuals for the greater good?
A troublemaker in my moderated discussion forum is disrupting our group and attempting to “poach” members to his own group. It is an easy-going discussion forum and I believe in giving him the benefit of the doubt, but I also need to think of the needs of the many. Is it 'ok' to ban someone, for the good of the group? If it's not going to hurt the rest of the group if he is banned, is that enough justification? If I had to consider 'the needs of the many' versus the 'needs of the few', then banning him seems like a no brainer.

Thank you for this great question! It is not uncommon to find in any community that there are particular individuals who unfortunately swim against the tide, either through out and out disruption or motivations such as recruiting competitively. Often the damage is done by such an individual through the time and energy which they consume in your and other people’s reactions to their negative participation – at the very least they are an unwelcome distraction, at worst a thorn in the side of the community. Unfortunately we cannot advise whether the person’s actions are worthy of banning as that is something which is particular to your community based on his posts and other members’ reactions. However, there are some comments we can make on the sanctioning of the member and advice we can provide in regards to dealing with future potential problems.

Every community should have its norms or rules as to appropriate behavior which are readily understood and easily and consistently implemented. Your question highlights the issues of creating those rules, applying them and also how to handle issues where such rules do not exist.

In this case if you have a policy on soliciting within your community then it would be a relatively straightforward situation. You could point this member to that policy within your site guidelines (or Terms of Service), reinforce the fact that their conduct is not acceptable, and that their membership status is reliant upon them following those guidelines. If the member does not comply with this then you have the foundation for taking steps to remove them from the community using your guidelines and their initial acceptance of them as your continued point of reference.

In the lack of solid community guidelines which you can refer to and enforce, then common sense is often the best route to go, alongside some basic psychological understanding of behavior and demeanor.

Ask yourself the following basic questions and you are part of the way towards finding a resolution:

1. What are the motivations for this individual acting the way they are? Are there genuine and valid reasons for their actions which can be productively responded to?

2. What are the responses of the many to the actions of the individual?

3. Are there in-built community moderation mechanisms (e.g. peer pressure) or forms of “soft moderation” which you can use to elicit a positive response?

4. If the motivations seem to be purely negative and there seems to be no other form of sanctioning which you can apply then how is the ban enforced? How should it be communicated to the individual in such a way as to be clear, concise and based upon principles?

You may find that in answering these questions that you have gray areas or points which are unclear. Some form of conflict resolution might help, whereby you invite the “trouble-maker” to participate in an open dialogue about the situation. Often faced with another human and the reality of their own behavior, an individual will be more accommodating. Consider dialogue as the means to finding the solution, rather than a solution in itself, based on the predetermined principle that resolving conflict means listening to another’s point of view regardless, entering into discussions which may be difficult, and accepting an outcome which may require the re-assessment of goals.

If all else fails or if the person refuses to “meet halfway” or you have exhausted the avenues mentioned above, then communicating and then enforcing a ban is almost inevitable. It is important that you feel you have tried alternatives and have a record of those attempts. These elements are important both to you as a manager and are helpful in addressing the ban with the individual. Consider the following:

“We have attempted to enter into a discussion with you about items you have posted [details of the causes here] and how these items have caused issues [details of the effects here]. We have also unsuccessfully invited you to resolve the problems [details of the measures here], but unfortunately the situation has escalated to the point where we have no other option but to reconsider your status as a member of the community.”

This both shows your willingness to meet and address the issues, as well as providing a synopsis of the situation and the pertinent details which relate. Faced with the difficult job of banning someone, and making sure that the ban is final, one can create a compelling argument even to the subject of the ban, so even they can see that you have had no other choice!

In the event of future potential problems, sometimes the best way to managing disruption by an individual is to ask the community for their assistance in not getting involved in the problem. Upon asking for their assistance, you will also want to redirect the conversation back on track in a constructive manner.

For example, “In a diverse community such as this one, we will come across points of view or other’s action that we may not agree with. In order to be able to constructively discuss the topics at hand, let’s remember we can disagree on issues but we should not take issue with a particular person.

We were discussing earlier [topic details]. How does everyone feel about [topic details]?”

This is a great way to let everyone know that getting involved in a bashing session or banter back and forth about another member’s actions is not productive and detracts from the conversations. A redirection away from the person who is potentially causing issue towards the content of positive exchanges will serve not only to blunt the effect of the disruptor but also encourage more proactive exchange.

Another helpful tip is to actually get the potential disruptor to become more positively involved in the conversation. Often controversy or otherwise discordant messages are a search for attention. By directing topical questions towards them and inviting responses you will often diffuse the potential problem. By sending out a message that their presence and opinion, if positive, matters, you are giving them attention:

“Member, we value your participation and we thank you for taking the time to visit the site. We would like you to avoid [problem details], when replying to posts since this can detract from the otherwise good points you raised which I am sure other people will wish to learn from and respond to. Thank you so much for your assistance and we look forward to seeing your contributions in the forum.

You raised an excellent point [post details], could you expand upon that a bit?”

We do hope that some of these pointers help. If you deal with the issues proactively rather reactively, you will find that troubled members will often either conform to site expectations or decide to self-remove. Either way, you have shown support for your community in its entirety, as well as respecting the individual. Overall, this should help provide a positive environment for others to exchange thoughts and ideas.

- Jon Nix and Pam Thomas
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