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  Is Moderation Censorship?
In my search to find out the difference between moderation and censorship, I came upon a bit of wisdom that applied to me:

"Moderation methods should not be portrayed or viewed as censorship or the presence of the “Thought Police”. When moderation is approached from a more proactive angle it becomes a valuable asset rather than a discouraging element."


When I first started moderating forums, my ideas were simple:

1.) Curve arguments into constuctive dialog.
2.) Regular moving/deleting/editing of posts.
3. ) Keeping a moderate atmosphere where everyone is welcome to participate within predominantly universal well-intentioned guidelines.
4. ) Being able to show people not familiar with forum/website/internet use an open and entertaining way to spend time, learn, laugh.

But, when one of the forum members called moderation "censorship", I am now fighting with myself if it is.

How can I differ from censorship and moderation when the duties of (forum) moderation seem so like censorship?

What is the defining factor?

You ask a great question -- thank you!. As you rightly point out, this isssue is one that is as philosophical as it is practical.

It is often the case that arguments made against moderation by community developers or complaints made by community participants is that it amounts to censorship. Regardless of what it actually means in practice, in such cases it is clear that censorship is perceived as entirely negative. By extension, moderators become the censors, the policers of people's space, the arbiters of what is and is not allowed. Our job as community leaders and moderators is, as you have said, to change perceptions about what moderation actually is. Bear in mind, though, that there is almost always a hardcore element of "popular" community participants who will view as censorship any kind of official presence in their community or any kind of intervention by those on the "other side of the fence". So, with that warning in mind let's look at some of the factors to consider.

First, the major difference between a censor and a moderator is the guiding role that a moderator has in terms of guiding participation PRIOR to having to uphold any guidelines. This is a major disparity between a censor and a moderator, since in the areas of censorship a work is created (e.g. a film) and then censors act on it in relation to their own guidelines - often banning the work or rating is accordingly. The censor does not participate in the creation of the work, providing advice or guiding the creative process according to those guidelines. A community moderator, on the other hand, is effectively there to prevent a problem before it happens by creating an environment within which guidelines are implicitly invoked through a moderator's own active interest and engagement.

Second, often a censor is an entirely independent person or organisation whose rubric it is to control or contain the activities of another. In the most successful of communities moderators perform a different role. A moderator stands between the users of a community and its owners or developers, acting as an interface between the interests of both and serving as the connection point. In many cases, moderators have been employed because they were existing community participants. It is a moderator's relationship with both the organisation they represent and the members interests they serve that marks a big distinction in terms of censorship.

Third, it is true that moderators do have to uphold guidelines in terms of perhaps editing posts, deleting posts or warning users about their partipation. This part of their role, of course, brings them closest to that of a censor - and it is here that it is most likely that they will be viewed as censors by community users. However, again it is the active engagement of the moderator within the community and their relationship with the community which distinguishes moderators from censors. A censor cannot and does not sit in the cinema where a film is being played and explain to the audience why it is that a particular scene has been cut, nor does he or she stand on the set of a film and advise in realtime how censorship guidelines might apply to the scene being shot. Moderators can do and often do both.

So what have we learned? We have learnt that there is often a conflation of moderation with censorship. We should also have learnt that there is something specific about a moderator's role which is distinct from that of a censor. In the hands of a good moderator who is supported in their role moderation creates an even balance between creating a welcoming environment and having to uphold the community guidelines.

The real area of difficulty is when a moderator cannot or is not seen as an interested and valued participant, but is seen as someone completely separate from the membership. It is important, whenever possible for the moderator to develop a rapport with the members. As mentioned earlier, it is this distinction which encourages the perception that a moderator is, in fact, a censor in other clothing. A moderator who is engaging with and is a part of the community will, when upholding guidelines, be seen to be acting in the best interests of the community.

Problems will no doubt arise. As we have mentioned, there is often a core group of people who will feel aggrieved about the presence of any form of official presence or any perceived interference in the community. In such instances, it is the moderator's job to make clear the positive ramifications of their presence in the community. However, it is also the community owner or developer's responsibility to ensure that the guidelines being upheld are reasonable, clear and communicable and it is also their responsibility to support their moderation team. Without this, a moderator's ability to act in the best interests of the community is greatly diminished.

We do hope this helps and thank you again for your question.

- Jon Nix and Pam Thomas
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