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As per Leaving Private Beta, and Initial Pro-Tempore Moderator Election! ("Users can also ask questions on meta for potential moderators to answer"), here is my question:

You've taken what you feel is a reasonable moderation action, but another user brings up an analogous situation in the past where an opposite action was taken, which was also reasonable at the time. How would you react to this user's complaint?

Source

(I asked Adám in chat, and he recommended that I post it on Meta)

Please could candidates answer this from their viewpoint?

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    $\begingroup$ Given the contradictory handling of the present and past actions, I would likely post on Meta to get the community's opinion on how the situation should be handled. $\endgroup$
    – CPlus
    Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 20:04
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    $\begingroup$ Making Meta posts about such issues is beneficial because it helps document exceptional cases and their recommended handling, to set precedents for future actions. $\endgroup$
    – CPlus
    Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 21:48

7 Answers 7

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It really depends on the situation, as there are any number of reasons why the decisions might (appear to) disagree, but I would always start by trying to reconcile them. What reasoning led to the previous decision? How does it differ from the reasoning I made more recently? Are the two truly in conflict? If appropriate, I would solicit perspectives from other site moderators as well, especially if the previous decision was not made by me.

One possible conclusion is that the two decisions aren’t really in conflict. In that case, I’d try my best to explain why I think the situations were different enough to have justified different outcomes. Of course, this is always a dialogue, and I would keep my mind open to other perspectives, both from other moderators and from the rest of the community.

Another possible conclusion is that they were both the right decision at the time, but something else has changed. Maybe the community has changed its stance, or perhaps the circumstances have shifted. This is sometimes just the nature of things—the past is a foreign country, as they say—but I’d do my best to articulate why I think a change in moderation policy is justified.

A third possibility is that the previous situation was, for some reason or another, just a bad call, and while that is lamentable, it does not justify making the same bad call twice. Sometimes people make mistakes, and sometimes those mistakes are unfortunately not obvious until much later. While the mistake cannot be undone, I would try to at least put things right to the extent that it is still possible, and I’d document my reasoning as best as I could to prevent such missteps from happening in the future.

Finally, it is of course possible that my recent decision was simply wrong, and the previous decision was the right one. This is always the most difficult conclusion to come to, but that is why it is so crucial to reflect—as objectively and impartially as possible—on the differences in circumstances and reasoning that led to the different outcomes. Making the wrong call is never a pleasant thing to accept, but refusing to accept that it was wrong only makes a bad situation worse, so I would do everything I could to fix the damage and make amends. If anything, the silver lining to such situations is that they may serve as important learning experiences, and I will always do my best to take their lessons to heart.

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This is an occasion for reflection and stepping back a little: are these the same situation? what led to different outcomes? have outside circumstances changed? is this the wrong call anyway? Hurriedly upholding or reversing the action in the moment is not constructive. I always like to articulate the material points before I take any lasting action, and that may highlight either real differences or none. This is something it'd be ideal to consult with the others about, particularly if the earlier action was someone else's. I have to be open to having made a wrong call here, and they may show me that.

  • When the result is determining that the situations are not the same, communicating why that is is important. Presumptively the analogy has been raised in good faith, and anyone deserves to understand why this is happening, even if sometimes the answer is an unsatisfying matter of degree, or rests on some undisclosable specifics they need to take on faith.

  • It may be that the previous action simply was wrong, at the time or due to circumstantial changes; where the previous action was inaction on something, it's also possible that it just slipped through the cracks. In this case it's best to be direct about it.

    People do shape their actions by the bar they've seen before, so it's possible both that the current action is correct in isolation and that someone deserves a break for acting in good-faith reliance on that precedent, while that precedent itself is overturned for the future.

  • It's possible, even likely, that I'd make a bad call sometimes, even when there isn't a contrary precedent to point at. When someone raises it, the next step is to rectify what can be, both through the actions within the system and interpersonally. Acknowledging that you got it wrong goes a long way, and it's a lesson for the future.

    It's easy to reflexively defend whatever decision you made in the moment, but knowing that it's sometimes going to be a mistake opens you up to seeing that this may be one of those times from another perspective.

However, bad cases make bad law, and a lot of cases where controversial moderator actions happen are in exactly that middle space, or are taken under urgency. Not everything that happens is going to be a constructive precedent for later. The role of moderators here is to deal with exceptional cases and by nature they're going to be unusual.

Regardless, in many of these circumstances it'll be helpful to make note of what happened and why for future reference, particularly when someone else raises this action as an analogy at a later date. A difficult situation, with a little distance, can also be an opportunity for clarifying or sounding out the community consensus on an issue so that there's a direct reference point in future.

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I would at first try to explain why I feel the current decision is the adequate for the situation, so that the user can understand the difference between the past situation and the current one and why each was resolved differently. But if both decisions are truly contradictory, then whatever guideline was used as reference in both situations is possibly not clear enough and should be discussed on Meta so that we can have a more objective moderation method.

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  • $\begingroup$ Additionally (but not part of my answer because this is more of a subjectivity on my part and I would not factor it into moderation), I think we're bound to run into these issues as the community evolves and with it so do the guidelines for what we expect from our community $\endgroup$
    – kouta-kun
    Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 21:29
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To quote myself from 2022:

First of all, I'd look at the context surrounding the analogous situation - was there a policy that I'd missed or something objective in that situation that required the opposite action? If so, I'd perform the opposite action - if there's precedence for something based on community consensus, then that's to be followed. Otherwise, I'd explain why I felt my moderator action was reasonable and (so long as the analogous situation's action wasn't also performed by me) that different moderation styles do things differently. If the previous moderator action was performed by me, I'd consider whether the new action should be applied in retrospect to the analogous situation or whether the old action should be applied to the new situation and act accordingly.

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Broadly, I would take this as an opportunity to identify whatever meaningful difference may exist between the two situations, and more importantly, document that difference, as an example of when a moderator might be justified in making their own judgement call, rather than deferring to precedent.

If there is no essential difference between the past and present calls, then maybe it’s a sign that we should change one of them, as far as that’s possible, or even offer an apology. I think we need to leave room for everyone, including leadership, to make mistakes, and also make amends. That’s an essential part of how we build a resilient and welcoming community.

But, supposing the decisions in each case were both justified even in hindsight, then there is likely some important way they differ. And I would prefer to discuss and record that as clearly as we can—normally not as a hard rule, but at least as guidance for moderators and community members alike to be fully aware of the real standards here.

Sometimes, the reason can very well be as simple as this: I’m a different person than the one who made the call in the past! If the other moderators, and the community at large, generally agree that my judgement is appropriate in this case, then that’s all that should normally be relevant in this case. If I show a pattern of inconsistent judgement, or if the rules themselves are unclear, then those are also legitimate concerns! But they need to be addressed separately—we can’t hope to offer clear rulemaking by changing how we do things as we’re doing them.

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There are several different possible scenarios here:

  • There is an established precedent in favor of the past action, and my choice was mistaken.
  • There is an established, outdated precedent in favor of the past action, and neither choice was wrong.
  • There is no established precedent for the past action, but there is one for the current action, making the past action wrong, despite seeming reasonable.
  • The interpretation is truly ambiguous and there is no established precedent. My favorite example of this is how very low quality quality flags are handled on questions. (Older post about this topic: Is the Very Low Quality flag too ambiguous?)
  • There might be established preferences for one action or the other, but extenuating circumstances might make the other one appropriate.

My first course of action would be searching for existing, established precedents (these would include metaposts with official or highly-ranked responses). If I could only find evidence that my action was clearly wrong, I would roll it back and apologize for the inconvenience. Otherwise, I would respond to the complaining user citing evidence as to why my I still support choice, or why any older precedents are obsolete. If the old action turned out to be wrong, I would correct it too.

In more tricky scenarios, where I truly see extenuating circumstances, or if there are no established precedents either way, I would post on Meta, describing the problem. This would get the broader community's perspective, and also set the precedent and could be used as a reference for future actions. If the new discussions arrive to the conclusion that my action was wrong, I would roll it back, otherwise I would use them as evidence to support it.

A real-life example: As a Low quality answers reviewer on Stack Overflow, there are established guidelines that code-only answers are not deletion-worthy but also that non-English answers are. But these seemed to conflict when answers contained a lot of code but had non-English in them. So I went ahead and inquired how they should be handled, thus establishing the precedent that they should be deleted.

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If the moderator from the previous action was still around, I'd discuss it with them to see if I'd missed something. Otherwise, I'd take it up with my co-moderators. I'd of course be open to admit fault and reverse my action if deemed necessary.

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