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The handling of very low quality flags (on questions) is notoriously ambiguous:

The sad truth is, nobody has the foggiest idea what "very low quality" (VLQ) flags on questions are for.

The way moderators often treat them differs from how the system treats them. Without moderator intervention, they are considered helpful if the post is edited or closed after the flag is raised. But many moderators decline them except in diminishingly rare circumstances. They have been described by a moderator as being for questions that a moderator can tell needs to be closed without having to read them. To which another moderator disagreed. A vague consensus among Stack Overflow moderators suggests that they are for questions that need to be immediately deleted by a moderator.

As a moderator, how would you handle very low quality flags on questions? Since moderators and flaggers alike do not agree on how they should be used, how would you personally handle them?

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6 Answers 6

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A Theory of Moderation remains evergreen:

We believe deeply in community moderation. That’s why we appoint Pro Tempore Moderators and, ideally, democratically elected community moderators for every site in our network. But what do community moderators do? The short answer is, as little as possible!

[…]

Even with active community self-regulation, moderators occasionally need to intervene. Moderators are human exception handlers, there to deal with those (hopefully rare) exceptional conditions that should not normally happen, but when they do, they can bring your entire community to a screaming halt — if you don’t have human exception handling in place.

Flags handled by moderators are intended for exceptional situations. If the situation is not exceptional—that is, it could be handled adequately by other means—then the flag does not need to be handled by a diamond moderator.

Ultimately, I think it is probably exceedingly rare that another flag is not appropriate. Spam should be given spam flags, offensive content should be given rude or abusive flags, questions deserving of closure (for users that don’t have the reputation to cast close votes) should be given closure flags, and almost anything that doesn’t fit into this situation probably deserves some extra explanation via the “in need of moderator intervention” flagging option.

Ultimately, a few errant but well-intended flags here and there from drive-by users who may not be familiar with the system is no big deal, and the choice of whether or accept or decline such flags is largely irrelevant. But if a user were to persistently abuse the VLQ flag, I would indeed most likely decline them and recommend that they use other types of flags, instead. If a user is raising large numbers of flags, hopefully they are paying attention to the reasons given by moderators when their flags are declined.

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I would handle them the same way non-moderators would handle them, to keep the handling consistent. Normally, very low quality flags push questions into the Low quality posts or Triage review queues. Either way, reviewers determine if they need to be closed. As a moderator, I would handle them the same way as a Low quality posts reviewer, declining them if the question 'Looks OK' or accept them if a question should be closed.

I feel this would cause less confusion, as the outcome will not be different if I (as a moderator) were to review them or if the community reviews them.

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Here's the definition of the VLQ flag:

This question has severe formatting or content problems. This question is unlikely to be salvageable through editing, and might need to be removed.

Let's break that down step by step:

Severe formatting or content problems

For a question to have severe formatting problems, it would need to be almost impossible to fix with an edit from the community. I would define this as being "unable to fix with appropriate markdown and a grammar checker". If a question doesn't meet this definition, I would decline the flag.

Unlikely to be salvageable through editing

This condition can never be objectively true. If a post can't be salvaged by a community member's edit, then it can always be salvaged by the OP adding more information or changing their post to ask a different question (foreshadowing).

Now whether the OP salvages their question depends on the style of the question: if there's some genuine PLDI question buried under fluff, formatting or some other low quality appearance metric, then the IP can be guided in how to rewrite their question. In this case, I would mark the VLQ flag as helpful and leave the OP a comment or some other form of moderator feedback to inform them they need to improve their question.

However, if the question is nowhere near a PLDI question and never can be a PLDI question (e.g a "cat on the keyboard" situation, spam, or an off topic post), then one might say that the post can't be salvaged. However, I would decline the VLQ flag in this situation for the reason that there would be a more appropriate flag or moderation option available. This would encourage more appropriate flags and help discourage using the VLQ flag, which seems to be something moderators on SE have suggested.

Might need to be removed

As implied above, I believe a VLQ flag should never lead to a question removal. If a question needs to be removed, it should be removed through either a) community involvement (e.g votes to close/delete, rude/abusive flags, etc) or b) handled through exception-case moderator actions (i.e moderation actions the community can't perform). In this way the community remains the prime method of site moderation, and moderators remain janitors/guidelines.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't think someone should be penalized for using a less 'severe' flag than warranted, e.g., flagging spam as off-topic. But they should be penalized for using a more 'severe' flag than warranted, e.g., flagging an off-topic question as rude. $\endgroup$
    – CPlus
    Jul 8, 2023 at 3:14
  • $\begingroup$ @user16217248-OnStrike that's true for cases where the lower flag is a subset of the more severe flag. The VLQ flag however is a special case because it's a flag that shouldn't really exist anymore and should be removed. Declining VLQ flags teaches people to use more appropriate flags that are more specific to the situation $\endgroup$
    – lyxal Mod
    Jul 8, 2023 at 3:18
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    $\begingroup$ I think many people will not be aware that very low quality is a no-no flag, and see it as a flag reason like any other and flag according to its description. I personally would not decline them just for being very low quality flags, but I could see leaving them a notice that using that flag is not recommended. AFAIK moderators can leave notes while marking flags helpful. $\endgroup$
    – CPlus
    Jul 8, 2023 at 3:50
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think declining the flag when people are following the description is the correct move. If very low quality flags are not to be used for unsalvageable questions just because there are better flags to use, then make a feature request on Meta StackExchange to have the description updated appropriately. $\endgroup$
    – Isaiah
    Jul 10, 2023 at 0:31
  • $\begingroup$ @Isaiah removing the VLQ flag altogether has been proposed since 2016 and hasn't been acted on since. There exists some sentiment that the VLQ flag shouldn't be used at all, and I agree with that, so declining VLQ flags redirects flaggers away from creating ambiguities. $\endgroup$
    – lyxal Mod
    Jul 10, 2023 at 0:41
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VLQ flags are requests for deletion for posts that are irredeemable. It should be rare that this is a better action than the community moderation tools. I would decline flags on questions that should merely be closed, or that were clearly unsuitable for any action. Otherwise, allowing the post to go through the LQP queue once it's raised allows community moderation to take place. Moderator deletion is an extreme action that can't be overturned by votes, so it's not something I want to jump to. I think VLQ flags should be rare in any case, and unless someone is raising a lot of them then one or two that perhaps didn't need to be are not a big deal for anyone.

If someone's trying to game the Marshal badge by hoping for coincidental edits or something, that's a problen, but it's a different problem. Truly applicable situations for the flag, rather than VTC, VTD, or ordinary downvote, will be very rare, but if someone just reads the description one time trying to figure out what to raise and thinks it's what fits then it's not really an issue that needs intervention.

There is a caveat at the moment, which is that we currently have relatively few users with full deletion privileges, and the LQP queue may be the only way that community-driven deletion can happen in some cases where it's needed. VLQ flags on questions put the post in there where it's possible it wouldn't get otherwise. It's conceivable that in the short term these are more merited than they would be later on, although I still expect that to be very rare. I don't have a strong feeling about that, but I want to raise it as something that may be distinct from the situation on Stack Overflow today and the situation on this site in the future.

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I consider a VLQ flag to be a vote for deletion. That’s a pretty harsh judgement, and one I wouldn’t pass lightly, so if I see no reason that a moderator must intervene, then I would rather decline it and let it go through normal channels.

There is value in a mod’s custodial power to chuck something straight in the bin, if it’s only going to waste people’s time and energy otherwise. A VLQ flag isn’t a very good way of calling for that, but it still exists and will end up getting used whether we like it or not. So above all my preference would be to have a consensus among mods about the procedure for it. For example, if one of us does accept a VLQ flag, then as a matter of course we should check in about it with the others.

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For VLQ posts, I think being a moderator or not is largly irrelevant. If such a flag brings me to a post that clearly needs my action, I'll act upon it; deleting or editing as necessary.

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