Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Why are people so abusive on forums? - Forums which defend agendas.


This post is an attempt to give some insight into the behaviour of moderators and the experiences of participants in forums which are not lightly and impartially moderated due to the specific interests (usually commercial) of the organisations which own them. 

The insights conveyed here are all based on real conversations, but they are heavily disguised to preserve the anonymity of those who are helped me in this research.  Therefore I cannot offer a verifiable account.  Instead I offer observations and insights which others may or may not find useful.

What's the agenda?
You would have thought that if Al Jazeera could manage the appropriate light moderation of the comment streams on their websites, then anyone could.  So why don’t they?

The most obvious reason is that the discussions may serve a commercial purpose, such as direct sales of particular items.  I spoke at length with a former participant in a major forum where moderators hosted pools of participants, getting to know them in real life as well as through their participation in discussions. 
Moderators earned commission on products sold, so they were particularly keen to recruit participants who would buy items recommended and to dispatch those who questioned recommendations or suggested alternative products.  Unwanted participants were dispatched through a wide variety of tactics, from them being ignored or receiving only unfriendly replies through to systematic lies being spread about them to the easily led participants through the personal message system (to encourage mob bullying), bannings and the deletion of their comments.  

Sale of products is not the only commercial agenda which may drive abuse in forums.  Forums can be used to build traffic to a website which is commercially profitable in ways not directly associated with the content of the conversation on forums.  It is well known in many circles that some participants in forums are not authentic participants but are instead ‘trolls’, that is contrived participants who are there to provoke discussion.  It is generally thought that a highly antagonistic comment will attract both readership and comment to a forum and therefore to the website on which that forum is based.  

While there is clearly some truth in this, it is also clearly true that such provocation, when it is inauthentic and sustained, tends to alienate authentic participants who enjoy exploring a balance of views.  It is my observation that forums need a significant proportion of contributors who enjoy the exploration of multiple perspectives and who naturally adopt the kinds of behaviour I described in my first blog on this site to operate as non-abusive forums.  Where forums are maintaining a specific agenda such participants are not welcome as they naturally tend to explore and invite views which balance the views defended by the forum.

What are the consequences of a managed agenda?

If you get involved in a forum where people are posting unpleasant things about you which are not true it is natural to start to suspect that those people who are posting lies are deliberately involved in a conspiracy against you.  However it seems that in general many participants in abuse have no awareness that the things they are told about other participants are untrue (because they trust the person who is feeding them lies) and they feel they are simply responding to the situation ‘as it is’.  

I think it’s reasonable to suggest that being part of such a forum bears similarities to being part of a cult, most importantly in terms of the challenges participants face when they begin to become aware of the discrepancies between the way some participants are portrayed and the reality.  The stresses contributors endure as they encounter these tensions are substantially more difficult to overcome if both their online and offline social activities are with participants in the forum.  These issues are also complicated if the participant who is becoming aware of the behaviour of the forum has previously been involved in the abuse of other participants.  

It’s worth asking why people who become aware of the dynamics of forums don’t speak out.  That they may be ashamed of abuse they have been involved in themselves is one reason.  That they care about other participants and recognised the extent to which they are dependent on the forum is another and a third is that this issue is simply not yet understood by society – so it is difficult to make people understand what you are talking about.  To find evidence of them speaking out it's most productive to look in other forums, which reveal startling insights once you know what you're looking for.  If you're not concerned about a specific forum but want to explore this subject more generally, it's worth just asking around.  It's startling how many people have been involved in abusive forums. 

It’s also worth bearing in mind the extent to which the moderators, who could be blamed for the abuse, may also be trapped in the system.  They may be ‘overseen’ but managers who intervene to ensure they do not deviate from required behaviour and they may feel trapped and unable to improve or leave their employment by their financial obligations or other forces.  They are also likely to be aware of the rapidity with which people can be systematically discredited in cyberspace and be worried that this may happen to them if they speak out.


If forums are trying to maintain a specific agenda for the purposes of the organisation to which they belong they often become abusive.   The abuse of individuals may be deliberately organised by moderators or it may occur because participants who know how to create non-abusive conversations are excluded from the forum. 

A key symptom of this kind of behaviour existing on a forum is that there are extensive rules which are used against some contributors in ways which are clearly designed to dissuade those participants from contributing further to the forum (rather than to inform them as to how they could constructively participate in the forum) and are not applied to others. 

What next?

In future blogs I will attempt to explore;
- what happens when forces external to the organisation owning a forum seek to influence the views expressed on it 
- issues associated with moderators who exhibit inappropriate behaviour which is not directed by the organisation which owns the forum.
- the issue of anonymity and 
- steps organisations which have forums should take to ensure those forums are not abusive.


  1. Will you address the role of renegade groups like those on 4chan, such as Anonymous?
    Also, will you explore the benefits a company could reap from allowing dissent on their forums, or at least managing them in a more relaxed manner? There is a new book about these issues. It's called The Social Customer, by Adam Metz. It's a guide for big business, advice about how to handle today's customer. It sorta gives some structure for handling bad pr with good manners.

  2. Thanks for your comment David.
    My particular interest is in how good quality online discussion can be managed. In describing abusive forums I'm trying to build awareness of the issues they may face. In this particular series of posts I'm trying to explain the importance of ensuring that your moderators remain impartial and I'll go on to look at the process which organisations should take to ensure they do.

    When you think of 4chan and Anonymous, what do you think are the issues which arise from them of which those wishing to run good online discussion need to be aware?

    I will definitely go on to endorse not only the benefits of dissent but also the personal benefits of taking part in abusive discussion and learning from your experiences.