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L. Neil Smith's
Number 524, June 21, 2009


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How to Deal With Provocateurs
by Paul Bonneau

Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise

Some of you administer or moderate forums, or will some day. If the forum is freedom-oriented, you will certainly run into members who are real jerks, either those who receive a government paycheck, or free-lance jerks such as trolls. For this article we can throw them all into the category "provocateur". This how-to may apply to other internet media such as blogs.

The more influential a pro-freedom forum, the more likely it is to have provocateurs. Remember COINTELPRO?

In administering the Free State Wyoming forum we have worked up some rules of thumb to keep the board healthy and free of provocateurs. I'd like to share them, so others running freedom-oriented forums can keep things from degenerating.

The problem with moderating and administering is that you walk a fine line. Get too heavy-handed, then the forum will remain clear of provocateurs but the sort of people who like freedom won't want to stay around. Go too easy, then the provocateurs take over and drive the decent people out.

I believe the key is to adhere to two pro-freedom concepts, property ownership and freedom of association, and to make sure everyone who signs on to the forum is clear about that so there will be no misunderstandings later. The misunderstandings occur, I think, because people naturally assume that the forum will be based on free speech. While it is a good thing to encourage free speech on a forum, and will increase its attractiveness to people who enjoy freedom, it is not actually a "right" in the sense that we claim free speech in the public arena is. Forum members are NOT free to say anything they want—and remain forum members. Any notion of free speech must be subsidiary to the rights actually operating in a forum, those of property ownership and freedom of association.

So my rules of thumb are these:

1) A forum is owned by someone. It is not a public restroom. The owner may set any standard of conduct he likes.

2) A forum is a voluntary association. The owner (or his designated agents, the admins and moderators, if so empowered) can choose to, or choose not to, associate with a particular individual member—for any reason whatever. There is no rule of law that must be adhered to, or standards of evidence, for banning someone. The owner may apply his standards of conduct in any manner he likes.

3) An individual who is on the edge may be a provocateur or not, a troll or not. We don't really care about establishing it definitely, or having "proof". All that matters is whether he is acting more or less as a troll or a provocateur would act.

4) When someone is over the line on acceptable behavior, give him the boot (perhaps after a warning or two). Repeated warnings make no sense. Keeping someone on in the name of "freedom of expression" or "not having too heavy a hand" makes no sense, if that single individual drives 50 people away (most will leave without saying anything).

Now, this is more like a baseline. One can be arbitrary, as any personal voluntary association may be. However, it will not serve your needs if you are too arbitrary! People have a sense of fairness, and arbitrariness is not usually considered fair. So there is a limit to how far you can go down this path.

Why do we need to allow "arbitrary" decisions at all? Because one cannot forsee all possible scenarios, and because we don't want the forum signup text to be too lengthy and legalistic. That can drive people off as well!

I think the answer is to put a few posts into the introductory area for new members, where you spell these issues out to people. Maybe even post a link to this article! After they see the issues involved in keeping a good forum going, they will tolerate a certain amount of arbitrariness.

How does one know who to go after?

A lot of this is very subliminal. You don't know exactly why a certain member bothers you, it's just that something is "off". Generally, you will also be getting complaints from other admins or moderators, or from your more long-term and solid members. When this happens, use the forum software to go back over the posts of the suspected provocateur. Look particularly for logical fallacies in his posts. Now, everyone makes a mistake on these, now and then, but a provocateur will typically be very prone to their use.

Remember, you don't need proof!

I hope this helps admins keep those good forums running smoothly.


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