Censorship, Freedom of Speech, and Trolls

If you’ve been a participant in an online discussion of any kind, be it a forum, a group on Facebook or LinkedIn, or even in the comments of a blog post, you’ve likely come across moderated comments of one kind or another. If you spend enough time in such an online community, eventually you’ll come across someone who’s unhappy with the quality of moderation. They may even liken it to censorship.

As an administrator of several such large groups, I’ve often tried to navigate that tightrope. The groups would be useless without user participation. And really, who am I to censor anyone’s free speech? How un-American!

So I did a bit of research on the topic of censorship and comment moderation, and found some ideas worth sharing.

Let’s begin with some definitions.

Censor: “to examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable”


1. to make (something) less harsh, strong, or severe or to become less harsh, strong, or severe

2. to guide a discussion or direct a meeting that involves a group of people

Censorship often refers to a situation where those in power seek to muzzle those who would speak out against them, in any medium.

“Censorship can deny communication about particular topics to large groups of individuals.”

Moderation involves selecting individuals within a community to be standard-bearers for the group.

“…In contrast, moderation is the practice of prohibiting speech in a particular virtual community by authorities within that community. A topic that is moderated on one virtual community can be communicated elsewhere.…”

In other words, even if a comment is “censored” within this group, the commenter can take his or her message elsewhere.

So what’s the harm in letting people say whatever they want?

“As the number of irrelevant or hurtful messages in a newsgroup increases, the cost to the reader per relevant message increases. Once that cost outweighs the benefits of the community, the reader leaves. As more readers leave, the benefit of the community to others also drops. This creates a cascade effect that causes more people to leave. The effect of a large number of irrelevant or hurtful messages is thus the same as censorship; that is, a group’s ability to discuss a particular topic is curtailed.…”

So members leave, and the group atrophies, becomes useless, and dies. Fail.

So let’s bring in moderators who keep a tight rein on “irrelevant or hurtful” comments. More people contribute to the group, because moderators will not tolerate rude and hurtful behavior.

Now some people complain that the moderated group is boring, or no fun. These people may be trolls.

do not feed troll

Troll: “In Internet slang, a troll is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a forum, chat room, or blog), either accidentally or with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.”

New research on trolls surprised exactly no one. “The relationship between sadism and trolling was the strongest, and that indeed, sadists appear to troll because they find it pleasurable. “Both trolls and sadists feel sadistic glee at the distress of others,” they wrote. “Sadists just want to have fun … and the Internet is their playground!”

Whether the bored people are just that, or are trolls, the solution is the same: there’s the door.

“In most cases where a group finds value in only a few of the messages in a newsgroup, the problem can be addressed without moderation. Simply, members of the group that find low utility in the newsgroup migrate elsewhere.”

Curious about the mindset of these people? Check out The Confessions of a Former Troll. Or if you’re feeling spunky, maybe you’ want to try out-trolling the troll.


But what about free speech? It’s guaranteed by the Constitution!

first amendment flickr elPadawan

“Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.”

Simple: it doesn’t apply in a private group.

A Quora user supplied a useful analogy:

“Think about it this way. If you host a dinner party at your home and one of the guests starts spewing profanity and creeping on every woman in sight, do you have the right to throw him out of your house? Of course. A private forum is no different. You are under no obligation to respect anyone’s First Amendment rights in your own private forum. You can run that forum like the Stasi if you want. It’s your house. You make the rules. If the guests don’t like the way you run things, they are free to leave.

“In conclusion, anyone who says moderation and forum rules violate their right to free speech is an idiot.”

free speech

Moderation keeps large groups from becoming the “Wild West.” Without it, good people give up on the group and drift away, until there is no group left.

“Moderation has real value in encouraging free speech. Without moderation, speech by adversarial [people] would quickly kill off speech by [others]. Thus, speech is most diverse when…virtual communities are moderated.”

Either way, people will always disagree with decisions made by the admins. It’s impossible to please everyone. But in a nutshell, a moderated community is a nicer place to be.

freedom of speech

From a group member



Image credits: flickr users isaacmao and elPadawan (troll image source unknown), and xkcd

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2 thoughts on “Censorship, Freedom of Speech, and Trolls

  1. Pansy Pio

    All well and good, until the moderator turns dictatorial and petty because she does not like what an individual has to say, even if it is the truth, particularly on a site that contains valuable information that desperately sick folks need. Please remember, you can have successful trolls who are moderators and treat their group as their personal fiefdom!

  2. Christopher V.

    A website is not a house. Do you leave your door open and invite anyone into your house, only to condemn them when they act disproportionate to your desires?

    Is government censorship ‘evil’ whereas other forms are not? Why? Almost everyone believes in some form of censorship. This is the reality. The fantasy is what happens when we hide behind euphemisms and political words to justify something that needs no justification, such as the fact that censorship is something many of us actually do believe in.

    Moderation online may make you happy, but it IS censorship. You ether acknowledge this or lie to yourself. The fact is, there is nothing ‘wrong’ with censorship.


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