A Dutch Internet dictionary has defined the moderator as “a person who exercises censorship on a mailing list or newsgroup.”1 Censoring the content of online discussion has often been considered as conflicting with the Internet’s libertarian tradition of free speech and unrestrained communication (Tsagarousianou, 1998). However, as the famous PEN-experiment (public electronic network) in Santa Monica (1990-96) showed, the desirability of free speech must be weighed against other legitimate concerns such as the need to facilitate discussion and counteract possible abuses of the medium (Docter & Dutton, 1998). This article analyses government-run online fora in which citizens and social organizations can discuss amongst themselves—or with government officials and elected representatives— issues of public concern. Effective moderation is considered crucial because the perceived anonymity in online fora weakens the norms of constitutive/self censorship that regulate face-to-face behaviour. It is thought that this can lead to “flame wars,” polarized debates and dominant minorities. Thus, while the anonymity of online environments may diminish the psychological thresholds that can limit participation, it may also exacerbate them—inhibiting the social cooperation needed to accomplish complex communicative tasks. Moderators, it is suggested, can mitigate such problems by stimulating and regulating discussions—facilitating purposeful social action (Coleman & Gøtze, 2001; Edwards, 2002, 2004; Wright, 2006a). Initial empirical analyses of online political discussion tended to focus on usenet newsgroups and found that debates were of poor deliberative quality and reinforced rather than changed pre-existing views (Davis, 1999; Hill & Hughes, 1998; Wilhelm, 2000). We must not extrapolate from this that all online political discussion is of poor quality— or, indeed, that all online discussion must be of high deliberative quality. The Internet provides us with a virtual commons upon which diverse interests can set up camp; the relative “free-for-all” provided by usenet can perform a useful socio-political function alongside regulated, government- led discussions. The two are not mutually exclusive. It is important that government-run online forums have clear aims, and are designed, structured, and moderated (or not) to ensure these are achieved (Wright, 2005; Wright & Street, forthcoming). A minimum level of moderation is normally required for legal reasons. Of course, this is balanced by local laws and rules on the right to free speech.
The Varied Roles Of The Moderator
A moderator can be defined as a person (or group of persons) who facilitates a discussion in view of its goals and agenda. Moderators can perform a wide range of functions from censorship to facilitation, dependent on the aims and context. The Guide for Electronic Citizen Consultation, published by the Dutch Ministry of the Interior (1998), mentions three moderator roles:
Host: Guiding and making participants feel at ease
Discussion leader: Progresses discussions and makes sure that all discussants have a chance to participate
Arbiter: Designates which postings are inappropriate and removes them
Drawing on work by White (2002) and others, Coleman et al. (2001) have fleshed out this approach listing various metaphors to designate potential roles. These include: “social host,” “project manager,” “community of practice facilitator,” “cybrarian,” “help desk,” “referee,” and “janitor.” White relates each role to specific types of communities. These designations are useful as they highlight the variety of potential functions.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Interactive Moderation: Moderators perform a variable suite of activities to facilitate productive debates such as bringing in external speakers, replying to messages, framing debates, and prompting further debate.
Content Moderation: A form of electronic or human filtering that blocks (censors) messages against pre-defined criteria. It is typically conducted silently and suitable only for discussions receiving thousands of messages.
The Process Function of the Management of Online Discussions: All tasks that have to do with the discussion process as a cooperative, purposeful activity:
Moderator: A person or group of persons who facilitates a discussion in view of its goals and agenda.
The Conditioning Function of the Management of Online Discussions: Take care of all kinds of conditions and provisions to further the discussion.
The Strategic Function of the Management of Online Discussions: Establish the boundaries of the discussion and embed it in the political and organizational environment.