Election years are always contentious, but especially these days. It’s one thing to debate or talk with friends -- maybe even family? -- but it’s another when those conversations end up on your community. Even if you think most members generally see eye to eye, people still have different opinions, which can lead to tension or full blown arguments.
As a community professional, how do you deal with those flammable, political conversations when they inevitably crop up? It’s not as if people (always) actively provoke, but even an off-hand mention of policy, like the Affordable Care Act, or candidates, like Clinton versus Trump, have the potential to infuriate someone and start a bitter dialog.
You’re the (debate) moderator
You’re the community moderator -- or, in this case, impromptu debate moderator -- so if it looks like the conversation is going in an unproductive direction, you need to take action for the community’s overall health. No matter your opinion on the subject being discussed, this conversation is probably distracting from your members’ experience -- especially if it doesn’t have anything to do with your community’s industry or purpose.
Here are a few ideas for how you can regain control of the community and bring it back to balance:
1. Add to your community guidelines
Moderating is difficult, but especially if you can’t point to specific parts in your community guidelines to back you up. Make sure you have specific language regarding politics -- or, at least, ‘off topic,’ ‘provoking’ or ‘inflammatory’ phrasing in general. Rules regarding tone will help you moderate overall, even if the comments aren’t political,.You don’t want any unproductive, hyperbolic comments anyway.
Don’t outright ban all political conversations. If they stay civil, they can be important and productive depending on your community’s industry or the discussion’s topic. But monitor the tone and language used -- and make sure your community members know what’s appropriate phrasing in your community.
2. Create groups for people who do want to talk politics
What if the political conversations aren’t divisive, they’re just off topic? This actually could be a good sign your community is maturing and members go there to socialize and have fun. And, although it may sound counter-intuitive, it’s important for you to listen and to give the community what it wants, even if it doesn’t pertain to the community’s overall mission or theme.
As long as the political discussions stay respectful, you may want to consider giving those people a special section or community to have those conversations. If they already want to approach that topic on your community, why not give them a dedicated space? It will increase both the community’s value and their chances of participating in other, on-topic discussions increases.
With a dedicated political community, you can pass the moderating reins over to fellow members, relieving the pressure on your community manager to watch over it.
3. Wait for reactions
When an inflammatory comment appears, your first reaction might be to moderate it as quickly as possible. But hang on just a moment -- your members might surprise you.
Before you take action, watch your members’ reactions. Sure, it may devolve into a virtual shouting match -- you’ll need to step in and moderate as per your policy. But you may be pleasantly surprised and see community members self moderate, by pointing out the community’s values and explaining to the poster how they stepped outside the community’s social norms.
If that’s the case, then leaving your community members to self moderate is incredibly powerful. First, it empowers them to take ownership for the community -- they don’t want it to slip down a negative, unproductive path. Second, self moderation demonstrates to all members how to interact in the community and deal with conflict. Plus, it relieves some of the community manager’s burden -- if you don’t catch an inflammatory comment right away, hopefully one of your trusty members will.
4. Freeze discussions
If politics have really hijacked a thread and it’s past the point of no return -- for getting the discussion on topic or bringing things back to civility -- freeze the discussion (if your platform has that capability). This is an extreme tactic, but is important for your community.The last thing you want is a comments section straight out of YouTube or a controversial news story.
But, as with any extreme move on the community manager’s part, don’t freeze the discussion without any explanation. Not only will it look strange and “Big Brother-ish” to your members, but you’ll lose a great opportunity to educate. Before you close the thread, it’s important for you to have the last word. Write a comment somewhere along the lines of: “I’m closing this thread because it is off topic. For more information about how to respond to comments, please refer to our Community Guidelines.”
5. Delete and send message to poster
This tactic is also in the “extreme” category, but important to consider. Depending on your policy, you should always be prepared to delete an unproductive post. But, like freezing a thread, you shouldn’t just silently delete the post -- you need to explain your reasons for deleting. If you delete a hyperbolic, unfair post, be sure to follow up with a private message to the poster, explaining why you deleted it.
The balance between censorship and education
Remember: with great power comes great responsibility. Don’t censor or delete comments just because it’s the easiest route to take at that moment. Sure, it probably would be easier to just delete a comment you think may spark turmoil, but think of the opportunity to educate. And think of the message you’re sending to your members.
Don’t be inherently afraid of political conversations or tension. A little tension -- healthy tension -- means your members are having real conversations and getting real value out of the community. The hard part, especially for the manager, is making sure the conversations stay balanced.