# Open justice v secret police

I'd like to raise a point for discussion. It concerns moderation, and I think the best way I can summarise it succinctly is open justice v secret police. It came up on this post, where DavidZ said "the moderators do not discuss individual suspensions in public".

I think there's a degree of secrecy to the moderation at Stack Exchange, and that such is the wrong approach. If in the real world somebody is convicted of a crime, the public are aware of the facts. It's what underlies open justice. Without open justice there tends to be in justice. Check out family courts secret justice. Here in the UK we've had some grim stories of people jailed in secret for virtually nothing. See for example this report:

"The latest case has elements of all these others. It again centres on a septuagenarian grandmother, who was last month sentenced to six months in jail for reasons which beggar belief. Her only offence was to have refused to sign a letter she regarded as 'quite improper', authorising British social workers to remove an 81-year-old man from Portugal, his native country, to bring him back to England against his wishes".

Of course, you might say that this can't be relevant to a mere website like stack exchange, but I think it is. Because I'm sorry to say, power corrupts. No offence to the moderators who give up their time here, but people are very good at confirmation bias and conviction. They have an amazing ability to persuade themselves that some groupthink or "official" action they're taking is right and proper, even when it isn't. Particularly when self-interest is whispering in their ear. I'd say it's only public scrutiny that keeps them in check. Open justice. Without that, it's a slippery slope.

When moderators do not discuss suspensions at all, and there's no evidence of why a person has been suspended, you don't know if they've been suspended fairly or unfairly. So you don't know if you're getting into a first they came for the socialists situation. You don't know whether your moderators are turning into thought police. And the crucial point is this: nor do they. I think that needs to change, because it could be bad for Stack Exchange. I don't think it needs to change totally. But I do think all warnings and suspensions should be listed with a reason and an example. On rare occasions I'd say it's OK not to give the example because it absolutely had to be deleted, but IMHO this should be the exception rather than the rule.

Discuss!

• Shouldn't this be on the mother meta? How is this question specific to our site? – DanielSank Feb 17 '17 at 17:31
• Public information/decision about suspensions is already discussed at mother meta, e.g. meta.stackexchange.com/q/23366/263383, meta.stackexchange.com/q/246335/263383, meta.stackexchange.com/q/160145/263383. Also note the blog post introducing suspensions, and that public discussion of suspension reasons would provide a permanent pillory, contrary to the goal of rehabilitation, cf. also this previous discussion. – ACuriousMind Feb 17 '17 at 17:37
• @DanielSank : because there's been some issues of late. See this. – John Duffield Feb 17 '17 at 18:13
• I'm familiar with the chat moderation issue. Still, the policies you're asking to discuss are network-wide policies. As such, I think they should be discussed on the mother. – DanielSank Feb 17 '17 at 18:17
• @AcurousMind : the goal of rehabilitation doesn't seem to tie in with the "ramp" wherein suspension durations increase. Is there a period after which a prior suspension is totally expunged? Note that I'm not calling for public discussion, I'm calling for notification. Also note that with no notification whatsoever of a suspension reason, there may be pillory of the form he must have done something really bad. – John Duffield Feb 17 '17 at 18:18
• "Also note that with no notification whatsoever of a suspension reason, there may be pillory of the form he must have done something really bad" <-- Perhaps, but FWIW, there is also a feeling among some users that the moderators are over-sensitive and construe things as offensive too easily. I do not necessarily think that, but at least a few other users have explicitly said this. – DanielSank Feb 17 '17 at 18:20
• For what it's worth, I sort of agree that suspensions should be discussed at least to some extent publicly, and the moderators should be more open about what they do. On the other hand, I strongly disagree with the phrasing here - "open justice vs secret police" - really? This isn't a dictatorship. You are open to not participate on this site if you wish, you are open to make posts on meta (the chat moderation politics thing got reversed because people talked about it). – heather Feb 17 '17 at 21:36
• They have an amazing ability to persuade themselves that some groupthink or "official" action they're taking is right and proper, even when it isn't. Particularly when self-interest is whispering in their ear. Evidence required. – Kyle Kanos Feb 17 '17 at 22:19
• @heather : really. There's websites where thought-police moderation is an issue, where I and others do not participate. I wouldn't want Stack Exchange to go that way, and I think some openness would help. There seems to be a general trend in the world at large with "safe space" censorship and people who say it's OK to punch some guy in the face because he must be a Nazi because he doesn't agree with me. – John Duffield Feb 18 '17 at 16:42
• @peterh Your fears in this matter are unfounded, but I don't have the ability to undelete comments that you yourself deleted. At any rate, my ultimate point is that you shouldn't be making unfounded claims. Accordingly, I've deleted our other comments on the topic (as well as some responses to other deleted comments). If you'd like to start that discussion again, feel free to repost your comments about suspension rates with a link to the query that backs up your claim. – David Z Feb 23 '17 at 9:53
• @DavidZ All users having a positiv total net vote count on non-CW posts, but has reputation 1: SELECT p.Id as [User Link], * FROM (SELECT Users.Id, SUM(Posts.Score) AS TotalVC FROM Users LEFT JOIN Posts ON Users.Id = Posts.OwnerUserId WHERE Posts.CommunityOwnedDate IS NULL GROUP BY Users.Id) p LEFT JOIN Users ON p.Id = Users.Id WHERE TotalVC > 0 AND Users.Reputation = 1; It is not a perfect query, it detects some false positives, too, but all practically important caged users are there. The list is not much smaller as the same on the SO... but the SO is 15 times bigger site. – peterh - Reinstate Monica Feb 23 '17 at 13:51
• @DavidZ I remember the comments you've deleted. I wrote about how people tend to react, and behave with power. Furthermore I explained that such people produces always a bad system. Well, of course it was clear that it is not a praise to the... well.... conformist users, but it didn't insult anybody. It simply summarized the situation as I see. Why I shouldn't share my opinion to my partners in a debate? – peterh - Reinstate Monica Feb 23 '17 at 14:00
• @DavidZ Link to the query. – peterh - Reinstate Monica Feb 23 '17 at 14:08
• @peterh If I click though the userlinks in your query (today's results), and throw out the false positives and the network-wide suspensions, I'm left with four results. Four currently-suspended users, out of the population I described in my answer, doesn't seem like very many to me. – rob Feb 23 '17 at 23:05
• @peterh If I go through the same exercise with the mods-only list of suspended users, I find eight users currently suspended by Physics moderators and fourteen network-wide suspensions that involve Physics accounts. Some (but not all) may have reduced posting privileges even after their suspensions end. – rob Feb 25 '17 at 0:27

I volunteer at the county jail on Saturday mornings. In the jurisdiction I live in, trials are generally open to the public, there are detailed records of the proceedings and, critically, it's easy to find out if a prospective employee has a criminal past. More than false or sketchy convictions, the bigger problem inmates face is finding work after serving their time. Although it is illegal to discriminate against people with criminal convictions, it's hard to get a job with one on your record. Some jobs, particularly those that require a license, are prohibited from hiring ex-felons. "Open justice" on its own is no protection against discriminatory practices.

So how does that apply to Stack Exchange? Well, one of the primary goals of the penalty box system is rehabilitation:

At the end of this timed suspension period, your reputation will be recalculated, and your account will resume as normal. We don't hold grudges. The point of all this is to address the behavior. If the behavior improves, you are welcome back.

In California, ~65% of former prisoners return to prison. That's pretty appalling but not surprising since rehabilitation is not a politically safe goal. On Physics at this moment, just under a quarter of previously suspended users have received a second suspension. Some of those users have, perhaps, moved on to other parts of the internet, but many have gone on to be productive members of the site. The evidence suggests we are doing something right when it comes to rehabilitation. I think one factor is that we don't have public listings of previous suspensions.

I think the bigger question you are trying to get at is whether a secret system of justice can be fair. So let me explain our process a bit:

1. The system encourages moderators to warn users before suspending them. Warnings carry no penalties and there is no public record of them. Users have the opportunity to respond to the warning with an explanation of their side of the story. Many users who get warnings are never suspended, so this step goes a long way toward preventing suspensions in the first place.

2. Every message and every suspension is sent to the community team for review. On occasion, we've stepped in to reverse suspensions. Usually the problem is a simple misunderstanding or poor guidance from the system. The community team also has the power to remove a moderator in cases of abuse of power. (This action, thankfully, is very rare.)

3. The system encourages moderators to follow an escalating scale of suspensions: 7 days, 30 days and a year. Volunteer moderators are not able to suspend longer than a year. Again, the goal is rehabilitation. Believe it or not, many people have come back from a year-long-suspension to resume their productive participation on the site.

I've investigated many, many complaints about moderator abuse, including complaints of unfair suspensions. Overwhelmingly, it's clear our moderators are very careful about suspending users. Obviously, you'll need to take my word for that. But you can see the results of wise moderation when using Stack Exchange sites. The network tends to be free of rudeness as compared to other, similar networks on the internet. A good deal of the credit belongs to the cadre of volunteer moderators who have the power to suspend users.

I notice there's been some concern that moderators on Physics have suspended more users than on other sites. I looked at the statistics on all Stack Exchange sites and found that 150 currently have at least one user serving a suspension. By total suspensions, Physics is tied for 7th most. The top site, as you might imagine, is Stack Overflow. But it has an order of magnitude more users than Physics. So it makes more sense to compare the rate of suspensions per users active on the site in the last year. By that metric, Stack Overflow among the least frequent suspension site. Physics is ranked 81st or about average. Note, however, this includes network-wide suspensions, which are enforced by employees.

• What are the sites 2-6 by total # of suspensions? (Also, two typos after "Open justice" - on its own) – user60480 Feb 24 '17 at 2:28
• @zaq: It tracks pretty close to the list of sites by users: SU, Ubuntu, Math, SF, and, jumping several spots, Information Security. – Jon Ericson Feb 24 '17 at 2:34
• It might also be useful to distinguish between the twenty-five-ish users with active suspensions and the substantially smaller number whose suspensions are from Physics moderators rather than having been imposed network-wide. – rob Feb 24 '17 at 14:02
• @rob: Good point. I'm sure I can pull that from the database, but it's a tiny bit of a pain. Your count of 4 suggests this moderator team is far more restrained when it comes to suspensions than most. It also makes me wonder that has attracted so many cranks to get profiles on Physics. ;-) – Jon Ericson Feb 24 '17 at 19:40
• @JonEricson Or that I missed a few. Or that our suspended users are, for whatever reason, especially prone to flaming out and attracting attention from the SE staff. – rob Feb 25 '17 at 4:34
• Thanks for the answer Jon. The warnings are good. But if the primary goal is rehabilitation, how come the escalator is so steep? The 7 days isn't so bad, 30 days for a next step isn't too bad either. But after that 1 year sounds more like vindictive, not rehabilitation. Your cranks crack doesn't sound like rehabilitation either. – John Duffield Feb 25 '17 at 17:25
• @JohnDuffield: This isn't science exactly, but we have found that people who don't alter their behaviour after a warning and a short suspension are not interested in altering their behaviour. That's fine, but if their behaviour is destructive to the goals of the community we suggest those folks find somewhere else to spend their time. If it takes a lengthy suspension to accomplish that, so be it. There are tenacious users who just won't take the hint and need something closer to indefinite suspensions. I don't really have a problem describing those people as cranks. – Jon Ericson Feb 26 '17 at 6:35
• @JonEricson: you have not addressed the issue of the steep escalator. And the tone of your comment above makes you sound like you're some judge/jury/executioner throw away the key type rather than somebody who is interested in rehabilitation. – John Duffield Feb 26 '17 at 11:02
• @JohnDuffield It takes two to be "interested in rehabilitation". If you (and I use 'you' generically) come off of a suspension but repeat the same bad behavior you likely aren't interested in rehabilitation. Rehabilitation is the escalation system. It doesn't mean we let you misbehave indefinitely, rather we give you plenty of chances to reform your behavior. If you don't, you are no longer welcome here. Rules are nothing if there are no lasting consequences. "no grudges" means, to the best of our ability, you are treated no differently when you come back, provided you follow the rules. – Seth Feb 27 '17 at 1:41
• think you fell into a/ the trap. find the whole metaphor of comparing SE policy for a text-based cyber help site to prison management and the violation of criminal law flawed/ utterly distasteful & a unconstructive/ harmful mentality yet not uniquely seen in your response, ie think that some SE mgt policies reflect a similar hidden/ veiled ideology. think the mod vs nonmod distinction can lead to certain "splits" in groupthink reminiscent of the infamous stanford prison experiment o_O newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/… – vzn May 21 '18 at 2:58
• @vzn: I don't usually think about suspension as anything like the criminal justice system. But since that was the way the question was framed, I followed the reasoning to it's logical conclusion. When I think about suspension without the prompt, I tend to think of a sports or game analogy. Participants who are disruptive are not allowed to play. – Jon Ericson May 22 '18 at 1:37
• actually like the sports analogy myself and have used it over the years! so then take the key metaphor more seriously! how can SE mods/ judgements be setup more like sports refereering? note that referees are not considered infallible and sometimes judgements are reversed on replays. also, a 1yr suspension from a game? huh? maybe for drug abuse or criminal conduct only... etc... afaict/ afaik duffield the designated scapegoat in question has been given multiple 1yr suspensions merely for... get this... namecalling o_O – vzn May 22 '18 at 1:55

I wonder whether I've been a moderator here for long enough (four months now) that I can talk about our decision-making process in aggregate, without revealing anything untoward about any particular suspension.

How big is the Physics Stack Exchange community?

Well, there are several answers to that question. I'm not a database person and you're probably not either, so here are some answers based on public information.

We're one of the most active Stack Exchange sites: my count is about 4100 new questions since the start of 2017, a little under a hundred per day. If you assume we're maintaining our long-term average of about 1.5 answers per question, that's about ten thousand posts to the site over the first six weeks of the year. It's a lot. There is not any one user that has read every contribution, and determining overall quality is a group effort.

The quality of a post is estimated by the voting and reputation systems. My experience is that most votes occur on posts that are relatively fresh, so we can use the list of users with reputation changes to estimate the population of the site over a time interval. I count about 4700 users whose reputations went up and about 650 whose reputations went down over the past six weeks, so I estimate a population of five or six thousand logged-in users visiting in a typical quarter. Most of them must make one or two posts and not come back, to get to our ten thousand questions and answers over that period.

We can also look at voters (current rough count: 450) and editors (rough count: 65) since the start of the year. And what we see is the unsurprising result that, as a participation task gets more complicated, the number of folks who participate in it is smaller. About 10% of our visiting population is actually voting on questions or answers. About 1% of our visiting population is involved in making edits, and a slightly different 1% has enough reputation to access the "10k user" moderation tools. Close queue reviewers? This month, there are about thirty.

So as far as monitoring the site, making good things appear and bad things disappear, we have somewhere at or around a hundred people. If you're reading this answer, you're probably one of them, and you'll probably recognize most of the names of the others. That's a small group, which matters for what I want to discuss next.

That was the size of the "community", for a few definitions of the term. How big is the role played by the diamond moderators?

The moderator activity log lets me summarize activity over a quarter --- which we saw above corresponds to about 8,000 questions and 12,000 answers. During that interval, the six diamond mods

• processed 1200 flags. Another 1200 flags were apparently handled by the community in the low-quality queue.

• removed 3000 comments (mostly to chat, in batches)

• closed 1300 posts, and deleted 500 posts

• edited 2500 posts (of which probably 2000 tag-only edits --- Qmechanic is an amazing retagging machine)

• created 250 posts and 2200 comments

• sent 28 private moderator messages, including 10 account suspensions, of which 6 were for a week or less.

This is a lot of activity to see in aggregate! (It works out to typically handling two or three flags per mod per day, which doesn't feel like much.) Hopefully two things leap out at you. First, a solid majority of the twenty thousand question and answer contributions to Physics Stack Exchange from its user community over the past three months didn't get any diamond moderator intervention at all. That's a good thing.

And second: reaching out to a user privately, and especially suspending a user, is quite rare for us --- about three times a month. About half of these suspensions have been for voting irregularities or misusing sockpuppet accounts; those problems we typically identify on our own. The other five-ish suspensions (one or two a month, if you're counting) were shared among other suspension reasons: continued low-quality contributions, vandalism or deletion of upvoted contributions, self-promotion, making other users get fighty with each other, and so on. Those are things that happen in public, that are usually pointed out to us in flags or in chat by our 3k and 10k users. And the 10k users can continue to see material even after it's been deleted, if they feel like going hunting for it.

Now, what's the point of issuing a suspension? Suspensions are about behavior, not about people. In particular,

At the end of this timed suspension period, your reputation will be recalculated, and your account will resume as normal. We don't hold grudges. The point of all this is to address the behavior. If the behavior improves, you are welcome back.

An important part of making people feel welcomed back is allowing the community to forget about their punishment. But this is a website: literally the only we have to interact with each other here is by making entries in a searchable database. Once a thing is said, it's hard to un-say.

We do not issue suspensions without substantial agreement among the diamond moderators, and the suspension messages are clear about the (mostly public) activities that led to the suspensions. But keeping the details private --- or at least, keeping our concise statement of these details private --- is an important part of making the user feel welcome to return after the suspension. What we'd like is to encourage our suspended users to return, make quality contributions, and eventually join the relatively small cadre of users who help to curate the site. And part of the clean slate that's needed to become active in that community is for the community to forget about old problems --- something that's harder if a concise description of those old problems is just a mouse click away.

So the answer to my first question is no: I can't say much more about suspensions in aggregate than I could individually. There have been so few suspensions that essentially any remark I made would permit you, an alert reader, to figure out who I was talking about.

A commenter asks whether prior suspensions are "expunged" somehow for purposes of escalating duration (usually a week, then a month, then a year).

The records of private communications and suspensions are not deleted from the servers or hidden from the moderators; we exercise our judgement. For a hypothetical example, suppose a user had a temper tantrum, collected a bunch of rude/abusive flags, and needed a time-out. If their history showed a previous suspension for the same reason in the last year, we'd almost certainly escalate. But if their history showed a brief previous suspension for the same reason from five years ago, followed by a positive contribution record, I don't think we would hold that ancient history against them.

Where exactly is the boundary? That I can't say. It's a judgement call, which we'd try to make using all the information that's available to us. If a user is active in the community, makes good contributions, and is encouraging to and respected by other users, we would probably tend to be lenient. If a user spends a lot of time testing the boundaries of what is and isn't acceptable, we would tend to be more harsh. But I won't pigeonhole myself in the future by inventing some algorithm here.

• Thanks for all that Rob, +1. I note the we do not hold grudges. Can you tell me anything about the "ramp" wherein suspension durations increase, and about a period after which a prior suspension is expunged? – John Duffield Feb 19 '17 at 14:40
• @JohnDuffield I edited in an answer to your question. – rob Feb 19 '17 at 16:12
• Thanks Rob. Five years sounds a long time for people who don't hold grudges. As does Ron Maimon's ten year ban. Also take a look at this . Poster theNamesCross says: I think the moderators here do a great job ...thank you! But, Joel's post and the responses from Stack Exchange give me pause moving forward. I think a lot of people would say you're a good moderator, but that SE is not as ideal is you make it sound. – John Duffield Feb 19 '17 at 16:24
• @John: Note that (1) the maximum a site mod can dole out is 1 year and (2) Ron's ban is network-wide, which is something only SE employees can do, so this is clearly well beyond what the Physics mods can do. Further, he's also been banned over at Quora, so it's not like it's an SE-only thing. – Kyle Kanos Feb 19 '17 at 17:43
• Also, citing a post that has -1 score (+4/-5) does not help your cause nearly as much as you might think. – Kyle Kanos Feb 19 '17 at 17:44
• Pretty close: 9100 posts in 2017. – Emilio Pisanty Feb 20 '17 at 15:12
• Can you clarify roughly what fraction of deleted comments are sent in batches to chat, and how many are deleted outright? – Emilio Pisanty Feb 20 '17 at 15:17
• @EmilioPisanty I'm not sure about a data-mining way to do that. When I clean up comments, I'm roughly equally likely to remove one or three or five comments by hand as to hit the button and send twenty-plus comments to chat. If that were exact it would be ten-to-one moved to chat, but it's a (pretty wild) guess. – rob Feb 20 '17 at 18:08
• @JohnDuffield Increasing the suspension time for repeat offenders is prudence, it is not indicative of holding a grudge. The time isn't increased out of some wish to further punish people that pissed us off (as would be the case with a grudge), it is merely a way to deal with those behaving in harmful ways towards the community. Forgiving someone's misdeeds does not mean you have to be stupid in the future. Someone who misbehaves regularly gets a longer suspension to prevent them from misbehaving again, as history showed they're wont to do – Jim Feb 22 '17 at 14:42
• @JohnDuffield Again, not a grudge. If your friend stabs you in the back, you could forgive them and go back to being friends; but you shouldn't then give them a knife. That's just stupid. Each time someone hurts us, we welcome them back but try to improve our means of preventing them from hurting our community again. The system is set up such that frequent offenses results in the person being kicked from the community as the only way to prevent them from acting detrimentally to it – Jim Feb 22 '17 at 14:47
• I've removed a some comments which appeared to speculate about specific users. Don't continue that, please. – rob Feb 23 '17 at 0:23
• Responding to a deleted comment by @JohnDuffield: Note that "patterns of problem behavior" may warrant suspension even when any individual post or comment might be forgiven in isolation. The goal is to prevent disruptive behavior from making bystander users dislike or leave the community. Also note that day → week → seven weeks → year is a pretty good exponential, but "seven weeks" doesn't have a nice English-language name like "month" does. – rob Feb 23 '17 at 0:41
• @rob 7 weeks hath suspension, if you show no redemption. All the rest have shorter times; except for the maximum term, which gives you one full year, my man. Act up again and it's a ban. – Jim Feb 24 '17 at 13:52

Note that the current 6 Phys.SE moderators are democratically elected. All moderators have (electronically) signed a moderator agreement, which de facto implies that moderators cannot discuss specific users & suspensions publicly, and which in turn means that this meta discussion belongs on the mother meta (rather than on Phys.SE meta).

If you have evidence that one or more Phys.SE moderators misuse their positions or the community's trust in any way, then you can report it to the SE team.

• Yes, I know about all those democratic elections. A number of posters were debarred because they'd previously received a suspension. But that's another issue. As regards the point at hand, you said de-facto implies That sounds like a contradiction in terms. Does it say you cannot say why a user has been suspended? Can you post a link to this moderator agreement? – John Duffield Feb 18 '17 at 18:05
• @JohnDuffield You can find the moderator agreement here. Strictly speaking, it concerns only "potentially personally-identifying information", but at least some suspensions are installed on the basis of such information. Community Managers have also repeatedly said they do not wish suspensions to be publicly discussed (cf. the links in my first comment to the question), so even if we are not legally bound we are still bound to respect the directives of SE employees. – ACuriousMind Feb 18 '17 at 18:45
• @ACuriousMind : thanks. I did see that, but it didn't say anything about suspensions so I thought Qmechanic was referring to something else. I appreciate you have to do as directed, and I looked at all your links above. But there's not much discussion there of the open justice issue. In fact in this thread mannishearth merely said "unfortunately, moderators cannot give the reason behind a suspension in public", and we're kind of back to square one. – John Duffield Feb 18 '17 at 19:18
• The only relevant part of the mod agreement is that the mods have to follow the policies. These policies aren't defined clearly. Thus, it is not unheard that mods has talked about reasons of cages, both on meta sites and on the chat, if they wanted to. – peterh - Reinstate Monica Feb 22 '17 at 23:27
• @AcuriousMind The reason of a cage has nothing to do with a very-very secret mail address and maybe IRL name. It is about the oppression, as the original post said. – peterh - Reinstate Monica Feb 22 '17 at 23:29