Wednesday, November 26, 2008
If the government moderates a message board, isn't that a lot like censorship?
Along with the brand new comments section of Change.gov comes the brand new Comment Policy. The policy itself is completely reasonable, and contains nothing that you wouldn't expect to see in any comment policy for any other website.
But this isn't any other website.
This is the government we're talking about, and I wonder if they don't have a higher standard than other websites for transparent moderation. If they are trying to create a forum for Americans to share their views, but they retain the right to remove some of those views, it raises a concern. I don't suspect that anyone running this project has even the tiniest glimmer of interest in using message board moderation as an excuse to remove dissenting views, but the possibility for this abuse exists.
Change.gov could use a few tricks to assure the community that the message boards are only moderated as truly needed to remove comments that don't adhere to the comments policy. For increased transparency, they could continue to show a line for each removed post, including the name of the original poster and a brief line explaining that it has been removed (many message boards do this currently). They should also make it a policy to email users if one of their posts is removed, which would help reduce frustration in cases when users feel their post is removed unfairly.
Probably the best way to ensure transparency of the moderation will come from the users themselves. If people begin to feel that their posts are removed unfairly, you can bet we will see them submitted to sites like Digg and reddit and run right up to the top, since those communities are quick to pounce on failures of government transparency.
In the end, I'm not too worried about this issue, but it is a concern that is implicitly raised as soon as you start moderating a message board. Furthermore, it might become a bigger issue if we begin to see a lot of flame wars and disrespectful comments and the moderators need to play a larger role to keep the conversation civil. Let's hope we can keep it civil on our own.