Moderation in government-run online fora

Arthur Edwards, Scott Wright

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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.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEncyclopedia of Information Science and Technology
EditorsMehdi Khosrow-Pour
Place of PublicationLondon UK
PublisherIGI Global
Number of pages7
Publication statusPublished - 2009
Externally publishedYes


  • e-democracy
  • moderation
  • content moderation
  • censorship

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