The Tricky Business of Removing Community Content

It’s always tricky for community managers to remove or edit content from a message board. It’s not something to be done lightly, and you run the risk being accused of censorship (or worse). That’s why we don’t do it very often on Delphi Forums or Talk City.

Bearing in mind that our forums are all user-created and user-managed, we only touch user-generated content in extreme cases. Those cases generally involve disclosure of personal information or violation of copyright law.

We define disclosure of personal information as personally-identifiable information that’s not generally available online. If one user manages to find out where another user works and then goes online to tell everybody to bother that user in his or her workplace, we would remove that kind of information as soon as we are alerted to it. Because of the safety and privacy issues involved, we generally act when somebody has posted any personally-identifiable information on another user beyond their first name. (It is rare for our members to use their real names as their usernames on the message boards.)
Copyright law violations are generally simpler. The Safe Harbor Provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act forces organizations like ours to act if a copyright holder comes to us, tells us that one of our users has posted their material without permission, and asks us to remove it. It’s usually pretty clear whether a complaint of this nature is legitimate.

In both cases, there are a couple of things we always do. First, we leave a note in place of the removed content explaining what was done and why. Second, we email the person who posted the removed material with an explanation. Failing to do either of those things can leave you open to all kinds of accusations (if you’re an experienced community manager, I’m sure you’re nodding your head right now).

There’s another broad category of requests we get to remove content that we don’t act on. They generally boil down to he-said-she-said complaints. Some people like to throw the work “libel” around hoping that it will get us to act. They’re the complaints involving one member claiming that another member said untrue things about them and demanding that we remove the comments. The problem is that we simply aren’t in a position to judge the veracity of these kinds of complaints. If Member A says Member B ripped him off on eBay, we have no way to prove or disprove the claim. If Member B comes to us claiming that the charge isn’t true and asking us to remove it, we ask him to try to work it out with Member A or with the forum host. But we simply can’t judge the truth of these claims.

If you’re a community manager and have dealt with similar issues, I’d love to hear about your experiences.

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