Freedom Of Speech, Censorship, And Moderation

How internet fighting works by SMBC

How internet fighting works by SMBC

Anyone who frequents my website regularly, and has either participated in the comment sections or read them, knows I have a very strict moderation policy. I have some very clearly stated rules for conduct, violate those and I will intervene. To me it doesn’t matter if you’re a friend, colleague, opponent, a regular, or just someone passing by. The rules I have for participating on this website get applied equally. There are even clearly stated appeal rules just in case I made a mistake with my moderation.

I already mentioned before that most commenters like the environment that I create with my strict moderation policy. It’s because of those rules that you can freely discuss the merits of what I wrote without the vitriol and derailing of discussions that’s so common. I’ve seen commenters defend my rules as they see what I do and how different my comment sections are because of that.

However, there is a small but vocal group that complains about these rules. They often claim that I’m taking away their freedom of speech and censoring what they say. It’s due to them that I’m now writing this, as I want to be very clear about why these rules exist.

Freedom of speech

When I moderate a comment I’m not restricting your freedom of speech. This because freedom of speech applies to the government. It’s the government that cannot intervene in what you can say or not. As soon as that happens there’s a good chance that you have a freedom of speech issue. A website that’s owned by a citizen is free to decide what speech is or isn’t allowed.

Same goes for censorship. I’m not censoring you as you’re free to go somewhere else and say what you want. I won’t interfere with you if you do that, but I do reserve the right to respond to anything that’s being said. After all, I have freedom of speech. What I’m doing is not giving someone a platform to say things that violate the rules of conduct for my website.

I’m the person who pays for this website, I wrote code that this website uses, and it’s my time I invest in this website. It’s my website you’re visiting, and just like when you enter my house, I have a set of rules you should abide by. If you don’t hold yourself to those rules I will politely escort you off the premises.

Free speech by XKCD

Free speech by XKCD

The rules

How I expect people to behave on my website is defined in my ‘Community and Discussion Guidelines‘. It’s a more accessible version of what I already state in my ‘Site Terms and Conditions of Use‘, which is even more clear on what is or isn’t allowed. It’s just a lot more to read.

The rules as stated in the  ‘Community and Discussion Guidelines’ is how I apply what is said in the ‘Site Terms and Conditions of Use’. And for each one there is a very specific reason it’s included on that list.

Rule 1: Treat all posters, commentators, and readers and other parties with respect and refrain from personal insults and ad hominem attacks.

When you comment on this website I expect some level of civility when engaging others. It’s how well your arguments are made that counts, not how abrasive or insulting you can be. I don’t tolerate uncivil behaviour in real life, so I don’t tolerate it online.

Research also shows that I should do this if I want people to learn. One study showed the effects of rudeness on how readers perceived a topic, in this case nanotechnology risks. What they found is that rude comments polarized the audience. Those who already thought the risks of nanotechnology are low had a tendency to become more sure when exposed to rudeness. Those that thought the risks of nanotechnology are high also tended to become more sure that indeed the risks are high.

In other words: pushing someone’s emotional buttons, in this case via rude comments, made them more entrenched in their current position. Not what I want to see on my website.

Rule 2: Comments that are racists, derogatory or disrespectful towards a person or a group based on for example religion, sexual orientation or race will not be allowed.

This one really shouldn’t need to be on the list, but experience has taught me it should.

Allowing disrespectful comments would also undermine any reasoned discussions. It also has a tendency to reduce comment sections into shouting matches. I want to see reasoned discussions, they are allowed to be passionate, but as soon as I notice something that will derail discussions I’ll intervene. How you say things is often just as important as what you say when you’re trying to get a point across.

Rule 3: Your comment should be relevant to the content you’re responding to.

If you say something that has nothing to do with the topic of the article you’re responding to it will be removed. I do this to prevent completely irrelevant discussions that distract from what was written. This can be unintentional as discussions tend to grow in scope. But there are some who use this to either derail discussions or distract from what was said. It’s because of them that I do this.

Rule 4: When making any claim provide references (links if possible). Failure to do so can result in the comment not going through moderation.

When you’re discussing a subject I want at the very least understand where you’re coming from or why you made a particular point. Sourcing helps with verifying what was said, judging the merits, and the context.

Anyone who isn’t willing to provide sourcing isn’t welcome. As in my experience they are more interested in a platform for their talking points than a productive exchange.

Rule 5: Respect people’s privacy and anonymity: if an individual refuses to reveal personal details, respect that.

People can have very good reasons to stay anonymous or to not share certain personal details. I’ve seen more than enough examples where either the loss of anonymity or revealing personal details had unnecessary consequences. That’s why I don’t allow digging for personal details or posting them on my website.

Rule 6: When asked to clarify an argument or point please respond; this isn’t optional.

It can happen that something wasn’t clear the first time you said it. Which could simply be because someone isn’t familiar with a subject. But it’s always your responsibility to explain yourself if someone doesn’t understand what you’re saying.

However, the main goal of this rule is to prevent people from jumping from point to point while never properly explaining themselves. This is extremely frustrating and derails exchanges, that’s why I don’t allow this.

Rule 7: Claims that are factually incorrect will not be allowed.

It’s very common for science deniers or ideologues to repeat the same factually incorrect claims. No matter how often these have been refuted, they just keep repeating them. Considering the goal of this website and the above rules it’s counter productive to allow such comments/statements. They simply get removed so they don’t distract from any productive exchanges.

Rule 8: Any comments that are deemed (self-)promotion or spam won’t be allowed.

Just leaving a comment with at most one or two sentences while linking to something else I consider spam or (self-)promotion. I want to see at least an explanation of why the link is relevant, and how this ties into the article you’re responding to. Dumping a link is not participating in a discussion or providing insightful criticism.

Rule 9: Discussing moderation in the comment section isn’t allowed. If there’s a complaint please use the contact form

Most people don’t really mind moderation, as long as the rules are clearly stated and applied consistently. At most they may ask for a clarification or are surprised that they were moderated. These comments are harmless and would just add some clutter to a comment section. So this isn’t the reason why I instated the rule.

This rule was instated because those that do object to being moderated are often very disruptive in comment sections. This either due to the number of comments, them constantly bringing it up, or them being uncivil in how they bring it up. This very easily derails discussions and is the reason I don’t allow it.

The tools

When talking about moderation I also need to talk about the tools that I use for it. Some of these processes are automated, and some are done manually. Let me begin with the following automated processes:

  1. your first comment is always held for approval. After approval all comments will go through;
  2. when you write a comment that has two or more links it will be held for approval (to prevent spamming);
  3. when using certain words your comment will be held for approval (“fraud” or “NWO” are examples of triggers for this);
  4. if your name or email address is on the moderation list any comments you place will be held for approval.

The fourth automated functionality is enabled because some users are either repeat offenders or violated a moderation rule with their first comment (or came close). Being on this list isn’t permanent as when you show that you can play by the rules I’ll remove you from it.

All these functions I just mentioned are standard for any WordPress website. However, there’s one feature that isn’t standard for a WordPress website; the moderation functionality that I use. The moderation remarks you see in the comment sections is the visible part of it:

Moderation remark

I added code to my WordPress install that allows me to store the original comment, add a publicly visible moderation remark, and private notes. Very useful features when you’re moderating a lot of comments. But the most important feature is the original comment this code stores. I can always check why I removed something or reinstate a comment/text if an appeal was successful.

It also serves a second goal: I can always show why I removed a comment or text. This has proved useful on several occasions as those that got moderated made incorrect claims about why I moderated them. I have no qualms whatsoever in those situations to show the original comment to demonstrate why it wasn’t allowed.


These rules have been very effective in fostering better discussions. Just looking at old comment sections you see a very big difference. Those are filled with ludicrous claims and quite vitriolic comments. Very little of substance is actually present there. Any reasonable commenters had to spend time addressing nonsense that just distracted from any productive exchanges.

Nowadays I get a lot more thoughtful comments and often see interesting exchanges. Even those that disagree with me are a lot more interesting to read as they now have substance. You can actually learn new things in my comment sections or encounter different interesting perspectives. I’ve certainly learned new things about subjects or how to better convey points.

Sure, I get a couple of fewer comments. But trust me, nothing is lost by not allowing those comments. I rather see a couple of interesting comments than a lot of comments in which people yell at each other.

How internet fighting works by SMBC

How internet fighting works by SMBC

Collin Maessen is the founder and editor of Real Skeptic and a proponent of scientific skepticism. For his content he uses the most up to date and best research as possible. Where necessary consulting or collaborating with scientists.