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I was just browsing new questions when a user changed his/her post from what seemed to be a reasonable question to a very aggressively offensive post, complete swearing in the title and derogatory language in the body about MSE users.

I flagged it immediately and others apparently did the same for it was soon gone. Before it was deleted, and presumably the user, I went into quickly trying to figure out how to get this user banned. The help center didn't offer any answers that I saw.

This is moot for the event I described here, but it made me wonder what the process is and how to initiate it. Is this is a moderator only action? Does the user need to be flagged.

I am just curious. Thanks.

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Is this is a moderator only action?

Yes. There are also some automatic bans for specific task, but a general account ban is mod only.

Does the user need to be flagged.

No. Of course, it can happen that a user's post is flagged for some issue and then the account gets banned as a consequence, but it is neither needed nor desirable to flag a user for the express purpose of getting them banned. Flag for specific problems or actions, and leave it to the moderators to decide if a ban is useful.

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    $\begingroup$ I guess I meant to ask this in the question, but is user banning common? How often do you have to do this? $\endgroup$ – N. Owad Dec 2 '16 at 18:56
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    $\begingroup$ A suspension is usually not made public. While I think it's rather a rare event, even on a large site (I do not moderate this site; the one I moderate is two to three orders of magnitude smaller) it happens on a regular basis on a site as large as this one. The philosophy about suspending is though that it is not so much intended as a punishment but rather to stop a certain problematic behavior. Thus mostly it is not given out on the first incident. Moderators also have the ability to send private warnings. $\endgroup$ – quid Dec 2 '16 at 20:25

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