Incident Report:

Two days ago I checked the mod tools and saw a flagged post appearing. The post was a common happening that a person posts an answer to a rather old question, and in the answer they simply ask a question of their own (often not directly related to the original post).

I agreed that the flag was valid and flagged it again myself. So we have a post flagged by two people.

Several minutes later the flag itself was declined with the reason:

flags should only be used to make moderators aware of content that requires their intervention

Several minutes more, and another high-rep. user posted a comment directing the "answerer" to the Ask Question page, and two hours later the post was deleted by three users (I was not one of them due to timing).

What Could Have Happened:

Let us consider a slightly different situation for a moment, something which is not unthinkable, too.

Suppose that whoever flagged the post was a low-reputation user (or even <20k) and the flag was cleared before high ranking users could see it in the moderation tools. This question posted as an answer is in a very wrong place, and I am sure that no one who cares for the well-being of this website would want to allow such content to exist for long.

It happened that at least one of the flagging users were me (and had I not come back to see the post deleted, I would probably have raised a deletion flag myself... which could have been sitting in wait for quite some time). But in our hypothetical scenario none of the involved users - except the moderator who declined the flag - can delete an answer.

In such case, the answer stays in the wrong place for quite some time until someone else deletes it.


What I wonder about this is whether or not a question posted as an answer to a long-answered thread is not content that the moderators should be aware of.

We had an election recently, and before that such flags were never declined, I assume this is a result of new moderators not being in line with the other moderators, or raising points to other moderators about the job of a moderator.

My question is why was my flag declined? Is there a new description of the moderators job on this site? If there is such, can the moderators please update the common user (and the flagging users) about this description?

(For 10k users: the flagged post.)

  • $\begingroup$ As you may know from many of my prior posts on meta, I believe that any decisions that can be made by the community, should be made by the community (vs. being decided by an individual moderator). This avoids controversial use of moderator superpowers e.g. when closing and deleting posts. This is a borderline case. But there are many other cases where posts are flagged for mod decisions that indubitably should be made by the community. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque May 25 '12 at 12:39
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    $\begingroup$ How two flagging users are not community input? Should every flag be weighed and debated on meta first? I will be happy to do so for your sake. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Mod May 25 '12 at 12:41
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    $\begingroup$ I think what Bill is saying is that if you see an answer that not only shouldn't be an answer, it shouldn't be on the page at all, then you should vote to delete it (if you can) instead of flagging it for moderator attention. But the message, "flags should only be used to make moderators aware of content that requires their intervention," (which I have also gotten recently for one of my flags) doesn't really tell the flagger anything helpful. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson May 25 '12 at 12:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Gerry: I stopped trying to think for others recently, especially Bill which I cannot read properly at all. In my experience deletion votes can stand for weeks. Flagging for a moderator attention is a way to get action taken quickly. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Mod May 25 '12 at 13:01
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    $\begingroup$ I think that (if they haven't done so already) the moderators should get together and agree on a policy they will all follow on these flags, and then publicize it. It would not be a good thing if the treatment of your flags were to depend on which moderator happened to be awake at the time. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson May 25 '12 at 13:08
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    $\begingroup$ "Borderline case"? The "answer" is completely unrelated to the question. It was posted by a new user, possibly as a first action (certainly, nothing is in the log). It patently does not belong as an answer in that question, where it does not good to anybody (including the original poster)... $\endgroup$ – Arturo Magidin May 25 '12 at 13:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Arturo And the community has the power and wisdom to make that decision. And it did. The wisdom of the community is much greater than that of any individual. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque May 25 '12 at 13:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill, I know about myself and another user which are frequent flaggers. The reason I flag is for immediate of action. Had there been 100 users capable deleting answers on this sites, I would probably flag a lot less, at time of commenting there are 33 and four of those are moderators with a binding vote. My experience is that often deletion flags can sit and wait for quite some time. If you insist that this flag should have been "dealt with by the community" let it be dealt by the community, don't clear it. By letting it sit you de facto give it more exposure to high reputation users. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Mod May 25 '12 at 13:26
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    $\begingroup$ I still think, however, that until there is a very good base of 20k+ users the moderators should intervene. Especially in cases like the one linked, which as Arturo says, are not at all borderline. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Mod May 25 '12 at 13:28
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: Sigh... Once again, I see that we live in completely different worlds. I'm doubly glad that it is not through my vote that you became a moderator. Why someone who does not believe in moderation ran for moderation is well beyond me. $\endgroup$ – Arturo Magidin May 25 '12 at 13:28
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    $\begingroup$ @Asaf I pledged to use superpowers only when absolutely necessary, because, for one, this helps to ensure democratic decisions, and, further, helps to avoid tension. If you wish to discuss this matter in the abstract then let's do so. But I don't think it is constructive to (explicitly?) choose a borderline example of application such general principles. Rather, one should discuss the general criteria. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque May 25 '12 at 13:37
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: If you say that this is a borderline example then your standards are insanely high. Should a user write something like "F--k you a--sholes!! I HAZ QUSTEION!11" before you claim a post is not in place and should be deleted? I have no problem starting an abstract discussion, but it is moot as long as your standard consider this as borderline where I consider it exemplary. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Mod May 25 '12 at 13:38
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    $\begingroup$ Once again, Bill, please avoid clearing flags if you want the community to deal with them. While the flag is not cleared other users can see it and become aware of the problem, thus flagging further (I suppose, or at least want to believe, that if that post had 16 users who flagged it, you may have considered deletion) or voting to delete if they are in that small club of users who can. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Mod May 25 '12 at 13:40
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: I will not debate the policy before we agreed on what is a borderline case. If you wish to see a borderline case go see the other flag in my profile rejected at the same time as the one mentioned. That flag was debatable and borderline. I insist that we first clear out the semantic disagreement before we proceed to the syntactic formulation. Note that we do mathematics this way too, first we think on the object we want as clear as possible, then we formulate abstract properties. Later we put them to the semantical test again. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Mod May 25 '12 at 14:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: There is absolutely no point in all of us agreeing that posts written in a very rude way, contain spam, offensive content, and such should be deleted. I'd think that everyone agree to that. I also think that the case at hand here is the common case, and it is a very good example of a post which is not offensive in any way and should be deleted. I also wish to express that I think that about 5% of my flags so far were questionable, this makes about 20 flags out of 400. Most of the flags which are unhelpful are those which invalidate other's flagging. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Mod May 25 '12 at 14:24

Asaf has already said something like this in the comments, but I want to highlight it as an answer:

If a moderator does not want to intervene, then he or she shouldn't. Declining the flag is not the same thing as not intervening. It is itself an action based on a subjective decision, not made by the community. If the flag is left to stand without action taken by a moderator, then the flag can be seen on the tools menu for users with enough points, who may then weigh in, but who are more likely to be oblivious if the flag is declined.

  • $\begingroup$ Generally, I do agree with that. However, there are a couple users who are raising far too many flags, orders of magnitude more than the norm. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque May 25 '12 at 14:40
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: If you have a problem with me and with one or two users please be explicit about it. I already admitted for lack of mind-reading abilities. I also find it strange that none of the previous moderators complained, and at best there was a directional request not to invalidate automatic flags, or to avoid "low quality" flags. Both of which I follow. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Mod May 25 '12 at 14:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Asaf As I said, generally I do agree with that policy. So I think, perhaps, you may be concerned about something that is nonexistent. But I do encourage you to reflect on the fact that you flag much more than the average user. Keep in mind the fable of the boy who cried wolf. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque May 25 '12 at 14:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: Most moderators have my email address, and address me when they see fit. Apparently until an hour ago no one said anything about the amount of flags I raised. Yes, it was discussed in one or two emails by the way. One can only wonder why you are the first one to consider my flagging excessive. It is also very weird that until two days ago I only had seven out of nearly 500 flags declined, and about 20 which were disputed against my call. It is indeed very strange that just now I hear about this problem. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Mod May 25 '12 at 14:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Asaf So why all the fuss about 1 of your 500 flags? $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque May 25 '12 at 14:58
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    $\begingroup$ There is no doubt that the other moderators agree with you, this is why all those flags were marked "helpful". I mean, if one thing gives you an incentive to stop flagging is when you are consistently being told that your flags are helpful. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Mod May 25 '12 at 14:58
  • $\begingroup$ @Bill: I fuss because this flag was wrongfully declined. It is a matter of principle. I stand behind my actions, and I believe that whoever declined this flag was wrong. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Mod May 25 '12 at 15:00
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    $\begingroup$ Shouldn't it be irrelevant how often a user flags when considering whether a particular flag is a good candidate for action/declining/ignoring? (I mean, this would be ideal, unless there really is a problem user overwhelming the resources of the moderators with pointless flags, which is extremely far from the case here.) $\endgroup$ – Jonas Meyer May 25 '12 at 15:05
  • $\begingroup$ @Asaf If there been not only 1, but, rather a trend of your 500 flags being declined for what you thought were wrong reasons, then that may have been worth discussing on meta. But that is not the case here. Again, please keep in mind the fable of the boy who cried wolf. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque May 25 '12 at 15:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: If it was a trend of declined flags, I would have to reflect upon my flagging behavior. Because there is just one, which unlike the other declinations I believe is completely unjustified, I bring things to meta. Please, Bill, if you believe that my flaggings are cries for wolves -- by all means, I beg you to ignore them. I mean ignore completely, avoid them altogether and let other moderators deal with them. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Mod May 25 '12 at 15:20
  • $\begingroup$ @Asaf As I said, I think you are concerned about a matter that is nonexistent. I don't recall any other users raising a meta question about a single flag of theirs that had been declined. In your case it is roughly 1/500 flags that you raised. There is no trend and there should be no reason for such heightened concern as far as I can see. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque May 25 '12 at 15:30
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    $\begingroup$ I disagree with @Bill. If this is a fluke matter, then fine, that could be made clear, along with a clarification of the practice of declining flags. But rather, a moderator in this thread has defended the particular action that many in the community apparently disagree with. That is not to say the moderator is right or wrong, but there is certainly a matter that exists, albeit a small matter. (That is, I see the existent matter to be about the practice of declining flags, regardless of what percentage of a particular user's flags have been declined.) $\endgroup$ – Jonas Meyer May 25 '12 at 15:39
  • $\begingroup$ @Jonas As I said, above, generally I agree with your answer. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque May 25 '12 at 16:00
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    $\begingroup$ @BillDubuque, I raised a question about a single flag of mine that had been declined - I just chose to raise it via email to team+math, rather than via meta. I believe Arturo has recently raised a similar question on meta. So I think at least three of us are experiencing moving goalposts and would like to see a clear consensus among the moderators concerning the handling of flags. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson May 26 '12 at 0:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Gerry That's fine by me. Robjohn also raised an analogous question on chat about flags that were disputed by a mod (not me), so perhaps it would be best to start a new thread about the general matter so that everyone can learn about such. Afaik, there is no official SE doc on these matters, so one has to learn on the fly. Thus it is not too surprising that there may be misassumptions and mistakes made during the learning process. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque May 26 '12 at 1:12

Some quick thoughts.

  1. This answer clearly doesn't belong to this question.
  2. I am glad it was flagged, and if I had seen the flag I would have deleted the answer immediately.
  3. It is completely normal for a few users to flag much more often than the other users, in the same way that it is completely normal for a few users to post questions or answers much more often than the other users. This is just what activity on the internet looks like.
  4. It is not feasible for decisions this small to be made by the community (in the sense of a meta discussion). There are too many such decisions, and it would be a waste of time. Moderators exist so that the community can focus on more important things.

You did the right thing bringing the matter up here, but please don't get too upset. As you say, there were two new moderators elected recently. Moderation can be a challenging task, especially for folks who have't spent much time using the community-moderation tools prior to being elected.

It takes time to become comfortable in the role, and everyone makes mistakes. This is one of them.

That's why there are always multiple moderators on the site - so they can assist each other in making these decisions and in learning to understand what the community expects of its moderators.

So do what you can to help them learn, either by discussing the protocols for handling different situations here (as you're doing) or by catching them in chat and talking about specific cases.

One thing I've done in the past on Stack Overflow that helped a good deal was setting up a private, scheduled chat between the old and new moderators a couple weeks post-election where the new mods could ask questions and share concerns with the more experienced ones. If the Math.SE moderators are interested, we could do that here as well.

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    $\begingroup$ Shog, I am not really upset. Just trying to stand my ground when a new moderator claims that I over-flag. I appreciate this answer very much! It also gives me a sense that my question about flagging was very much in place before the elections. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Mod May 25 '12 at 15:48
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    $\begingroup$ "especially for folks who have't spent much time using the community-moderation tools prior to being elected" This has been and continues to be one of my biggest concerns—we seem to have a tendency to elect mods who (in pre-mod life) use voting, flagging, and other basic tools of participation in SE far less frequently than the average user. $\endgroup$ – Isaac May 25 '12 at 16:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Shog: Perhaps add a feature that in time of candidacy the candidates can see (but not act, perhaps) the moderation tools, and perhaps add a feature which somewhat forces new moderators through some sort of bootcamp at first to familiarize themselves with the moderation tools page. $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Mod May 25 '12 at 16:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Asaf: the former is kind of a big ask, especially considering that most of the tools are already available (in some form) to users with at least 10K reputation points - if someone's running for mod-ship and hasn't spent time in the 10K queue, giving them access to the mod queue probably won't accomplish much. The latter is not a bad idea at all. $\endgroup$ – Shog9 May 25 '12 at 22:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Shog: I have some more ideas about election related improvements. I think it's getting off topic here, but you can contact me by mail if you wish. (I'm sure that you can find the address... :-)) $\endgroup$ – Asaf Karagila Mod May 25 '12 at 22:37
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    $\begingroup$ @Shog9: Perhaps the election page could prominently show a metric of how much a candidate has engaged with the 10K queue? $\endgroup$ – Isaac May 25 '12 at 22:53
  • $\begingroup$ @Isaac: "helpful flags" are already listed, and a reasonable indicator of time spent in moderation-mode as a user; I wouldn't necessarily be opposed to edit, close, and re-open stats there as well, but the latter two are somewhat controversial as they're not currently public anywhere. Familiarity with the moderation tools is actually a question I like to ask in the Town Hall chats, but I wasn't able to make the one for Math.SE. Regardless, this isn't rocket science - everyone makes mistakes starting out... I trust the new moderators here will pick it up with help from y'all's feedback. ;-) $\endgroup$ – Shog9 May 25 '12 at 23:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Asaf I think the problem has more to do with lack of documentation on (diamond) moderation than anything else. Afaik there is no official SE documentation on (diamond) moderation. There are various things I had presumed about undocumented parts of the software platform that, through experience, I eventually discovered were not true. No doubt there will be more. With almost 500 flags, you probably know the flagging system better than most. I am listening to your feedback. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque May 26 '12 at 0:33

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