packetcat’s Guide to Moderating in the Fediverse: The Basics

So you have decided to run a instance on the fediverse. Welcome! But also I’m so sorry.

Jokes aside this post is intended to be a guide to the basic principles I keep at the back of my head while moderating Ten Forward since 2017.

I have been meaning to write a post like this ever since the November 2022 wave of new users and fediverse admins started happening. Now more than ever there is a new wave of admins and moderators who may be completely new to moderating a social space where they do not personally know the people in it.

Yep, that means this guide is targeted towards multi-user instance administrators and moderators. Single-user instance folks, some of this stuff may apply to you but this isn’t meant for you!

So before we get into the details, I am going to break down this guide into a few key points:

  • Separation of concerns
  • Proactive vs Reactive moderation
  • Transparency. Accountability, and Responsibility

I intend to keep this post at a 101 high level overview level. Some of the things I mention can be entire topics of blog posts on their own and I may write more about specifics later but for now we stick to the basics.

Separation of Concerns

When you first set up your instance, you should create two accounts. One for your personal use and which has no admin and/or moderation privileges. Another is the admin/moderator account that does have the required privileges required for moderation actions.

This separation of accounts creates a separation of concerns that allows you a degree of separation from your moderation responsibilities and your personal use of the fediverse. In simpler terms, it also allows people to follow an admin account without necessarily having to follow what you post about on a more personal basis.

I find this is important as a person who uses the fediverse in a very limited distribution fashion. By that mean my fediverse account is “locked” i.e I vet new followers and I also maintain a mutuals only mode when it comes to people I follow. I also post mostly followers-only. I can use my personal account to talk about topics of all kinds, some of which are quite personal and I would definitely not be comfortable talking about if this was an account followed by all the people on my instance.

From an information security perspective, having two separate accounts also protects against compromise of your personal account leading to the attacker having access to moderation and admin privileges on your instance and its users. Yes, this also means that you should enable two factor authentication on your admin/moderator account. It is good to have it on all your fediverse accounts but it is especially important on your admin/moderator account.

Having two separate accounts also adds another barrier from making potentially bad/rash moderation decisions. The act of having to log into a separate account will give you some time to think through any decisions you are about to make and whether they are a good idea or not.

Proactive vs Reactive moderation

When moderating a fediverse instance there are two categories of moderation that any action falls under: proactive and reactive.

Let me explains what this means.

Proactive Moderation

Proactive moderation on the fediverse means protecting your users against a threat before it has a chance to enact any form of harm on them. In the case of a fediverse instance, this means suspending/blocking harmful instances before said instances’ users have a chance to harass your users. This means using tools such as the #fediblock hashtag to see which new hostile instances have cropped that other admins/moderators are talking about.

Being proactive also means having a set of basic ground rules that everyone on your instance agrees to follow upon signing up. Basic stuff like – no fascists, no racism, no queerphobia etc. Such ground rules are not only for your users but also a set of guiding principles that give you a solid foundation on which to perform more complex moderation actions. It is important to get these written down before you start letting users sign up onto your instance so you don’t find yourself scrambling later.

Additionally, another form of proactive moderation is vetting new user signups for obvious issues such as trolls, spammers and other miscreants. If you are running Mastodon then you should be setting your registration mode to “approvals required for signup”. Setting it to completely open will mean that you will end up doing a lot more reactive moderation later. It also allows you to grow your community at a more reasonable controlled pace. See also “Build them small and they will stay“.

Reactive Moderation

Reactive moderation as the name suggests is moderation that happens in reaction to something that has already happened to you or your users. For example, a user on your instance gets harassed and files a report. Dealing with that report and applying the right moderation action is reactive moderation.

When it comes to reactive moderation it is important to have as much context as feasible as that will to a large degree determine which action you take. Sometimes the correct action to a report is to do nothing except close the report. For example, a queer user on your instance is talking about their queer identity when a user on a different instance reports them for something nonsensical as “offensive content”. In such a case, the right thing would be to close the report and mark it as resolved.

So, when it comes to reactive moderation, it is important to react but also it is important to take your time looking at contextual information. Sometimes you may receive a report that involves multiple people and multiple potential issues in play. A report like that can take you several hours or even days to look over and properly resolve as you dig into the details. That is perfectly fine! Strive for quality in your report resolutions over speed and quantity.

Transparency. Accountability, and Responsibility

Whew lord, those sure are some big words I put in the heading there. Let’s get into it.

When it comes to moderating a fediverse instance there comes three sets of responsibilities.

You have a set of responsibilities to your instance’s users. You have a set of responsibilities to the users of the fediverse at large. You have a set of responsibilities to yourself and your physical and mental health as a person who has to deal with all the terrible stuff people do to each other.

When it comes to your instance’s users: you are responsible for maintaining a suitable environment in which to build the community you want. This means both proactive and reactive moderation as I mentioned earlier. It means being transparent and accountable to your users when it comes to moderation actions that affect all users on your instance such as instance blocks. It also means maintaining a level of confidentiality when it comes to user reports so you are not inadvertently violating someone’s privacy.

When it comes to the fediverse at large, you have a responsibility to prevent your users from harming people on the wider fediverse. This means banning local users when they violate ground rules. This does not mean that you have to be transparent and accountable to the entire fediverse about moderation actions. You may choose to announce moderation actions such as instance blocks to the wider fediverse but remember that ultimately that level of accountability and transparency should be reserved for your instance’s users.

When it comes to yourself as a person: You have a responsibility to take care of yourself. Moderating can be a stressful and tiring job. It is okay to feel tired, angry, depressed, anxious, and all the other emotions that come as part of the job. Moderator burnout is a very real problem and it is something you shouldn’t feel ashamed about. It is okay to ask for help and it is okay to take breaks and disconnect.

Ultimately, I want to say that it is okay for you to shut down your instance if you feel that you can no longer moderate without harming your health. The responsibility to your own health supersedes the other ones I mentioned.

Concluding Concerns

I hope with this post you will at least have the very basics of what the job of a fediverse moderator entails so you aren’t running into something you may end up doing for several years completely blind. I wish I had something like this when I first started Ten Forward.

If there are specific moderation related topics you want me to expand on further, do let me know via the fediverse post this will inevitably be shared on.

If you would like to see more writing like this, consider supporting me via the various methods outlined here.

Thank you for reading!