How to deal with abusive forum members

by Martin Reed on 5 May 2008 in Articles

Deal with abusive community members

Sometimes, regardless of what you try to do abusive forum members keep coming back and causing trouble. This article will teach you how to take effective action against abusive forum members to prevent them from ruining your online community.

What are your rules?

Online communities need rules. If you don’t have any published rules, how can you expect members to abide by them? It is impossible for anyone to break the rules if there aren’t any in the first place. You will never be able to deal effectively with abusive forum members unless your site has rules, so make sure you have some in place before you try to deal with abusive members.

Editing posts of abusive forum members

If a forum member makes a post that is against the site rules, you may want to edit it. If you edit the post of a member, it is important that you contact them to explain the reasons why you have made the edit. Your message should be professional and constructive: you do not want to alienate your forum members. By remaining friendly and professional, you are showing that you still value them, and want them to remain part of your community. You are also reducing the likelihood of them taking offence at your actions, and therefore preventing a potential escalation of the situation. A good example message would be:

Hi (username)

I recently had to edit your post at (insert url of post) because it was in breach of our site rules. Our site rules do not permit (insert rule that was broken here). You can review our site rules in full at (insert url of site rules page). Thanks for your understanding – if you are unsure of anything or wish to discuss this further, please get in touch.

I look forward to reading more of your posts in the future, and thank you for being a valued member of the community.

Regards

(your name)

How tolerant are you going to be?

It is important that you determine how many warnings you are willing to give members who persistently break your site rules before you’ll consider taking further action against them. I would recommend allowing members to make no more than five mistakes per month before taking further action. Regardless of your policy, by the time you contact the member with their second warning you should include the following:

I understand that people make mistakes from time to time, however this is now the (insert number) time I have had to contact you regarding your posts. Unfortunately, if you continue to break the site rules I will be left with no choice but to take further action against you. This could include a suspension of your posting privileges, or in extreme cases the deletion of your account at (site name).

Again, ensure that you come across as professional and keep the lines of communication open. You don’t want to lose this member, you simply want them to abide by your site rules. Keeping the lines of communication open will help clear up any misunderstandings and make it far easier to encourage them to adjust their behaviour compared to other, more rudimentary means.

Deleting posts of abusive forum members

Deleting posts should be reserved for the most serious breaches of your site rules. Remember that if you delete the opening post of a thread, you will be deleting the entire thread, so make sure you only delete content if you are left with no other choice. Again, if you delete a post you should always contact the poster with your reasons.

Suspending abusive forum members

A temporary suspension may give a hot-headed member time to cool off, and should be considered before deleting their account and banning them. Again, make sure you communicate with your member so they know what action you are taking, and why.

Deleting abusive forum members

If you are completely unable to get through to a persistent rule breaker, you may need to bite the bullet and delete their account. You should have warned the member about their conduct on a number of occasions before taking this step – it should never come as a surprise to an abusive member when they arrive at your site to find their account deleted.

If you decide to delete a member’s account, you should do so as discreetly as possible. Don’t make a public announcement about the action you have taken; remain professional, and respect your ex-member’s privacy. If you start posting their username and reasons why you have deleted their account in public, you risk a community backlash and the possibility of the banned member developing a grudge, turning them into a persistent problem.

Banning abusive forum members

You may find that the member you have removed from your online community develops a grudge against you and your site. If this happens, they will try any and all methods possible to cause you problems. They will likely sign up for a new account, use different email addresses and different IP addresses in order to make it more difficult for you to prevent them registering for a new account.

The steps I follow to ban abusive forum members are as follows:

1. Ban the username
2. Ban the email address
3. Ban the IP address(es) commonly associated with the abusive member

As experienced forum moderators and developers will know, these methods are not always successful. If your banned member continues to join the forum under aliases, you should consider temporarily making new accounts inactive until you manually approve them. Very often you will notice patterns to the information the banned member uses to register – they may have a favourite email provider, they may use similar names, they may try to register at certain times of the day. Normally, after a day or so of failed attempts to re-register, the banned member will give up.

Remember that if your banned member does get through from time to time, it is not a problem taking action against them – one click and you have deleted their posts, another click and you have deleted their account. The process is far more time-consuming and inconvenient for the banned member – stick to your guns, and you will always win.

Your thoughts

Have you had to deal with persistently abusive forum members? How did you deal with them? Do you avoid warnings and immediately ban those that break your site rules? Do you publicly announce details of members you have banned? Share your thoughts, opinions and experiences by leaving a comment below.

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Amish Made Furniture May 5, 2008 at 5:09 pm

I would look at the whole issue as though, it was happening in real life situation. What one would do in a group activity, if a member consistently behaves in an unacceptable way, is the same that should be done online. It would help if some forum members are roped in to convey the message as well.

Smiley May 6, 2008 at 8:49 am

I’m rather lenient when it comes to forum moderating, but then I have to being a new community. If things get a bit out of hand, then I’ll start deleting specific posts but mostly I tell the users if they want a clash of personality then keep it in the “Throw A Tantrum” forum or take it to PM.

I like things to be done a certain way, I’ve always been a hands on type of person, so I tell my co-management that threads that they don’t like, move to the private area for me to look at and clean up – I very rarely delete posts. I don’t like deleting them.

It’s mainly the serious discussions where the problems arise. A disagreement turns into a debate, then the debate turns into an argument, then the argument turns into a slagging much where everyone threatens to e-beat each other up, as they do. Because I like serious discussions, and because most of the heated posts made actually do have valid points in them, I tend to just edit out any nasty bits/personal jibes and leave the rest.

Threads that have turned into a bit of a handbag fight anywhere else, then I tell them to move to Throw A Tantrum.

I try not to censor too much. Because of this leniency, I find members respect you more for treating them like adults and giving them trust. Because of that respect, they tend to stick to the rules and even encourage other members to stick to the rules.

The only accounts I’ve deleted is spammer accounts, and accounts that haven’t been activated for over a month to keep the member list clean & accurate.

I’ve only banned two accounts in the 7 months I’ve ran it. One of them a regular member with a temper she couldn’t control. She must have had atleast a dozen private messages from me trying to talk her down and reason with her. She just wouldn’t get on with this other member and every post/thread she was there making some snide/nasty remark.

The other was a pervert, several female regulars came to me concerned about his private messages and his.. “stalking”.. around the site. A few of the female regulars felt so uncomfortable at his comments that they deleted their pictures from the photos section, at least two regular members left because of him. Unfortunately, I wasn’t aware of this until it was too late, and banned him immediately without warning and made sure it was known I had banned him hoping for good publicity, the regular female chatters were happy and the ones that complained stayed, although I have not seen the other two since.

My moderators can de-activate an account. If I’m away and there’s a spammer for example, or if someone is misbehaving big style while I’m away and done something exceptionally nasty (I installed the moderator CP), but they have no access to the ban panel, nor can they delete usernames. This saves any messy disagreements between them & I. If they’ve de-activated an account they let me know via PM, and if I agree with it I may take further action and completely ban or I may disagree, de-activate and PM them with a fair but firm warning that the next time I’ll have no choice but to agree with my co-management’s decision.

But I like that motto. Fair but firm.

Nicole Price May 6, 2008 at 10:06 am

What you have outlined seems to be the most appropriate way to deal with them. I have come across some very persistent forum members who keep coming back under different aliases and accounts but are easily recognizable due to their manner of speech.

Mr Woc May 7, 2008 at 9:06 am

Hi there

Some interesting stuff there, I use vbulletin, so there are lots of things in vbulletin that can help with abusive members, for example you can give people a yellow card at their first offence, and then a red card if they continue, a red card usually signifies a ban of a certain period of days.

Obviously then the last step would be a total ban.

I dont annouce people being banned, but usually people notice as the system does say banned at the side of a persons name when they are banned.

Woc

debster May 8, 2008 at 10:09 am

I believe that the best way of dealing with abusive members is to be very very firm. And, also act immediately so not to lose any ”good” members. People usually don’t go to forums to be abused and I would not be very likely to stick around if I was greeted by that. Not to mention that for a new potential member that stumbles across your forum and sees that would just get the heck out of there and never come back.

moneycrunch May 8, 2008 at 2:28 pm

It’s a shame but I have very much gone off forums because of this or rather the lack of action when somebody start abusing others including the forum. A few years ago I would frequently participate in about ten forums, now I think I’m down to two or three. I think the only way to deal with offenders is to quickly get them of the forum to keep others around.

John Walters May 8, 2008 at 7:05 pm

I think you just give them warnings depending on how bad the thing they’ve done is. If they then ignore you then banning is the only way. If it’s a forum with trading/money/service exchange then they should be banned permanently but if its just a general chat where the most harm they can do is say something offensive then I think their IP shouldn’t be banned.

John

Air Conditioner King May 9, 2008 at 6:53 am

If anybody abuse the forum, they should be given proper warning and if they still continue, they should be banned in the forum. But I guess, it would be professional enough not to announce the members that were banned, atleast give them a bit of respect and privacy. :)

Online Furniture Store May 9, 2008 at 11:11 am

Very level headed and reasonable plan of action you have laid out there. It sounds neither too lenient nor too severe. You send out a message without being too heavy handed.

Smiley May 9, 2008 at 3:10 pm

I’m surprised to see so many comments mentioning banning to quickly and sharply. I suppose it depends upon personal preference, but banning is a very, very, very, VERY last straw for me, I try to avoid having to ban someone.

I really don’t think “just give them a warning and then ban them” is the best attitude. You can’t gain respect through fear, you gain respect by giving respect.

Being very, very firm in my opinon, is a management that is feared and so people will behave because they know they’ll be banned; but it isn’t a management that is trusted or respected.

I don’t dish out warnings. I’ve been ‘warned’ many times in my past — as you very well know, Martin ;) — and they never work. What did work with me, however, is when I became friendly with RD & PB (I won’t say their real names) and talked to them on a private basis, on an equal footing.

I changed overnight just like that, changed sides even.

So I’ve always taken that route. If there’s someone on a wind up or throwing a paddy or causing a bit of havoc, I go into PM with them. I introduce myself, ask how they are, I have a chat with them and ask them if there’s anything in particular bothering them. I then give advice, take things with a pinch of salt, use your ignore button etc etc etc….. and because of this I’ve never had to ban anyone bar one. One ban in 7 months.

People don’t behave because they fear the system. They behave because they respect the system and have a sense of loyalty to the system.

Actually, if you have a policy of banning and if you like to dish out the power a bit, I find people take it as a challenge and you’ll get more trouble because you’ll attract the people who enjoy being challenged.

Whereas with my system, there’s no need to challenge it. There’s nothing powermad or authoritative about it.

Problem with a lot of site’s rules is, users see them as rules to force them to behave. I’ve tried to change that kind of image, and made it look like the site’s rules are there to protect them, rather than to oppress them.

My motto; firm but fair.

Not very, very firm.

Smiley May 9, 2008 at 3:14 pm

Oh, and never, ever, ever, publically announce a banning. Or have a special “Banned” title for a member. That definitely makes you look like a power hungry authoritative type who likes their authority to be known. It’s the equivalent of having someone hanged outside town hall so all can see their punishment to inflict fear upon the populace.

It’s unnecessary. If you simply talk to them, and not talk down to them, you’ll find you will rarely ever have to use that ban button. Warning them is talking down to them.

Having a chat and finding out the reasons why they’re doing what they’re doing, and coming to an agreement however, is talking to them. They’ll feel respected, they’ll feel understood, they’ll feel cared about.

Good customer service = loyal customers. What ever the situation.

Dan May 9, 2008 at 11:49 pm

I agree that often, a friendly email helps – the offender sometime just doesn’t know s/he is doing something “wrong” or they might have misunderstood the atmosphere on your site.

When writing the letter, it’s imperative that you can point to rules that the person broke and that these rules are made public on the site, or even better, a part of the registration.

I use a method of two warnings, in each of them, they know that if they do the wrong thing third time, there’s automatic suspension of account.

Angela Connor May 10, 2008 at 2:46 am

I banned a user 8 times in one day. He kept coming back with different usernames, but he would start conversing with his same pals as if I wouldn’t know it was him. He has since come back and even wrote a blog apologizing, so I do agree with your statement that you will always win if you’re consistent.
I’ve even joked with him publicly on his profile page that he is playing much nicer. I still don’t trust him, but I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt.
The day I kept banning him was a day I knew I needed to send a message and that’s exactly what I did. Was it time consuming? Yes. But it was worth it in the end. He was up to some new tricks today so we’ll see.
-Angela

Smiley May 10, 2008 at 11:28 am

He kept coming back because of your punishment, Angela, not DESPITE of your punishment.

People will always challenge authority, especially if they see it as unfair; just like I used to on Martin’s site. You’d get the odd power hungry admin, and you would do everything in your power to irritate them. Getting banned was all part of the fun, it means you’re getting under their skin, it means you’re getting under their nose, it means you’re bugging them, it means you win against the power hungry enemy that you’re fighting against.

THAT is how they think. Because I know how they think, being one of ‘them’ myself many users ago, I know how to combat it without it having to come to that.

…….Just a friendly chat. Simply and as easy as that. Chat to them in private. TO them. Not DOWN to them. Give respect, you’ll gain respect. It really is that easy. Like I said, because of my past I know how to deal with people like how I used to be, and I’ve only ever had to ban one person, and only had to ban them the once. I’ve pressed ‘submit’ on the ban button ONCE in seven months because of my respect towards people, because of my compassion towards people, because of me listening to people, listening to their problems, listening to why they’re doing what they’re doing.

They want to challenge unfair authority. If you stop being an unfair authority, they’ll stop challenging you. Chat to them and show them you’re human, and not some online Hitler, you’ll soon find out you’ll disarm them without action.

Web design miami May 12, 2008 at 2:09 pm

I’ve been an admin on one of the major US forums for 2 years now and I have learned that whatever you do, there is no way to satisfy all your users. The forum I mentioned is VERY strict, and most of the times it works just fine. People know that if they cross the line, that is attack, curse, be racist etc. they will face the consequences and most of them respect it. To enforce this you need a thick skin, I’ve been called many names during that time and most were not nice. Still, thw forum works great, people find the info they seek and even form communities.

Angela Connor May 12, 2008 at 4:16 pm

Smiley:
I appreciate your feedback and I believe that it is right for the most part. Yes, he did like the attention I’m sure, but my site is tied directly to that of a traditional news organization and there are certain behaviors that cannot be tolerated as it is essentially a direct reflection on the organization. Would you agree that some people, or trolls if you will, cannot be reasoned with?
I am known for communicating behind the scenes and I have turned many people around. I can go on, but what I’d really enjoy is a more pricate forum with some of you.Anyone onvolved in a cool group on this subject?
Angela

Martin Reed - Blog Author May 12, 2008 at 6:38 pm

Ramana – You make a good point, however there is one fundamental difference between offline abuse and that which happens online: anonymity. Therefore, you do need to behave differently when dealing with the situation in an online environment.

Smiley – I agree with your moderation approach, and definitely think the more laissez-faire you are, the better it is for the community. People don’t want to be treated like children, if you are firm but fair, then they have no excuse to complain if you take action against them. I also agree that a definitive ‘warn then ban’ approach is not always appropriate.

Nicole – Yes, it is pretty easy to spot serial abusers, regardless of the name they come back with. Are there any other steps you take which I haven’t mentioned in this article?

Mr Woc – An automated warning system sounds great, you just need to make sure that being given a yellow card doesn’t turn into a status symbol. I have seen vBulletin forums that publicly announce banned members with the huge user title; I really don’t like it to be honest, as it gives out a negative impression of the community and doesn’t offer any explanation as to why such extreme action has been taken.

Debster – Yes, you should act swiftly and decisively if action needs to be taken. If you are hesitant and dithering, abusive users will take advantage of that. I don’t think you need to always be ‘very, very firm’ as you say though – it all depends on the specific circumstances.

Moneycrunch – You make a good point, and I am guessing that the communities you stick around at are those that deal with abusive members effectively.

John – I don’t think the actual topic of a forum should influence the action you take unless your community is dealing with highly sensitive issues and has a highly vulnerable membership base. If this is the case, then it is even more important to take swift action.

King – I agree; just because they have chosen not to show you respect, it doesn’t mean you should follow their example. Take the moral high ground and ensure you remain professional and respectful at all times.

Reena – Exactly. The last thing you want is to be perceived as heavy handed. You want to keep the lines of communication open, and warnings (if handled correctly) do just that.

Dan – I think that’s the right approach to take; you are ensuring that the abuse can no longer be considered a mistake as you have offered them additional guidance. If they choose to continue, they’ll have to deal with the consequences.

Angela – I don’t think I would have let it reach the point where I had to ban someone eight times in a day; I would have switched off automatic account registration for a few hours to allow him to cool off. Sometimes repeated bannings and deletions can come across as a challenge for a user; they want to waste your time and cause you problems. If you temporarily disable member registration, they are immediately powerless.

Miami – You will never please everyone all of the time. You need to please the majority, as they are the driving force behind your community. I am not so sure I would like to be a member of such a strict forum as the one you mention – one step out of line and I have to ‘face the consequences’?!? I would rather just go elsewhere!

Angela Connor May 12, 2008 at 7:08 pm

Thanks for the feedback Martin.
One thing. When your site is directly linked to a news organizations registration system, you cannot simply turn off automatic registration without alienating users. It’s a prickly situation and a slippery slope for me. We will have to break off on our own one day but right now the link is there.
I don’t doubt that as an effective deterrent however. I just don’t know if it would be a viable oprion in my case. I will look into it.

Martin Reed - Blog Author May 12, 2008 at 8:11 pm

Angela – So does that mean you have no control over who registers and is able to post content onto your site? It would seem odd that you would be able to delete members but not be able to manually approve new ones.

Calgary Redneck May 13, 2008 at 5:11 am

I have usually found that troublesome people can be dealt with by open discussion in private, with no name calling and giving them respect. As I read above, this can really work wonders. A big part of it on the internet is to give them a ‘face’ for you, so you aren’t just some nameless authority figure. The same cooperative techniques that can be used in a regular off line situation as a supervisor can work. Not for every case, there will always be those who want to not get along.

Chat May 14, 2008 at 12:43 am

Hey Martin,

I love your templates, I need to compile them for easy access.

The worst member I ever had to deal with was using a proxy and at the time phpbb had no way to prevent proxies. So every time i banned the abusive user, he/she recreated a new account and left abusive messages on the forum. IP banning did nothing of course, it was a nightmare but finally i found a mod to block open port proxies.

Thanks again,
Cody

Nicole Price May 14, 2008 at 3:40 pm

I haven’t really done anything apart form deleting posts and sending emails to the abusers. Its kind of worked till now, but thats because the numbers aren’t that high.

John Walters May 14, 2008 at 11:27 pm

Personally I think you should announce why the member got banned as it is not always obvious. This helps stop people from making the same mistake themselves.

John

Online Furniture Store May 15, 2008 at 5:23 pm

I personally think that forums should be fun and cool places to hang out, where you can speak your mind and be in the company of like minded people. So a moderator cannot really afford to be heavy handed, of he will be perceived as un-cool, which would just not do.

Smiley May 15, 2008 at 6:35 pm

I have to disagree with you there, John. Publically announcing the banning looks powermad. It looks like the equivalent to a public execution. It looks like you’re making an example out of them. It looks like you’re being an authority – this approach will also encourage other members to rise up, and the banned members to keep on coming back to challenge the unfair authority.

I think doing things in private only is the best way to go. I’ve never let it escalate to the point of banning. It takes a lot of patience and a clear, cool head to deal with abusive members.

One of my formerly abusive members is now one of my favourite wind ups. I allow him his ‘play time’ without him resorting to offensive comments and/or personal attacks, but have carefully steered him towards more fun, banterful wind ups. He still gets the reaction and attention he wants, but what he does is no longer offensive and users have an ignore function on my phpBB boards. If they don’t like someone’s posts, they can put them on ignore.

It’s an adult site, so I expect them to act like adults. Encouraging them to come crying to you about everything and banning everyone for everything is treating them like children. Treat them like children, they’ll act like children.

Treat them like adults… you get the picture.

Make Money Online May 18, 2008 at 6:54 am

This is very helpful indeed. I agree that informing the abusive forum member is the first step in minimizing such cases. Other people are insensitive, or may not really care about the rules so reminding them could give them a wake up call. Being professional in everything you do is also vital. Your site is yours and you should be the one to take care of it, maintain and mediate it for abusive or offensive comments reflect on the image of your whole site, and even to you.

AutoInsuranceQuotes May 21, 2008 at 9:26 pm

Yeah, its true that forum moderation is vital if you want to have a spam free forum, but if someone wants to mess around with the site, there’s not much that can be done. Yes, you can block the username and ip address, but if they’re persistent enough, they’ll just switch ips and usernames and continue to cause problems.

Martin Reed - Blog Author May 25, 2008 at 4:29 pm

Calgary – You make a very good point. Just as it is easy for us to forget that behind every username is a real person, abusive users may forget that behind every moderator is a real person, too! I am a strong advocate of communication as a way of resolving disputes – you are far more likely to diffuse a situation for the long term through communication than rudimentary bans or punishments.

Cody – Yes, IP proxies can be a pain however if you temporarily switch off automatic activation for new accounts, it doesn’t matter how they are registering on your site – they won’t be able to post.

Nicole – I am glad your strategy is working for you. I would recommend you email users with a warning before you delete any posts; very often you are then able to prevent any further occurrence of the behaviour you are concerned about.

John – Sure, you should tell a member why they have had action taken against them, but I disagree this should be publicly broadcast. Why risk further conflict if you don’t have to?

Reena – An overzealous moderator can destroy an online community. You really need to ensure that moderators understand that their primary role is to encourage interaction and discussion – not stifle it!

Make Money – Yes, it is important to remember that your site is yours. However, it is also important to remember that you should ensure your members feel some sense of shared ownership if you want to win their trust and loyalty.

Auto – I disagree. Yes, some abusive users can be really problematic however you need to remember it is much easier for you to delete accounts than it is for them to register a new email address, use a new IP address and register on your forum. In the end, you will always win.

Keistian Liebrand May 25, 2008 at 5:42 pm

It’s mainly the serious discussions where the problems arise. A disagreement turns into a debate, then the debate turns into an argument, then the argument turns into a slagging much where everyone threatens to e-beat each other up, as they do. Because I like serious discussions, and because most of the heated posts made actually do have valid points in them, I tend to just edit out any nasty bits/personal jibes and leave the rest.

Smiley May 29, 2008 at 10:52 pm

I find you can avoid it turning into an argument by leading by example. If you disagree with someone, state why and ask for their point of view, and ask them to explain why they think what they think.

When I first started, I just used my Alf Garnett-style political humour on my forums, and others followed, so even the serious discussions are debated in a light-hearted manner. Not too many problems arise.

Martin Reed - Blog Author June 26, 2008 at 11:18 pm

Keistian – It depends what you consider ‘serious discussions’ to be. Any emotive subjects are at risk of causing trouble, but at the same time they can create fantastic levels of debate and interaction.

Smiley – Dealing with disagreements with maturity as you mention can help prevent them from degrading into abuse. Leading by example is the best way of proactively reducing flame wars and offensive posts.

Sally February 10, 2009 at 6:54 pm

I don’t agree that “people will always challenge authority” Or that they don’t care about being banned. If you, as Admin start getting into that mindset then you are lost. Then you start looking at members and have already judged them. If they make a complaint about something and then something else, then start disagreeing with you are you going to see it as ligitimate? Or do you dismiss it because they are ‘probably’ just challenging you?

Some members, probably many of them don’t have the slightest interest in going up against authority. They WANT to obey the rules. They want to respect you. I can’t emphasize that enough. If you find you are getting a lot of members disagreeing with Admin and and you’re having to hand out more and more warnings and infractions ask yourself this:

!. Are the posted rules clear? Are they easy to understand? Don’t just assume that “any idiot could understand them” You would be surprised. You have to understand your own rules and be able to articulate exactly what is meant. NOTHING drives a member more crazy than rules that are ambiguous and confusing. Some will contact Admin to demand clarification. There’s a ton who never do. They just don’t.

2. Can some ‘favorite members’ get around the rules with no punishment, but others have to toe the line? If you think no one is watching–beleive me, everyone sees it.

3. Despite your best efforts, has the community descended into politics and what members you will protect at any cost? Some of the ones you think are the “troublemakers” are actually getting subtly bullied by these usually longtime members and treated with hostility. Are you turning a blind eye to some things? Are you shrugging away the “troublemaker” ? Sometimes–not always–but sometimes they are sincerely hurt and outraged and never wanted any bad thing to happen at all.

If you want to get a member out in order to protect the “majority” then ask yourself: who is the majority? Is the majority the “other good members”? How do you define “good”? How do they define it? Think about it.