Running a community online is exceedingly difficult, and wrought with moral and practical challenges. If you want a strong example of this, look at Reddit’s recent controversies. This past fall, we saw the infamous Reddit troll and all-around creep “Violentarez” unmasked by Gawker bloggers. Michael Brutsch is a 49 year-old software programmer living in Texas, married with children and grandchildren. Brutsch has created thousands of subreddits (Reddit threads discussing one specific topic), but is most well-known for his subreddit  featuring inappropriate pictures and stories about underage girls. The legality of the situation is extremely convoluted; Brutsch claims he’s just exercising his right to free speech, an argument most Redditors, and even Reddit founders, hide behind. The Internet has made laws that fall under the First Amendment complicated, and as of now it’s keeping a lot of people like Brutsch out of jail.

As a community manager, social media manager, or moderator, you probably deal with questions of morality on a regular basis. The Internet has created an amazing forum for people to engage, discuss, and share — but it has also created an environment that thrives on hostility, lewdness, and belligerence. Here are some issues to keep in mind — and pitfalls to avoid — as you moderate your social media communities.

Anonymity Can Create Monsters

The Internet allows people to say terrible things without any personal ramifications. Although Brutsch lost his job and was ripped to shreds by many news outlets when his identity was revealed, this outcome is the exception, not the rule. Many Internet trolls continue to hide behind made-up Twitter handles or screen names.

Anonymity also gives people the chance to criticize your business without holding back. Take Yelp for example — people can write paragraph after paragraph about the “absolutely terrible” experience they had at your restaurant. Even if a majority of your ratings are five stars and the experience was a fluke, the review will most likely discourage a few people from visiting your restaurant — and drop your rating in the process.

While there is no solution for this, it’s critical to remember that customer service has never been more important. If you’re having a bad day and handle a situation poorly, it’s possible that experience could be blown out of proportion and spread even further online.

Setting Boundaries Is Crucial

One of Reddits’ major criticisms is that it never set strict boundaries, allowing Redditors to get away with some pretty unsavory things. It has six “rules,” to which it has only recently added “no child pornography or sexually suggestive content featuring minors.” The rules are mostly things that interfere with the intended operation of Reddit, like “upvote cheating” or “breaking” (hacking) Reddit.

Developing a set of guidelines with your community management team will help everyone hold the same standard for outside content. Smart brands have a posting policy right on their Facebook Pages, normally in the About section. Coca-Cola’s posting policy is simple and easy to understand, outlawing activities such as spamming, defamation, harassment, and threats. If you should ever encounter any of these situations, you’ll have your bases covered.

In addition, the “Manage Permissions” tab on Facebook allows you to flag certain words as spam. You can start by blocking the obvious words that you wouldn’t want on your Page, and keep adding to the list if any others pop up. You can add or delete these blocked keywords at any time.

The Dos and Don’ts of Comment Moderation

When someone posts something negative on your Facebook Page or in your blog’s comment section, it’s tempting to delete it. But in many cases, deleting or hiding a negative comment will hurt you more than keeping it. Conversation needs to happen in order for your business to learn from these types of comments. Deleting can also reflect on you unfavorably, possibly creating even more of a problem. Getting used to this might be hard, but hopefully the negative comment will be quickly pushed down by positive ones, and you will have learned what you can do to improve your company.

Conversely, if a comment is something outwardly offensive, delete it. It’s not a breach of rights to delete a comment if it could offend your customers or be misconstrued for your brand’s own opinions. Spam, outward self-promotion, or any political irrelevance are also safe to delete. Use your common sense to determine when you should and shouldn’t delete negative comments.

Things Change When You’re Selling Something

When it comes down to it, your brand is not Reddit. Polarizing issues have little place in the business world, and you shouldn’t feel like you need to take a stance on anything political or controversial. Good things rarely come from brands taking sides.

When people engage with your brand, handle each discussion on a case-by-case basis and use your best judgement. Since there’s no way to effectively and accurately filter negative interactions, it’s extremely crucial that you keep a close eye on every single platform you use. This helps prevent things from slipping through the cracks and giving you and your team nasty, unexpected surprises.

[Image credits: Liryon, David Goehring, Mike G]