Horizon Blog

Everything in Moderation?

Trends and Challenges for online communities from public forums to end-to-end encrypted communication 

Encrypted messaging applications such as Face Book Messenger and WhatsApp are now widely adopted. The use of end-to-end (E2E) encryption creates spaces which ensure that people can communicate privately, allowing only themselves and the person or group they are communicating with, to read or listen to what is sent. Whilst protecting the privacy of users, E2E encryption presents challenges in dealing with misinformation, disinformation, potentially harmful or illegal content, and striking a balance with freedom of speech.

The ‘Everything in Moderation?’ project began at the start of May 2022 and will run for one year. We will examine present-day and future challenges for moderation of online content, specifically focusing on the challenges of E2E encrypted spaces. Our work will also investigate perceptions of moderation across the spectrum of what is seen to be public or private communication. There are many forms of moderation currently in use online, from exclusively human moderation (e.g. a person monitoring each post and manually removing those that violate certain rules) to entirely automated (where this process is completed entirely without human intervention), as well as many hybrid systems. Moderation practices may be externally imposed by platforms, internally applied by community moderators and developed through the community adoption of online norms, and self-governance applied by individual users (e.g. not posting about certain topics or muting certain topics in social media feeds).

We will aim to identify challenges related to moderation of content in online spaces, from public feeds to online communities to encrypted conversations and consider:

  • how these challenges change across different spaces
  • how content moves between these spaces
  • and to provide best practice recommendations and resources for approaching moderation

We will explore whether content moderation is a necessary part of contemporary online: communication, and why it is difficult to do without adverse consequences. Our work will involve:

  • scoping the state-of-the-art through literature and scoping reviews to identify use cases and tech probes
  • understanding current practices and perspectives through engaging with online communities and Internet users to identify attitudes towards moderation in private online spaces and produce a mapping of moderation practices
  • co-creation of a best practice ‘toolkit’ for how moderation of E2E online spaces can be designed and regulated; and
  • ongoing Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) and stakeholder engagement including an advisory group to help direct the project

Our Team

Our multidisciplinary team is led by Dr Liz Dowthwaite, a Senior Research Fellow in Horizon with expertise in the psychology of online participation. She is joined by researchers in sociotechnical systems (Dr Helena Webb, Transitional Assistant Professor in Horizon), policy, public and political engagement (Dr Hanne Wagner, Research Fellow in the MRL and Horizon), RRI, ethics, and stakeholder engagement (Dr Virginia Portillo, Research Assistant in Horizon), legal and policy perspectives (Dr Anna-Maria Piskopani, Research Fellow in Horizon,  Dr Nicholas Gervassis, Assistant Professor in the School of Law), and Human Computer Interaction (Professor Matthew Chalmers, University of Glasgow).

We are delighted to be partnering with the Internet Society, a global non-profit organization which works to empower people to keep the Internet open, globally connected, secure, and trustworthy.

 A call for participation!

One of the key elements of the project is engaging with suitable online communities. We are therefore looking to connect with people and groups who have experience of a range of online moderation techniques – especially those who use communication systems which use E2E encryption. These may include people with large and public followings, online activists, political groups, people escaping violence and abuse, minorities and marginalised communities, people who run online platforms and forums, and so on. If you know of or are part of any of such groups and may be willing to work with us throughout the project, we would really like to hear form you, so please do get in touch with Liz Dowthwaite.


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