Tainted elections

Stack Overflow (Stack Exchange) has been faltering for a while for a variety of reasons that boil down to "still don't know how to work with rather than against their communities and power users". Even so, I'm surprised to see three corrupted moderator elections in a span of two weeks, one of them on the one site they actually kind of care about, Stack Overflow.

First up is a Stack Overflow election. I became aware of this incident when I noticed an extreme spike in view stats for Dear Stack Overflow, we need to talk on one day and looked around to see what might be causing it. During the voting stage of the election (the second week, after a week for nominations), the moderators and community managers (SO employees) jointly decided to remove a candidate. They did not suspend the user, so this is already on very shaky ground -- the community is supposed to choose its moderators from candidates who meet the eligibility requirements, which this candidate still did. Now, this candidate had done something problematic, and if they had suspended him for it then his candidacy would have been revoked legitimately, but they decided it wasn't bad enough to suspend over.

They didn't stop there, though. They announced on their meta site that the candidate had been removed, they talked about the allegations, and they did all of this before talking with the candidate. Their reasoning was that they had to make a prompt announcement so that people who had already voted would know to review their votes. Except, no -- they didn't need to do that. SO is fully capable of pausing an election; they only needed to announce a pause (without removing anyone), discuss it with the candidate, and reach a resolution -- like letting the candidate gracefully withdraw. SO recently restarted an election on another site, so there's already precedent for intervening in the timeline for extraordinary reasons.

I would think that "we'd like to avoid smearing a user in public" would count as extraordinary reasons, but apparently not. The candidate returned a day or two later, having suffered a local Internet outage in his part of the world. Imagining getting back online, going to a site you care enough about to want to lead, and seeing that. Cringe.

It was completely avoidable, had the community managers running things cared to avoid it.

(I don't know enough to comment on the moderators' involvement. We don't know who said what or who was pushing for what outcome. We do know that only company employees can alter an election like that. If the employees involved didn't want it to happen, it wouldn't have happened.)

A few days later, the Freelancing site started an election. They've had two failed elections (not enough candidates), and the community team told them that if they couldn't elect at least one moderator this time, the site would be shut down. An experienced user from another site, with no previous activity on this one, posted that it would be a shame for the site to die and if he could earn enough reputation before nominations closed to qualify for the election, he'd stand. He had some open discussions about this in chat. Now, you can question the desirability of an outsider essentially saying "I will rescue your site", and it was odd to see the eventual nomination with candidate stats including "user for 5 days", but that's legal.

During the nomination phase, a community manager suspended the user, which removed him as a candidate. The user said that the community manager had accused him of voting fraud. The user said there were no private discussions and no sockpuppet accounts or the like; he answered a bunch of questions, people voted on them, and he earned enough reputation to stand in the election. One might as easily question the motivations of the voters -- were they voting just to get a candidate, or because the content was good? Beats me; I didn't read any of it myself. But the company punished the candidate, not anyone else, and that user has now deleted his accounts network-wide.

That outcome was completely avoidable, had the community manager wanted to avoid shaming him.

(The community has now scared up a couple candidates, so it will apparently be allowed to live.)

A few days later another site, English Language Learners, completed an election. A community manager made the usual post announcing the winner. A day later, that user was suspended and removed as a moderator. This, naturally, caused quite a bit of agitation on the community. There were allegations that, years ago, this user had engaged in voting fraud. One of the moderators said the team had asked the company to investigate those allegations almost a year ago but got no response after multiple attempts.

Several days after the public removal and suspension of the winner, a community manager finally posted to say that they "always" protect users' privacy and give people the freedom to express concerns [sic!] so they weren't going to say much in public. The post went on to say that it "became clear" there were concerns about the user's early activity on the site, they discussed it with the user, and the user decided to step down as a moderator. Now, the company in the past has told moderators "step down or be booted", so who knows if this was voluntary. If it was voluntary, I have to wonder about the suspension, which also prevents the user from corroborating that story. Since the stated purpose of a suspension is to correct problematic behavior, and by all accounts this user's current behavior was fine, it's kind of a mystery.

Some people commented on that post, questioning and challenging the company's actions. A manager on the team deleted them and left a comment saying "We do not talk about sanctions publicly. That has always been our line" [sic again] -- but the deleted comments were objections to employee actions, not discussions of users or sanctions. A moderator posted a new question, saying that the company owed the community and him personally an apology. A day later, the VP of Community posted an attempt to be reassuring without actually saying much -- you know, the usual "we take concerns seriously, we can't divulge private information, honest we're listening to you", and not answering the concerns people had raised about process and the unusual actions taken by employees. (Update: Two and a half weeks later, the author of the question is no longer a moderator, specifics unknown, and the company has not provided any substantial answers to all the questions and objections.)

The kerfuffle and the public humiliation of the winner of an election were completely avoidable, had the employees involved taken more care at any of several times over the last year.

The company owns the platform and is free to decide who can or cannot be a moderator, or even a user, there. That's their right. They should own it, though -- if they don't want communities to choose their moderators in free elections, then stop having elections and go back to appointing the people they prefer. It's the mismatch between the image they try to project, with processes and rules they "always" follow and community choice, and the reality that's, as one commenter on ELL put it, Kafkaesque.