Seven trust and safety features to build into your product before someone gets hurt

TL;DR: Basic features to prevent abuse and harassment that you should build into your platform early on. Specificaly, blocking or muting, reporting, hiding content, preventing new content, community guidelines, auditability, and user consent, alongside Internal education, consulting, shared services, and expertise.
4 minute read

I’ve written before about the importance of investing in trust and safety early on:

It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge the darker corners of the internet, especially when most social networks’ business models are built on the internet’s ability to connect like-minded strangers and paying this necessary internet tax might risk short-term revenue goals. We don’t like to admit it out loud, but just as the internet is often an amazing place in connecting the best parts of humanity, the internet is sometimes a terrible place in also bringing out the worst of it. It’s truly tempting to forgo abuse and harassment as a “tomorrow” problem (or a “we’re different” problem), especially in a growing startup or a highly competitive industry, but more-often-than-not, “tomorrow” arrives once it’s too late and you find yourself in the midst of urgent damage control. The challenge is in taking trust and safety seriously when it’s still a hypothetical risk, and not after someone has been hurt and it’s a painfully known problem.

If you’re building a product or a platform and want to proactively take on abuse and harassment before someone gets hurt, here are seven trust and safety features to build into your product early on:

1. Blocking or muting

When a user experiences abuse or harassment, they need basic tools to minimize their continued exposure to the unwanted behavior. On most platforms, user muting is a feature that prevents you from seeing or receiving notifications for the activity of another user. User blocking includes all the features of user muting, but goes a step further in that it also prevents the blocked user from seeing your content. Because they can’t see your content, the blocked user logically can’t interact with your content either. I’ve written before about the shortfalls of user blocking and muting, but at minimum, you’ll want some way for a user experiencing abuse, harassment, or other unwanted content to be able to minimize the impact on their experience.

2. Reporting

Once a user has taken steps to minimize their exposure to the abuse or harassment, you’ll want some mechanism for them to report the abuse to you to escalate a response. This could be per-account, but ideally, it should be associated with the content in question, and as frictionless as possible. The user may have just had an upsetting or unsettling experience, and the last thing you want to do is add to it with an endless maze of forms as captchas. Collect as much metadata as you can automatically to absorb the complexity on behalf of the reporting user, and associate it with the report. More mature abuse reporting systems also provide the reporting user with transparency as to the resolution of their report.

3. Hiding content

You’ll want some way to hide existing content. Ideally, you’d have the ability to hide both specific pieces of content and all content from a specific user, preventing their content from being seen by others. The moderation can be temporary (for example, a spam flag) or permanent (for example, deleting the content) and transparent or in the form of a shadow ban to prevent the actor from shifting tactics. Going a step further, for minor infractions or gray areas, you can reduce the visibility or discoverability of the objectionable content.

4. Preventing new content

Beyond hiding existing content, you’ll also want some way to prevent the creation of new content. This is often done by preventing the user from logging in entirely and can be used if an ongoing or egregious violation of your Terms of Service or Community Guidelines where continued use of the platform isn’t warranted.

5. Community guidelines

Your Terms of Service establishes a baseline for acceptable behavior that generally hovers somewhere around “don’t do anything illegal”. To ensure you have the policy means to respond to abuse and harassment on your platform, you should also establish heightened community guidelines beyond those bare minimums, that establishes “golden-rule”-type expectations like don’t be a bully or don’t threaten other users. It doesn’t do you or the reporting user any good if a report of abuse or harassment comes in, and there’s nothing you can do about it because your hands are tied for fear of looking reactive or biased. As I’ve said before, platforms should be mindful of the role they play as the builders and maintainers of digital town squares.

6. Auditability

When you receive a report of abuse or harassment, you’ll want to ensure your content moderation team (you have one, right?) has the necessary audit trail available to them to recreate the incident sufficiently to accurately and fairly apply your platform’s policy. That means that any potentially harmful or destructive action should establish an immutable record that captures, retains, and exposes all relevant information. Equally important is capturing what action, if any, the moderation team took, and why they took that action, to build an ongoing “rap sheet” for the account if subsequent infractions.

Many negative interactions occur when well-intentioned features assume implicit consent among those involved. Platforms let their users down when one user’s disruptive behavior is able to negatively impact another user without any action on their part. Users should be given the information necessary to make an informed decision to opt-in to engage in every activity on your platform. The easiest way to do this is to establish safe defaults with a bias towards privacy and ask for permission prior to any potentially disruptive interaction. There’s much more to be said here. See Consensual Software: How to prioritize user safety to learn more about user consent in software.

Also necessary: Internal education, consulting, shared services, and expertise

Just building one-off tools or establishing policies will never be enough. Equally important is cultivating a team with deep, platform-specific, subject-matter expertise that can build shared systems, educate feature teams as to the risks and remediations, consult on features for potential abuse vectors early in the product lifecycle, thoughtfully and contextually set policy and moderate content, and drive a safety-centric product and engineering culture more broadly. Trust and safety is only truly successful in the long-run when it’s part of the company’s DNA and enjoys widespread executive and grassroots support.

These features, while essential to ensure the safety of your users and your platform, are just the start. Trust and safety is a highly specialized, adversarial space, and it requires a baseline of ongoing investment to stay one step ahead of those who wish to use your platform to do harm to others. Looking to invest further in building a strong, welcoming community around your product? Take a look at some lessons learned fostering a community of communities at GitHub, which I hope can be adapted to the community building nuances of your own platform.

Originally published August 31, 2020 | View revision history

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Ben Balter is the Director of Engineering Operations and Culture at GitHub, the world’s largest software development platform. Previously, as Chief of Staff for Security, he managed the office of the Chief Security Officer, improving overall business effectiveness of the Security organization through portfolio management, strategy, planning, culture, and values. As a Staff Technical Program manager for Enterprise and Compliance, Ben managed GitHub’s on-premises and SaaS enterprise offerings, and as the Senior Product Manager overseeing the platform’s Trust and Safety efforts, Ben shipped more than 500 features in support of community management, privacy, compliance, content moderation, product security, platform health, and open source workflows to ensure the GitHub community and platform remained safe, secure, and welcoming for all software developers. Before joining GitHub’s Product team, Ben served as GitHub’s Government Evangelist, leading the efforts to encourage more than 2,000 government organizations across 75 countries to adopt open source philosophies for code, data, and policy development. More about the author →

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