September 14, 2023

A Guide to Building Trust and Safety in Online Communities

Author: Sainna Christian

Recent trust and safety scandals have exposed the fragility between users and tech platforms. This underscores the need for proactive frameworks that protect users – gaining reserves of goodwill for inevitable challenges ahead.

In this guide, we’ll provide actionable best practices across four key pillars for developing core trust and safety:

  1. Ethical Design of Interfaces and Features
  2. Content Policies that Balance Free Expression and Safety
  3. Inclusion and Accountability Structures
  4. Transparent Processes and Communication

Getting ahead of issues shows a commitment to users over profits or growth. While imperfect, these strategies allow teams to uphold safety as an ongoing process.

Section 1: Ethical Interface and Experience Design

  • Build safety into core flows through risk analysis in design sprints. Don’t tack it on later.
  • Enable granular controls and explicit consent around data privacy—no tracking, profiling, or sharing without opt-in.
  • Follow stringent privacy and security by design principles. Encrypt data, minimize collection, and monitor access.
  • Allow pseudonymous profiles where possible to protect vulnerable users. Don’t force real names.
  • Scrutinize gamification elements that may enable addictive behaviors. Use motivating design ethically.
  • Adopt safety-oriented defaults like minimum ages, strong passwords, and data deletion tools. Users should opt-in to risks.
  • Analyze accessibility needs for disabled users. Build interfaces for universal access.
  • Conduct ethical reviews on features and changes, considering implications for at-risk groups.

Section 2: Content Policies that Balance Free Expression and Safety

  • Develop clear content rules grounded in ethical principles like justice, autonomy, and beneficence. Explain rationale.
  • Implement both proactive abuse detection and reactive reporting. Automation and human review should work together.
  • Apply policies consistently across user groups—more scrutiny on the powerful and those targeting the vulnerable.
  • Have a low tolerance for clear harms like hate speech, stalking, and threats. Weigh community impact heavily.
  • Allow appeals for takedowns and bans. Provide a path to reinstatement contingent on understanding the implications.
  • Regularly update policies based on new challenges observed in data and user feedback. Keep pace with changing tactics.
  • Look for exploitation of loopholes and coordinated harmful campaigns, not just individual incidents.
  • Analyze usage data responsibly to guide interventions around risks like self-harm and eating disorders.
  • For complex issues, convene an advisory ethics board with diverse representation to develop balanced policies.

Section 3: Inclusion and Accountability Structures

  • Establish inclusive processes for regular input from diverse users when shaping policies. Don’t make decisions in a black box.
  • Conduct rigorous third-party algorithm audits focused on uncovering biases and optimizing recommendations for good.
  • Implement vital whistleblower programs to surface issues without retaliation. Take staff concerns seriously.
  • Leadership must exemplify ethical practices in their behavior and decisions. Set the tone from the top.
  • Train all employees, not just T&S teams, on applying ethical thinking to product design, engineering, and marketing.
  • Fairly compensate T&S reps for the emotional toll of their work. Provide mental health support. Don’t take them for granted.
  • Create feedback channels for users to report feeling harmed by platform issues like bans. Be accountable.
  • Form an external advisory council of civil rights experts to assess where trust & safety policies can improve.

Section 4: Transparent Processes and Communication

  • Communicate openly with users on challenges and measures being taken to address them. Don’t appear indifferent.
  • Simplify how rules are described to users in plain language while providing rationale behind policies.
  • Adopt radical transparency around data practices, algorithm functioning, and how content decisions are made. Users deserve explanations.
  • Make it easy to access knowledgeable human support for account issues and disputes. Automation should assist users.
  • Share lessons learned from problems to reassure users that progress is being made. Don’t appear defensive.
  • Publish regular transparency reports on policies’ applications, including aggregate data on takedowns, bans, and appeals.
  • Open channels for users to give input on algorithms, new features, and community guidelines. And incorporate feedback.
  • Appoint an ombudsperson focused solely on representing excluded user perspectives and upholding their rights.

While perfect trust and safety are impossible, proactive and human-centric approaches can foster welcoming, ethical communities. This guide outlined achievable best practices across four key pillars.

Starting with small steps demonstrates prioritizing user welfare – building reserves of trust for when challenges emerge. At its core, trust and safety requires a mindset shift as much as any single tool or process.

If you lead a digital community and seek guidance on this journey, contact our team. Let’s have an open conversation on how to start.

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