March 12, 2024

Bringing Policies to Life

Every platform needs rules. Those rules can simply follow legal standards, or they can be more comprehensive to reflect a wider range of society’s norms and customs, not just its laws. No matter how in-depth they are, the rules become an expression of the platform’s values and the spaces it wants to create.

On Discord, we created a platform where people can come together over shared experiences, passions, and hobbies. It’s where people meet friends and make new ones. Because of that, we developed our rules with our users at the center.

Take our Bullying and Harassment policy. We know that activities like trolling can be common online. But we also know from external research and our own analysis that when this behavior takes on certain characteristics—when it’s intentional or it targets a person or a group—it can cause people to experience psychological or emotional harm. It can make some feel uneasy or unsafe, even if they weren’t the specific target of the trolling.

At Discord, we take a stand against bullying and harassment. Our policy states that users are not allowed to target individuals or groups with actions meant to intimidate or cause distress.

We didn’t develop this rule in a vacuum. We developed this, and all of our policies, with the intention of getting the right outcome: To make Discord the best place for people to talk and play with friends online.

Here’s a peek behind the curtain into how we do that.

First, we do our research.

Discord’s policy team invests time and resources into understanding the dynamics of the type of behavior they’re writing policies about. “The team does a significant amount of research to understand: What is the phenomenon? What does this issue look like on other platforms? What does the issue look like in society?” said Bri Riggio, the senior platform policy manager who oversees this process.

The policy team reviews scholarly research, data, and nonprofit and industry guidance, among other resources. They bring in external subject matter experts from around the globe, like academics who study online behavior or legal scholars who focus on sexual harassment.

They also do internal research. They interviewed Discord’s Trust & Safety team—the ones who review content for violations—to see examples of what they consider bullying and harassment. 

One thing the policy team keeps in mind during this stage is how this research pertains to teens. “Teens are at the forefront of my research—thinking about how we protect young people who are online and making sure they feel safe and comfortable using Discord,” said Edith Gonzalez, a platform policy specialist. She added that she looks for research that addresses parents' concerns when it comes to issues such as cyberbullying.

We identify the problem we’re trying to solve for.

At the heart of each policy, Riggio and her team start by asking the question: What is the problem that we are trying to solve on Discord? She calls this idea the “spirit” of the policy.

“If we are trying to stop users from feeling psychological or emotional harm from other users, if we want them to have a good experience, then we write the policy to try and drive towards that north star,” she said. “It can be a guiding force for us, especially when we get escalations or edge cases where the policy may not be so clear cut.”

For example, if the Trust & Safety team gets a report of content that was flagged for bullying, but the content falls somewhere in a gray area or it’s not clear if the content was intentional, the team discusses if taking action under the policy is actually going to solve the problem or not. Another way of putting it: Does it go against the spirit of the policy? These discussions inform how the policy team can sharpen and better articulate policies over time.

We define the terms and the parameters for enforcement.

Policy specialists like Gonzalez begin listing all the different behaviors that describe the issue. For bullying and harassment, examples might include: sexual harassment, server raids, sending shock content, and mocking a person's death. “Once I write down all the criteria, I expand each behavior,” said Gonzalez. “How do you define a violent tragedy? How do you define mocking? How do you define unwanted sexual harassment? Slowly, the policy starts off as a list, and then I keep expanding it.”

For this policy, we define bullying as unwanted behavior purposefully conducted by an individual or group of people to cause distress or intimidate, and harassment as abusive behavior towards an individual or group of people that contributes to psychological or reputational harm that continues over time.

Riggio points out the significance of the sustained behavior. It’s an acknowledgment that context matters. For example, what may be friendly banter and joking between individuals could be misconstrued as harassment, not taking into account that friends sometimes joke around with each other. “We would be potentially over-enforcing the policy with users who are just having fun with each other.”

We index on educating users who we know are going to make mistakes.

Research and experience tell us that people don’t always know the rules, and when appropriate, they need an opportunity to learn from their mistakes. Discord built a warning system that helps educate users, especially teens. (Important note: The warning system does not apply to illegal or more harmful violations, such as violent extremism or endangering children. Discord has a zero-tolerance policy against those activities.)

“There's a perception that teens will roll their eyes at a rule, or they don't like rules, but the reality is, teens really like it when there are clear rules that resonate with them,” said Liz Hegarty, Discord’s global teen safety policy manager.

Once they learn the rule, they might slip up again, so the policy team built in several opportunities to educate teens that bullying isn’t allowed. These show up in the form of a series of time-outs, versus a flat-out ban after a few strikes, as is common on other platforms.

“It’s teen-centered,” said Hegarty. “It's this idea of: how can you educate as opposed to just punishing teenagers when they're making mistakes?”

This, too, reflects the spirit of the Bullying and Harassment policy, because ultimately, Discord wants to empower people to build meaningful relationships on the platform.

“The spirit is intended to get at the various behaviors that we know make users feel uncomfortable,” said Riggio. “That’s the behavior that impacts feelings of safety and the culture of a community.”

User Safety
Parents and Teens

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