What Is the Difference Between a Profanity Filter and a Content Moderation Tool?

Profanity filter, content moderation, automated moderation tool, oh my! Ever noticed that these terms are often used interchangeably in the industry? The thing is, the many subtle (and not so subtle) differences between them can affect your long-term growth plans, and leave you stuck in a lengthy service contract with a solution that doesn’t fit your community.

Selecting the right software for content moderation is an important step if you want to build a healthy, engaged online community. To make things easier for you, let’s explore the main points of confusion between profanity filters and automated moderation tools.

Profanity filters catch, well, profanity
Profanity filters are pretty straightforward. They work by using a set blacklist/whitelist to allow or deny certain words. They’re great at finding your typical four-letter words, especially when they’re spelled correctly. Be aware, though — the minute you implement a blacklist/whitelist, your users are likely to start using language subversions to get around the filter. Even a simple manipulation like adding punctuation in the middle of an offensive word can cause a profanity filter to misread it, allowing it to slip through the cracks.

Be prepared to work overtime adding words to your allow and deny list, based on community trends and new manipulations.

A typical example of escalating filter subversion.

Profanity filters can be set up fast
One benefit of profanity filters, at least at first glance? They’re easy to set up. Many profanity filters allow you to enter your credit card and integrate in just a few minutes, and they often offer freemium versions or free trials to boot.

While this is great news for pre-revenue platforms and one-person shows, trading accuracy for speed can come back to bite you in the end. If you’re in a growth mindset and expect your community to scale, it’s in your best interest to implement the most effective and scalable moderation tools at launch. Remember that service contract we mentioned earlier? This is where you don’t want to get stuck with the wrong software for your community.

So, what are your other options? Let’s take a look at content moderation tools.

Content moderation tools filter more than just profanity
Online communities are made up of real people, not avatars. That means they behave like real people and use language like real people. Disruptive behavior (what we used to call “toxicity”) comes in many forms, and it’s not always profanity.

Some users will post abusive content in other languages. Some will harass other community members in more subtle ways — urging them to harm themselves or even commit suicide, using racial slurs, engaging in bullying behavior without using profanity, or doxxing (sharing personal information without consent). Still others will manipulate language with l337 5p34k, ÙniÇode ÇharaÇters, or kreative mizzpellingzz.

Accuracy is key here — and a profanity filter that only finds four-letter words cannot provide that same level of fine-tuned detection.

A context-based moderation tool can even make a distinction between words that are perfectly innocent in one context… but whose meaning changes based on the conversation (“balls” or “sausage” are two very obvious examples).

What else should you look for?

1. Vertical Chat
Also known as “dictionary dancing”. Those same savvy users who leverage creative misspellings to bypass community guidelines will also use multiple lines of chat to get their message across:

Vertical chat in action.

2. Usernames
Most platforms allow users to create a unique username for their profile. But don’t assume that a simple profanity filter will detect and flag offensive language in usernames. Unlike other user-generated content like chat, messages, comments, and forum posts, usernames rarely consist of “natural” language. Instead, they’re made up of long strings of letters and numbers — “unnatural” language. Most profanity filters lack the complex technology to filter usernames accurately, but some moderation tools are designed to adapt to all kinds of different content.

3. Language & Culture
Can you think of many online communities where users only chat in English? Technology has brought people of different cultures, languages, and backgrounds together in ways that were unheard of in the past. If scaling into the global market is part of your business plan, choose a moderation tool that can support multiple languages. Accuracy and context are key here. Look for moderation software that supports languages built in-house by native speakers with a deep understanding of cultural and contextual nuances.

4. User Reputation
One final difference that we should call out here. Profanity filters treat everyone in the community the same. But anyone who has worked in online community management or moderation knows that human behavior is complex. Some users will never post a risky piece of content in their lifetime; some users will break your community guidelines occasionally; some will consistently post content that needs to be filtered.

Profanity filters apply the same settings to all of these users, while some content moderation tools will actually look at the user’s reputation over time, and apply a more permissive or restrictive filter based on behavior. Pretty sophisticated stuff.

Content moderation tools can be adapted to fit your community
A “set it and forget it” approach might work for a static, unchanging community with no plans for growth. If that’s the case for you, a profanity filter might be your best option. But if you plan to scale up, adding new users while keeping your current userbase healthy, loyal, and engaged, a content moderation tool with a more robust feature set is a much better long-term option.

Luckily, in today’s world, most content moderation technology is just a simple RESTful API call away.

Not only that, content moderation tools allow you to moderate your community much more efficiently and effectively than a simple profanity filter. With automated workflows in place, you can escalate alarming content (suicide threats, child exploitation, extreme harassment) to queues for your team to review, as well as take automatic action on accounts that post disruptive content.

Selecting a moderation solution for your platform is no easy task. When it’s time to make a decision, we hope you’ll use the information outlined above to make the right decision for your online community.