It was not long ago that the social news aggregator and discussion site Reddit reached a point at which many doubted the long-term viability of the popular platform. “Hate speech is drowning Reddit and no one can stop it,” declared Mashable in 2014. Fat-shaming, racism and what The Economist described as a “bottomless cesspool” of hate speech prompted all kinds of suggestions on whether the site could secure its future. Petitions asked advertisers to flee the site to avoid creating the “next Dylann Roof;” others suggested a “super-quarantine” in the belief that banning hate speech would only cause other problems to fester.
Finally, in 2015, Reddit decided to ban two channels: one spouting white nationalist invective, the other body-shaming taunts.
Two years later, the results indicate that the “front page of the internet” has witnessed a dramatic drop in hate speech due directly to closing those channels. According to a study led by researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Emory University and the University of Michigan, Reddit and its users reaped several benefits.
The group of researchers looked up Reddit’s “/r/coontown” and “/r/fatpeoplehate” users and evaluated their posts before and after those subreddits were banned. Participants in those groups departed Reddit at a more frequent rate than users in the “subreddit” control groups. Of course, some of these users may have changed their username, and others simply moved to forums such as “/r/The_Donald” or “/r/BlackCrimeMatters.” Others may have migrated to other toxic online communities. However, the study’s researchers found that many users stayed at Reddit but reduced the hate speech.
As a result, during the past two years since launching the ban, Reddit witnessed a 90.6 percent drop in the usage of manually filtered hate words associated with fat shaming, as well as an 81.1 percent decrease in manually filtered hate words associated with white nationalism. Furthermore, “communities that inherited the displaced activity of these users did not suffer from an increase in hate speech,” as observed by the study’s authors.
The study also noted “while the philosophical issues surrounding moderation (and banning specifically) are complex, the present work seeks to inform the discussion with results on the efficacy of banning deviant hate groups from internet platforms.”
In other words, banning despicable conversations helped Reddit’s business and salvaged its reputation.
Reddit’s approach was not simply to end racist or hateful data (a daunting exercise for a site approaching 1.3 billion monthly visitors) – the company just aimed to curb such talk within their topic forums. As Devin Coldeway of TechCrunch pointed out, “Make it difficult and many people may find it more trouble than it’s worth to harass, shame, and otherwise abuse online those different from themselves.”
Other sites and social media channels that have struggled with hate speech and the backlash from other users, such as Google, Facebook and Twitter, should consider scouring this study and find some clues as how they can discourage toxic content from proliferating accross their platforms.
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