The most effective way to shut down hate speech is to shut it down at the source, as Reddit's 2015 ban on hate subreddits has shown.
Image via Reddit
To those unfamiliar with the site, Reddit is a website on which users can submit text, photos, and links as a topic of discussion among other users. There are specific communities within the site, called subreddits, that focus on specific topics. One such subreddit (often shortened to “sub”) is AskReddit, a popular sub where members can post a question and let other members post their answers. Some subreddits are funny, some are helpful, some are pornographic, and some are downright weird. Some, however, have provided a safe space for bigoted redditors to express their prejudices and racism, as well as harass others.
In 2015, Reddit reversed its policy on refraining from banning “questionable” content, and shut down hate subs including those dedicated to open racism and the harassment of women and minorities.
Does silencing hate speech work?
The move, predictably, caused an uproar. Before the ban, the site was tolerant of nearly all kinds of content. Each sub had their own moderators that oversaw what kinds of content were suitable or unsuitable, while site's administrators took a more laissez-faire approach. However, there were growing concerns over escalating harassment that made present users feel unsafe and discouraged others from joining the site.
Thus, the 2015 ban was a significant move on the part of the site's administrators. The banned subreddits include r/coontown, a racist sub, and r/fatpeoplehate, dedicated to, well, hating fat people. Some decried the ban as a violation of free speech, while some claimed that the ban would not be able to quell hate speech. However, a new study has found that banning hate subs was indeed effective in ridding the site of toxic content.
Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Emory University, and the University of Michigan analyzed over 100 million Reddit posts and replies from the users of the two hate subs, spanning before and after the 2015 ban. The researchers created a lexicon that established a metric to quantify hate speech in the site. Some users from both hate subs migrated to other sites, while some remained and joined similar but less toxic subs.
Members of banned subs have migrated to other subs or sites.
The study found that there was a 90.63% decrease in hate speech from former r/fatpeoplehate users, and an 81.08% decrease from former r/coontown users. Researchers were able to verify that this shift in language was caused by the ban, and not by any other possible causes.
Of course, the Reddit ban simply made toxic users someone else's problem, given that some of the users flocked to other sites to be able to go on as they did. However, these users migrated to smaller sites in the “darker corners of the internet”, where they were more likely to find like-minded users and less likely to influence others into holding the same beliefs.
Did the ban successfully shut down hate speech? At least on Reddit, it did. Of course, there will always be places on the Internet for bigots to congregate. However, there are steps that sites can take to make sure that bigotry and harassment will be kept away from the Internet mainstream.
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