The heart of tech is coming to the heart of the Mediterranean. Join TNW in València this March 🇪🇸

This article was published on March 20, 2018

Study reveals Reddit isn’t as big a cesspool as you thought. But it’s still a cesspool.

Study reveals Reddit isn’t as big a cesspool as you thought. But it’s still a cesspool.
Bryan Clark
Story by

Bryan Clark

Former Managing Editor, TNW

Bryan is a freelance journalist. Bryan is a freelance journalist.

A recent study by Stanford University revealed the vast majority of Reddit’s conflicts originate in just one percent of its communities. Subreddits, as they’re known on the site, are category-specific groups that steer the conversation around a central topic or theme. And most are relatively tame. These are the groups responsible for thoughtful discourse and mostly respectful debate, the behavior that keeps most users engaged and active on the site.

Others, however, are easily some of the most toxic corners of the web, online cesspools that serve as a watering hole for the modern criminals, racists, and conspiracy theorists hell-bent on peddling sensationalist ideals after legitimate tragedy.

These communities, according to the researchers, are responsible for 74 percent of cross-subreddit conflict originating on the site. The paper, a deep dive into 40 months of Reddit’s comments and posts (from January 2014 to April 2017) probed the site for “intercommunity conflict” — defined as cases “where one reddit community, called a ‘subreddit,’ collectively mobilize to participate in or attack another community.”

The group uses one cited example where a post in r/conspiracy — one of many conspiracy theorists subreddits — attacked, or “raided,” another community. In this case, r/documentaries.

Come look at all the brainwashed idiots in r/Documentaries
Seriously, none of those people are willing to even CONSIDER that our own country orchestrated the 9/11 attacks. They are all 100% certain the “turrists” were behind it all, and all of the smart people who argue it are getting downvoted to the depths of hell. Damn shame. Wish people would do their research. Here’s the link.

Or, there’s r/The_Donald, arguably one of Reddit’s most damaging communities. Comprised mostly of self-identified members of the alt-right mixed with more traditional conservative Trump supporters, the community acts as a lure for disenfranchised right-wingers, a subreddit that turns discourse on its head by actively banning those who disagree with its core tenets all while encouraging the most extremist views.

In The_Donald’s case, the behavior isn’t as easy to write off as petty internet conflict. In one case, the group is at least partially responsible for a near tragedy involving a man firing a gun inside a popular Washington D.C. pizza parlor, Comet Ping Pong.

The controversy stemmed around baseless accusations that Hillary Clinton campaign chief John Podesta used the pizza joint as a front for an underground pedophilia ring frequented by the Clintons and their wealthy and influential friends.

After initially surfacing on 4-chan, two-bit cybersleuths on The_Donald and other conspiracy-promoting subreddits (like the now-banned r/Pizzagate) ran wild with the story. For a time, it wasn’t uncommon to see new “evidence” on the front page each day. Generally though, the evidence was questionable at best, and often amounted to nothing more than sensationalist drivel from the likes of Alex Jones and other internet blowhards — Jones, by the way, has since apologized for his role in the controversy, blaming it on staffers at Infowars.

Mixed with an already volatile user base, the conversation boiled over in December 2016 when Edgar Maddison Welch took matters into his own hands, carrying a rile in to Comet Ping Pong to “investigate” the claims. Welch fired a single shot, before fleeing the establishment. He received a four year prison sentence for his actions. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

Even more troubling is the sheer amount of threads either directly calling for violence, or users who comment in an attempt to incite it.

In a recent “Ask Me Anything” session, one user, “DivestTrump,” posted over 45 of the most egregious offenses — “in honor of the soon-to-be-EX-president” — calling out comments that directly violate Reddit’s policy regarding violent content.

Here are just a handful, with links for context.

  • Then hang them. No prisoners, no mercy. (source)
  • Deport the dreamers, hang the politicians who support them (source)
  • There are plenty of men who are feminists who should be gassed too (source)
  • Have we set up a suicide assistance hotline for libshits yet (source)
  • We would rise up and kill all government officials. Populism works. (source)
  • I say just shoot Muslims on sight. (source)

Reddit’s CEO Steve Huffman responded to the thread by essentially skirting responsibility. Huffman admitted that many of these links are probably a violation of the site’s policy, but most of them had gone unreported. He went on to say that the mods of The_Donald were generally cooperative in removing offending posts and dealing with systematic abuses — two behaviors that, for the most part, keep controversial subreddits in Reddit’s good graces. The bulk of the offending comments, for what it’s worth, have been removed as of this writing.

Still though, it’s difficult to believe that one of the web’s most scrutinized groups escaped a single report for comments this incendiary. And as user DivestTrump pointed out in a follow-up question, the comments that should have been caught by baked-in tools used by Reddit’s moderators, specifically “AutoModerator config,” a process which he or she detailed here.

For now, the study at least details that Reddit’s largest problems stem from only a few of its most toxic subreddits. The site, as a whole, still remains a remarkable place to engage in meaningful discussion, so long as you don’t venture off the beaten track. That said, it’s clear there’s work to do.

I’ll leave you with this, from another Reddit user.