Reddit Ban on White Nationalist, Fat-Shaming Channels Led to Dramatic Drop in Hate Speech

A sign hangs on the door of an office at Reddit's headquarters in San Francisco. The site has controversially shut down some subreddits where hate speech was common. Robert Galbraith/Reuters

As one of the largest and best-known web forums, Reddit has become a sanctuary for people with all sorts of unsavory views, including white nationalists and the so-called alt-right. But the platform, where a section of users have proliferated anti-Semitic memes and creepshots, has taken action to clean up some of the hate speech by closing down several subreddits, and it is working, according to a new study.

The "front page of the internet" is used by 172 million people every month, and it has attracted criticism in the past for not working to remove certain inappropriate content. "We will not ban questionable subreddits," the company's then CEO Yishan Wong wrote in 2015. "You choose what to post. You choose what to read. You choose what kind of subreddit to create."

The site performed a U-turn in the same year, banning some of the subreddits where some of the most toxic content was being shared, including r/coontown and r/fatpeoplehate. Some believed that suspending the channels would only push the users to post hate speech elsewhere.

But for those who stayed on Reddit, hate speech actually dropped significantly after the banning of the two channels, as much as 80 to 90 percent for some users, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Emory University and the University of Michigan found.

They took more than 100 million posts from the two Reddit channels, one a white supremacist board, the other a fat-shaming board. They measured the hate on those channels and then tracked where the users went and what they posted in different channels.

Many members of the banned communities left Reddit altogether, while others migrated to similar subreddits with other racist or offensive content. But hate speech did not rise significantly in the channels they moved to, with only slight bumps noticed.

"For the banned community users that remained active, the ban drastically reduced the amount of hate speech they used across Reddit by a large and significant amount," the study said.

"Following the ban, Reddit saw a 90.63 percent decrease in the usage of manually filtered hate words by r/fatpeoplehate users, and an 81.08 percent decrease in the usage of manually filtered hate words by r/CoonTown users," the site found.

The researchers estimated that the suspension of those channels, at least in the short term, was a success. Those who remained on the site were unable to set up duplicate channels, and the moderators who presided over the channels they moved to had the ability to control the hate speech and impose their rules.

However, as Gizmodo reports, subreddits with a substantial level of offensive content often associated with the alt-right emerged during the campaign of President Donald Trump and have remained active, particularly r/The_Donald.

But ultimately the worst of the users were pushed elsewhere on the internet, the researchers said. They went to less popular and prominent forums that would give their bigoted and hateful views less attention. As TechCrunch reported, several other smaller forums, such as Gab and Voat, "proudly foster" such extreme views.

Far-right nationalists and neo-Nazis will continue to find space on the internet, but when companies as large as Reddit deprive them of a voice, this can impede their ability to influence and affect the cyberspace mainstream, the study suggests.