Reddit, the social news and discussion site, was one of the main sites for sharing illegally hacked photos of naked female celebrities such as Jennifer Lawrence and Rihanna. A Reddit user created a subforum, /r/TheFappening, devoted to these photos. After various scandals and legal threats, the subforum was shut down. The Redditor who created the subforum was not notably repentant, although he was ironically upset that The Washington Post revealed some details of his personal life. Yishin Wong, the chief executive of Reddit, wasn’t much better. While sort of not condoning but also refusing to take responsibility for the leaked photos, he made a rather extraordinary claim:

We are unlikely to make changes to our existing site content policies in response to this specific event. The reason is because we consider ourselves not just a company running a website where one can post links and discuss them, but the government of a new type of community. The role and responsibility of a government differs from that of a private corporation, in that it exercises restraint in the usage of its powers.
While we may believe that users should behave in a certain way, the methods we use to influence that behavior fall into two different classes … Actions which cause or are likely to cause imminent physical danger … or which damage the integrity and ability of the site to function (e.g. spam, brigading, vote-cheating) are prohibited or enforced by “hard” policy, such as bans and rules. Actions which are morally objectionable or otherwise inappropriate we choose to influence by exhortation, emphasizing positive examples, or by selectively highlighting good content and good actions. … You choose what to post. You choose what to read. You choose what kind of subreddit to create and what kind of rules you will enforce. We will try not to interfere – not because we don’t care, but because we care that you make your choices between right and wrong.

More briefly put, Wong argues that Reddit is a government, but that good governments shouldn’t police the morals of their populations. Instead, they should exhort and encourage good behavior, highlighting positive examples.

Wong’s purported idealism has met with a skeptical reaction. T.C. Sottek at The Verge describes Reddit as “a weak feudal system … run by a small group of angry warlords who use “free speech” as a weapon.” Sarah Jeong sees Reddit as an example of “online feudalism,” complaining that:

The internet has come to reflect all the ugliness and all the power imbalances of the real world, without … even the weakest democratic safeguards.

So, who’s right? Is exhortation and encouragement of good behavior enough to produce happy outcomes for everyone? Or does laissez-faire just give free license to trolls to drag everyone down into a suckpit of vile?

As it happens, there’s some excellent recent research, by Justin Cheng, Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizily and Jure Leskovec that touches on just these issues. The findings are not encouraging for Wong’s arguments.

Leskovec and his colleagues don’t look at Reddit, but instead at four other prominent information-sharing Web sites with roughly similar mechanics (these sites, like Reddit, allow users to “upvote,” or “downvote” posts and comments). They use some complicated statistical and experimental techniques to reach two key findings:

(1) People who write low quality posts are more likely to write again when they get negative attention. Furthermore, the quality of their posts deteriorates. This goes beyond the simple adage that you shouldn’t feed the trolls by giving them attention. The evidence suggests that negative feedback can perhaps actually create trolls. It also suggests that people getting negative feedback are more likely to give others negative feedback, too, spreading the infection.

(2) People who write high quality posts are encouraged by positive attention to write more. However, they aren’t as encouraged by positive attention as bad posters are by negative attention. Furthermore, the quality of their posts does not go up. Broadly speaking, encouragement doesn’t seem particularly effective.

This work suggests that Wong’s purported solution – moral exhortation and positive feedback for good posts – won’t work . Trolls and poor quality posters get far more encouragement from negative attention than good posters get from positive attention. Furthermore, the article drops some suggestive hints about the origins of communities of trolls. Some people thrive on negative feedback and find it affirming. Over time, it’s plausible that such people both (a) infect others as described in the article’s findings, and (b) drive away nearly everyone else. When the trolls gain political control over forums (as they can within Reddit’s complex system of internal governance) they can cement their power even further.

This may help explain why so many of Reddit’s subreddits are dominated by bigots, misogynists and other people who appear to thrive on public abhorrence. It certainly indicates that Wong’s self-justifying rhetoric is nonsense. Nice words of encouragement for the “good” posters and tolerance for the bad ones isn’t going to produce self-regulating harmony. It’s going to produce the festering toxic mess that it has, in fact, produced.