A new study of abuse on Reddit found that more moderation is needed to stem racist and white supremacist content on the service – particularly in right-leaning political forums.
Sentropy, a start-up that makes content moderation tools, analyzed comments in some of the most popular political message boards on both sides of the aisle, such as “r/The_Donald” – which is dedicated to discussion of President Trump – and “r/WayOfTheBern” – a forum for fans of former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
The company found that right-leaning forums contained three times as much hate speech containing racist, sexist, religious and homophobic attacks as the left-leaning groups. These forums also contained six times as much hate speech containing white supremacist extremism.
“There's more moderation that absolutely should be happening,” said Sentropy chief executive John Redgrave in an interview.
Here's a chart that spells out Sentropy's findings, which analyzed more than 3 million comments across political subreddits. It categorized and tabulated the number of statements including identity attacks, which included slurs that are directed at people in protected groups; threats of physical violence; sexually aggressive statements; and white supremacist extremism.
The reckoning over racism in the United States has arrived on social media.
In general, Reddit has a more hands-off approach than social media services like Facebook and Twitter, and it relies much more heavily on community content moderators to prevent the spread of harmful content on its forums. That’s led to widespread complaints that the company has allowed violent and racist content to fester unchecked for years.
It's now bringing more urgency to content moderation efforts in light of the Black Lives Matter protests. Earlier this month, Reddit chief executive Steve Huffman promised to update the company’s content policy, as it does not currently explicitly ban hateful or racist content.
Reddit declined to confirm the findings of the Sentropy study, noting that the start-up does not have a commercial sharing agreement with Reddit. Sentropy says it obtained the data for this study via Pushshift, which pulls data from the public Reddit API.
Taking more action could pull Reddit into the political battles over online speech.
Republicans have been aggressively targeting social media companies' content moderation efforts, arguing that major tech companies are biased against conservatives. Trump recently signed an executive order that aims to punish tech companies for moderating conservatives' speech, in the wake of Twitter's decision to label a pair of his tweets that made misleading claims about mail-in voting.
Reddit has taken actions to “quarantine” two of the message boards mentioned in the Sentropy study, including the pro-Trump forum r/The_Donald. The company effectively demoted the forums on Reddit, removing key features and blocking them from appearing in searches or recommendations. The forums are hidden behind a warning and require viewers to verify they are sure they want to view its contents.
This move has inflamed conservatives. Recently, a group of Republican lawmakers told Fox News that they were sending a letter to Reddit threatening regulation over the company's decision.
"Shame on you," wrote Reps. Jim Banks (Ind.), Matt Gaetz (Fla.), Jody Hice (Ga.), Ted Budd (N.C.) and Ted Yoho (Fla.), to Huffman.
Redgrave told me that this letter inspired Sentropy to analyze whether the data supports Reddit's decision – and that the findings of abuse in r/The_Donald do indeed support the company's decision to quarantine the community.
The right-leaning boards were in some ways more difficult to moderate than the left-leaning ones because a greater number of accounts appear to be posting abusive content, and likely require more effort to moderate, Redgrave said.
But many critics say simply quarantining hateful forums like r/The_Donald doesn't go far enough. Ellen Pao, a former Reddit chief executive, says the company should have shut it down. From Twitter:
I am obligated to call you out: You should have shut down the_donald instead of amplifying it and its hate, racism, and violence. So much of what is happening now lies at your feet. You don't get to say BLM when reddit nurtures and monetizes white supremacy and hate all day long https://t.co/VN5XCiYp5g— Ellen K. Pao (@ekp) June 2, 2020
The Sentropy data also revealed that one left-leaning community, “r/WayOfTheBern,” had greater rates of physical violence than the other subreddits included in the analysis, as well as high rates of sexual aggression.
Reddit has not quarantined that forum.
Alexis Ohanian’s departure from the company is adding pressure on Reddit to do more.
The Reddit co-founder’s announcement that he would step down from the company's board due to diversity concerns is bringing more of a spotlight to the issues with hate speech and harassment. Last week, Ohanian tweeted out a letter from content moderators calling on Huffman to enact a sitewide policy against racism, slurs, and hate speech targeted at protected groups.
Ohanian stands to become a player in the efforts to clean up the Internet after helping create one of the services that has allowed it to proliferate online.
He invested in Sentropy, which is building content moderation tools for online services that might not have the same resources as larger tech companies to build their own.
"I’ve seen first-hand the difficulty of manually moderating online communities,” Ohanian, the co-founder of Initialized Capital, said in a recent news release about Sentropy's launch. “The breadth and depth of this issue require serious resources and machine learning chops.
The Sentropy team includes machine-learning experts who previously worked at major tech companies including Apple, Facebook and Palantir.
“Our children should inherit an internet that’s better than the one we have today,” Redgrave said.
Our top tabs
States are backing away from efforts to roll out contact tracing apps.
Digital contact tracing is off to a rocky start in the United States, David Ingram reports for NBC News. Some states that previously expressed interest in contact tracing apps are retreating, and there's been a limited response to states that have already rolled them out.
There's no signs of momentum for such apps at a national level.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) was an early supporter of the technology and said he wanted to work with Apple and Google in the state's virus response. But as of now, the state has no plans to use apps or other cell phone tracking technology.
"Most of the contact tracing work (notifying people who have been in close contact with an infected person to prevent the disease from spreading to others) can be done by phone, text, email and chat," Ali Bay, a spokesperson for California's Public Health Department, told NBC in an email.
Even the World Health Organization has questioned the efficacy of the apps.
"Digital tools do not replace the human capacity needed to do contact tracing," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a recent briefing, adding that more evidence was needed.
Advocacy groups are tracking the cellphones of protesters and sending messages, including about registering to vote.
The tactics, which one user called “deeply spooky yet extremely helpful” are the most recent example of ways political groups are using cellphone data to target voters, Emily Glazer and Patience Haggin report for the Wall Street Journal. The strategy – often called geofencing – has recently caught on among political groups and allows them to reach people's phones with ads.
“When these protests emerged, it was eye-opening for folks to understand, wow, people are gathering again,” Quentin James, founder and president of the Collective, which works to elect African-Americans, told the Journal. His group is using the data gathered to target voter-registration messages to people who have been at protest locations. “We want to make sure we’re using all available tools in our toolbox to make sure we’re reaching the right people.”
But others have raised privacy concerns about geofencing.
“To the degree that this becomes very common, I do worry that it starts to put a chill on people’s willingness to peaceably assemble,” Keith Chen, a behavioral economics professor at University of California, Los Angeles, told the Journal.
State investigators in California and Washington are reportedly looking into Amazon.
California has inquired about the company’s private label products and whether Amazon uses data from sellers to inform which products it promotes, according to the New York Times. Washington has also looked into whether the company makes it more difficult for sellers to list products on other websites. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Post.)
The inquiries are not in advanced stages.
The Justice Department is expected to bring antitrust charges against Google later this year, and the Federal Trade Commission is also probing Facebook on antitrust concerns.
Inside the industry
Employees are looking to matching programs to maximize their donations in the wake of protests.
“In some cases, employees are even bundling donations among friends or relatives to boost the amount they can give—and that a company will match,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “Programs vary from company to company, though, and there are tax wrinkles. So employees have to check the details of their matching programs to see what is possible.”
- George Washington University’s Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics will host a virtual forum on the coronavirus and social media disinformation on June 16 at 10 a.m.
- The House Financial Services Committee will host a hearing on how cybercriminals are exploiting the covid-19 pandemic on June 16 at noon.
- The Energy and Commerce Committee will host a hearing on online disinformation on June 24. The hearing will cover disinformation related to covid-19 and the recent racial unrest.