Upvoting Extremism, Part I: An Assessment Of Extreme Right Discourse On Reddit

By Tiana Gaudette, Garth Davies, and Ryan Scrivens

This blog is the first of a two-part series; it was originally presented at the ‘VOX-Pol Conference – Violent Extremism, Terrorism, and the Internet: Present and Future Trends’ in Amsterdam on 20 August 2018.

Like other extremist movements, right-wing extremists from across the globe have exploited the power of the Internet to connect with and recruit like-minded others, as well as spread their radical ideologies to a growing audience of supporters.

One of the most recent sources of right-wing extremism are the controversial tweets from US President Donald J. Trump – especially those that espouse anti-Muslim sentiment. In response to this growing concern, a number of social media giants (including FacebookTwitter, and YouTube) have attempted to prevent the spreading of hateful rhetoric via hate speech policy. Yet, an increasingly popular platform, one with a ‘laissez-faire’ stance on hate speech, has attracted extreme right-wing discussions: Reddit.

In Part 1 of this two-part series, we explore how Reddit’s upvoting algorithm and content policy may encourage extreme right-wing discussions on the site, with a particular focus on ‘r/The_Donald’, which is one of the most popular right-wing extremist subreddits. In Part 2 of this series, we will present the results of our analysis of r/The_Donald, which will include an in-depth assessment of the posts that were made in response to Trump’s anti-Muslim tweets between 2015 and 2017.

Reddit’s Voting Algorithm and Content Policy

Reddit, which is the fifth-most popular website in the US and the eighth-most popular website in the world, is a ‘social news aggregation’ site that facilitates discussions on virtually any topic of interest. Through a wide variety of niche ‘subreddits’, users can participate in, contribute to, and even develop a like-minded community who share a common interest. For example, subreddit communities exist for gamerscat loversmovie-goers, and even those who wish to discuss zombie survival tactics. Integral to Reddit’s functionality is its voting algorithm and content policy.

As ‘consumers and curators’, Reddit users can retrieve content, and those who share similar views (or not) can convey that interest – or disinterest – by giving an ‘upvote’ or ‘downvote’, either rewarding a user with a ‘karma’ point for their posts or removing karma points. Here the number of points distinguishes those who are active and/or valuable members of Reddit, meaning that users who collect a lot of karma points over time are considered to have more importance within their Reddit communities. In addition, Reddit’s voting algorithm provides its users with the means to promote and spread popular or controversial content in a particular subreddit or to Reddit’s home page; ‘upvoting’ a post will increase its visibility within a subreddit, and the most popular posts are featured on Reddit’s homepage for anyone to view – even if the post contains controversial content.

Reddit also has a unique content policy: it targets users’ behaviors rather than their ideas. To illustrate: on the one hand, it’s policy prevents users from posting violent content or content that threatens, harasses, or bullies other users; but on the other hand, its policy emphasizes free speech and does not attempt to police controversial ideas posted to the site. This ‘hands-off’ approach is meant to facilitate open dialogue within the online community, wherein users are free to speak their minds, even on the most controversial of topics, without fear of being banned from the site.

The Dark Side of Reddit: r/The_Donald

While Reddit’s policy may foster a sense of community amongst like-minded users by encouraging them to discuss a seemingly endless number of topics, its laissez-faire content policy fails to combat hate speech on it platform. In fact, Reddit’s CEO, Steve Huffman, publicly stated that the site condones racism and hate speech. Unsurprising, then, is the volume of extremist communities that have cropped up on the site and have, in many cases, been unopposed by Reddit administration. One subreddit community that is receiving criticism for its far-right wing leaning discussions is r/The_Donald.

In short, r/The_Donald is an online space in which Reddit subscribers, and the alt-right in particular, can come together to discuss matters pertaining to Trump’s presidency, including his political platform, press briefings, and larger political events. Donald Trump himself, during his presidential run in 2016, even fielded questions on the r/The_Donald for an ‘Ask Me Anything’ (AMA) session. This popular space, which has amassed over 650,000 subscribers, has been characterized as an online community for Trump’s most fervent supporters. However, while a quick view of site clearly reveals that the r/The_Donald is riddled with hateful sentiment, very little academic attention has been paid to exploring the hateful content featured within this community or whether right-wing extremists take advantage of Reddit’s laissez-faire content policy and upvoting structure to promote hate speech online.

A cursory look at the “rules” of the subreddit, for example, make it clear that “Muslim and illegal immigrant [sic] are not races” and, as a result, it may be assumed that related discussions will most likely not be removed by moderators. The Southern Poverty Law Center, however, identified an influx of extreme right-wing content throughout r/The_Donald, including discussions surrounding “white genocide”, anti-Muslim sentiment, and anti-Black discourse. Racist memes, according to one study, also appear to be increasing in popularity on r/The_Donald and other social media sites. Yet, this is the extent of our understanding of content posted on hate-inspired subreddits such as the r/The_Donald and others.

Similarly, while there is some evidence to suggest that Reddit’s unrestrictive content policy and upvoting algorithm promotes hateful discussion, little is known, from a scholarly perspective, about whether Reddit’s upvoting structure does, in fact, promote hate speech on its platform. Of the limited work available, research shows that users on two anti-feminist subreddits will intentionally re-post popular misogynistic content to receive more upvotes from their like-minded peers, for which the users receive more karma points. Similar tactics, according to one online media source, have been reported on r/The_Donald, wherein users have exploited Reddit’s voting algorithms to mass-upvote hateful pro-Trump content so it reached Reddit’s front page. Still, little is known about how Reddit’s structure spreads and promotes extremist content both within, and outside of, the subreddit.

In sum, Reddit’s decision to allow hate speech on its platform, contrary to the policies of related social media giants, has consequences – r/The_Donald being a prime example. It would appear, on the surface at least, that Reddit has given right-wing extremists a powerful platform to connect with like-minded others and to promote and spread their hateful Trump-inspired ideology. Yet, little is known about the nature of these discussions as they pertain to Trump’s anti-Muslim narratives and whether the discussions are a consequence of Reddit’s voting system and content policies. These dynamics will be assessed in Part 2 of this series, drawing from content on r/The_Donald.

Tiana Gaudette is an MA student in the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University.

Garth Davies is an Associate Professor in the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University.

Ryan Scrivens is a Horizon Postdoctoral Fellow at Concordia University and a visiting researcher at the VOX-Pol Network of Excellence. Follow him on Twitter: R_Scrivens