Robert Galbraith / Reuters

For today’s issue, we’re focusing on Reddit. If you are not a Redditor, you may wonder why on earth this website is important. For one thing, it’s the fifth most popular website in the country. For another, it has a significant impact on how information spreads online, especially when it comes to politics, especially since the 2016 election. When we wrote about fringe groups for The Masthead last fall, I asked Trevor Martin, a researcher who studies the internet, about how Reddit communities evolved over the course of the 2016 election, and what that suggests for our politics. Over the past few months, he’s been working on a data-driven answer to those questions, which we’re sharing with you today. Then you’ll hear from Srijan Kumar, another scholar who focuses on Reddit, about the tiny group of Reddit communities responsible for the vast majority of inter-group harassment on the site.

—Caroline Kitchener


Reddit Communities and the 2016 Election

As more and more Americans rely on Reddit for news, discussions that originate on the site often have an impact well beyond it. Ever wonder how the conspiracy theory called “Pizzagate” became a thing, or where many of the memes supporting Donald Trump came from? In both of those cases, and others, one of the prime catalysts was Reddit.

When you sign up for Reddit, you can subscribe to any of a multitude of smaller communities called “subreddits,” where users can share and discuss links and pictures. If you aren’t satisfied by the variety of subreddits on offer—from the one dedicated exclusively to pictures of cats standing up to a rigorously moderated forum where users can ask obscure questions of historians—you can simply create a new one.

Around the 2016 election, many of the most active subreddits focused on U.S. presidential candidates, including particularly large communities dedicated to Bernie Sanders (r/SandersforPresident) and Donald Trump (r/The_Donald). Because individual users can subscribe to any number of wildly different subreddits, I was able to calculate the affinities between these communities. For example, if a user participates in subreddit A, I could assess whether they also participate in subreddits B and C. If subreddit D also has users that participate in subreddits B and C then the subreddits have similar user profiles (and you would probably want to recommend subreddit A as relevant to users of subreddit D). Some of these relationships will be obvious: communities about weightlifting are likely to be similar to communities on fitness. Others will be less so: communities for gaming might or might not share similarities with political communities.

This means that from the beginning of the 2016 primary cycle, I could plot how various interest groups on Reddit corresponded with interest in key candidates on Reddit. In the run-up to the 2018 midterms, my findings reinforce some theories about political coalitions in the 2016 election that would otherwise be difficult to support. In each of the three graphs below, I’ve identified a community of interest—such as a community focused on video games—and plotted how its membership aligns with the membership of subreddits about Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton. Each corner of the triplot represents a candidate’s subreddit (T for Trump, S for Sanders, and C for Clinton). The closer a point is to a corner, the more similarity there is between the candidate’s subreddit and the community of interest.  

Here’s what my data suggests:

  1. Over the course of the election, Donald Trump’s subreddit become increasingly similar in user profile to one of the primary subreddits devoted to online video games (r/gaming). In late 2015, r/gaming shared a similar profile with each of the three leading candidates’ subreddits. But over time, from late 2015 to early 2017, subscribers to r/gaming overlapped more heavily with subscribers to Trump’s subreddit.
  1. Over the course of the campaign, the communities dedicated to Trump and Sanders shifted from equal similarity with a large, virulently anti-feminist community on Reddit (r/theredpill) to Trump’s subreddit having much more similarity. R/theredpill is a male-centered community that often features misogynistic content.
  1. The subreddit for 4chan, a notorious haven for online trolls, shifted from equal similarity with Sanders and Trump, to strong similarity to Trump, and then back to relative equality, suggesting that for the users of this site, Trump support in particular was more of a “prank” than a genuine belief. The subreddit that revolves around the image board, 4chan (r/4chan), is famous for elevating political incorrectness, with graphic images and slurs. Subscribers to r/4chan followed Trump’s subreddit over the course of the election, but shifted back to sharing more with Sanders by early 2017.

These three trajectories suggest that, while Trump and Sanders hold extremely different political views, interest in both candidates can be fluid and, in some cases, grow out of the same types of user profiles. Users interested in Trump and users interested in Sanders might have more in common than is widely appreciated. These patterns will be interesting to watch as the 2018 midterms approach, and political coalitions that would otherwise be invisible emerge.

—Trevor Martin


Do Feed the Trolls

We've never had a medium that allowed one person to post a message to millions of others in an instant, sometimes even without intending to. Now we have several. The spread of outrage and discord online, widely remarked upon by, say, anyone who’s spent five minutes on Twitter, has, by some accounts, infected political discourse far beyond the internet. But a recent research paper on Reddit found that only 1 percent of its communities initiate 75 percent of conflict on the site, suggesting that a relatively small subset of people can sow a large amount of discord.

The researchers studied the phenomenon of crosslinking, in which members of one subreddit follow a link to another subreddit to harass its members. The paper clusters Reddit communities into topical clusters such as “U.S. cities” and “music.” Most conflicts initiate in the cluster the researchers called, perhaps for obvious reasons, “controversial topics.”

The findings help illuminate how fights break out on Reddit, and perhaps, how they can be avoided. I spoke with one of the researchers, Srijan Kumar, about what he found: Fights on Reddit are not accidental but intentionally orchestrated, and may only be resolved through intentional, orchestrated responses.

Karen: What are the main reasons for a subreddit to initiate conflict with another subreddit?

Kumar: Conflicts are initiated between pairs of communities that have similar interests, but conflicting ideologies. So for Christianity and atheism subreddits, both are related to religion, but one believes and one does not. One community may “raid,” or post agitating comments, on another because they want to troll, or they want to fight, or they want to convert others to their point of view. But it's rarely that third case, in which they invite those with opposing ideologies to join them.

Karen: Why is it useful to talk about Reddit conflict using war terms like “raid”?

Kumar: We were very surprised by how orchestrated these conflicts were. They’re initiated by “elder,” more active members of the community, who post the links, and then the “younger” members of the community are mobilized to attack. It’s like war, in which you have the generals who direct and the soldiers who fight. In the targeted community, we found the “younger” members were also the ones who put up a defense by interacting with the attackers.

Sometimes, after a conflict, if the members in the targeted community didn’t put up a successful defense, they become less active and leave, and the members from the attacking community dominate. We called that colonization.

Karen: How does a community put up a successful defense?

Kumar: Usually, during these raids, attackers interact with other attackers, and defenders interact with other defenders, even in the same discussion thread. These are echo chambers. A successful defense only happens when the defending community engages directly with its attackers. So, in fact, it’s not, “don’t feed the trolls.” It’s the opposite. They need to break the echo chamber to make a difference.

Engagement isn’t enough. Defenses are also unsuccessful when attackers gang up on a defender—when multiple members reply to one member—and when the defender words’ aren’t heated enough. So, more defenders need to engage more aggressively.

Karen: What can Reddit conflict tell us about conflict elsewhere on the internet?

Kumar: If you look at community structures found elsewhere, like on Facebook, you also find groups with opposing ideologies that instigate fights with each other. I would expect that the type of conflict on Reddit would be similar to conflict elsewhere, and could similarly de-escalate through direct engagement.

These metrics of conflict could help these communities. On Twitter, you could identify the “elder” members of a community as those with the most followers or those who post the most to a hashtag. Through them, you could see which members or hashtags are initiating the most conflict, and then monitor them to predict impending conflict. There are practical measures to solve conflict online.

—Karen Yuan


Today’s Wrap Up

  • Question of the day: What other online communities should we be paying attention to? Tell us about them.

  • What’s coming: On Monday, we’ll report on political leaks—how they work, and why so many have come out of the Trump White House.

  • Your feedback: How are we doing? Take our quick survey below.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.