Quarantined! Examining the Effects of a Community-Wide Moderation Intervention on Reddit

Shagun Jhaver
ACM CSCW
Published in
4 min readNov 10, 2022

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This blog post summarizes a paper on our evaluation of the effects of quarantining, a community-wide moderation intervention used by Reddit to label offensive communities as inappropriate. This paper was published in the ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction and was invited to be presented at the 25th ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (CSCW).

Over the past few years, many scholars and activists have persistently called for social media platforms to remove content that promotes coded racism, misogyny, and conspiracy theories. At the same time, there is a growing recognition that platforms need to better facilitate critical discussions on sensitive social issues like race, masculinity and immigration. In light of the hotly contested arguments about when and how they should intervene, platforms have begun to consider the use of softer alternatives to outright bans. In this paper, we examine the influence of one such approach, called quarantining, deployed by the popular social media platform Reddit.

Fig. 1. Design friction (i.e., intentionally adding points of difficulty to users’ interactions with technology) introduced by the quarantine in the form of changes to Reddit’s interface, making it harder to find and access r/TheRedPill (TRP) content. All users see a new interstitial in Reddit’s interface (left image), warning them that TRP is quarantined due to its highly offensive content. TRP also stopped appearing in Reddit search results during the quarantine (right image), and users need to deliberately use TRP’s direct URL to access the community. In addition to TRP posts not being indexed by search or the Reddit API, no TRP posts are shown in r/all, a prominent page aggregating the most popular posts from all parts of Reddit. In other words, the quarantine isolated TRP from the rest of Reddit by not surfacing TRP posts to “unaffected” users by chance (though users can still access TRP if they so choose).

When Reddit quarantines a subreddit, visitors to it are shown a splash page that requires them to explicitly opt-in to viewing its content (see Fig. 1 above). Additionally, the quarantined subreddit and its posts stop appearing in Reddit’s indexing and search results. We present in this paper a case-study that examines the effects of quarantining two influential Reddit communities — r/TheRedPill (TRP) and r/The_Donald (TD).

Quarantining fundamentally differs from banning, which has proven effective in reducing hate-based behavior. Banning shuts a space down permanently, forcing its members to leave. On the other hand, the quarantined space, though isolated from the rest of the site, is still available for member participation, although with some design friction. We chose to focus on the immediate effects of quarantine on the “treated” subreddits — TRP and TD — given that these forums were still accessible to users. We ask the following research questions:

RQ1: How were the participation levels within TRP and TD affected by the quarantine?

RQ2: To what extent was the influx of new users to TRP and TD affected by the quarantine?

RQ3: How was the use of misogynistic and racist language within TRP and TD, respectively, affected by the quarantine?

Fig. 2. Overview of the research pipeline employed in this study. We collected user timelines from the r/TheRedPill (TRP) and r/The_Donald (TD) subreddits and 100 control subreddits corresponding to each of them for our analyses. Our research questions explored the effects of Reddit’s quarantine on posting activity level, influx of new users, and hate speech usage within TRP and TD. We used causal inference methods to answer these research questions.

Methods. We answer our research questions by examining observational data from Reddit through a temporal analysis of TRP and TD’s subreddit timelines. These included all comments and submissions made in the quarantined subreddits six months before to six months after they were quarantined. Working with over 85M Reddit posts and comments from Reddit, we chose metrics that include posting volume and frequency of words used from hate speech lexicons. We then used causal inference methods to examine variations in levels of interaction and racism/misogyny, accounting for ongoing temporal trends within TRP and TD in addition to Reddit-wide trends. Figure 2 above provides an overview of the research pipeline employed in this paper.

Fig. 3. Variations in posting activity levels, influx of new users, and misogyny levels within TRP. We compute rates for each metric based on all posts from TRP, using time-windows of 10 days, before and after the quarantine. As shown by the purple lines that “fit” the underlying time series, there were dramatic decreases in posting activity level and influx of new users to TRP (both changes were found to be highly significant through ITS analysis and bootstrapping tests), while misogyny levels remained unaffected (we found no significant changes). Note that the graphs appear to show a drop even before quarantining because we accumulate the metrics in each 10-day time window at its start, e.g., net posting activity within the first 10 days after quarantining is shown in the graph at time t=0.

Findings. We determined that the quarantine severely disrupted the influx of new users to both subreddits — the rate of new users joining TRP and TD dropped drastically, by over 79.5% and 58%, respectively. We also found that already assimilated users within both subreddits exhibited changes in posting volume: activity levels of TRP users decreased substantially (by 52.4% and statistically significant w.r.t. corresponding control subreddits), but activity levels of TD users increased slightly (by 3.8%, but not statistically significant w.r.t. corresponding control subreddits). Despite these changes in posting activity, we found scant changes with respect to levels of misogynistic (TRP) or racist (TD) language.

Fig. 4. Variations in posting activity levels, influx of new users, and racism levels within TD. We computed rates for each metric based on all posts from TD, using time-windows of 10 days, before and after the quarantine. As shown by the purple lines that “fit” the underlying time series, there was a dramatic decline in the influx of new users to TD (this change was found to be highly significant using ITS analysis and bootstrapping tests), but there were no drastic changes in posting activity or racism levels.

Implications. For HCI, our work demonstrates the efficacy of introducing simple design friction to counteract antisocial behavior in online communities. For online moderation, we provide a computational framework that internet platforms can adopt to evaluate the effectiveness of moderation interventions. Given the philosophical debates around whether platforms should be allowed to ban certain types of speech, quarantining provides a softer alternative to banning. Our findings show one way that platforms can use low-cost design solutions like quarantining to compromise between containing antisocial activities and preserving freedom of speech.

For more details about our motivations, methods, findings and design implications, please check out our full paper that has been published in TOCHI in 2022. For questions and comments about the work, please drop an email to Shagun Jhaver at shagun.jhaver [at] rutgers [dot] edu.

Citation:

Eshwar Chandrasekharan, Shagun Jhaver, Amy Bruckman, and Eric Gilbert. 2022. Quarantined! Examining the Effects of a Community-Wide Moderation Intervention on Reddit. ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact. 29, 4, Article 29 (August 2022), 26 pages. https://doi.org/10.1145/3490499

Note: Shagun and Eshwar, the first two authors, contributed equally to this research.

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