Incels on Reddit: A study in social norms and decentralised moderation
Keywords:Incels, Reddit, Online abuse, Social norms, Neutralization theory, Content moderation
This paper examines the challenges of combating misogyny and harmful social norms on the social networking and news site Reddit. Reddit has a long history of hosting racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and otherwise harmful communities. Incels — an Internet subculture that ascribes to deeply misogynistic beliefs — flourished on Reddit before several major subreddits were progressively banned. In this paper, we examine four incel subreddits to understand how the dynamic tensions between Reddit’s site-wide rules and the rules of particular incel subreddits play out in practice. We draw on archived Reddit data to provide a detailed analysis of how incel subreddits adapt to and resist pressure from Reddit and other users to comply with the site-wide rules and develop and maintain their rules and norms. Our study suggests that punitive measures, such as the threat of stricter rules and increased external moderation for explicitly prohibited content and behaviour is insufficient to foster prosocial subreddits. We show how stricter enforcement of the formal site-wide rules did not challenge or displace the underlying ideologies that foster toxic communities. Instead, we find that incels justified their toxic behaviour in the face of heavy external criticism. To cultivate safe and inclusive digital environments, we argue that Reddit must focus on improving the culture of subreddits. We conclude that driving real change when moderation is decentralized requires the committed and supported participation of moderators who can undertake the extensive work of tackling the underlying identity and ideology that brings hateful communities together.
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