Language

The Evolution of Hate Speech on Reddit and What It Means For the Rest of Us Online

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If Twitter is the “best social media for promoting terror and hate,” Reddit is like the underground black market of internet discourse. Twitter currently boasts over 20,000 hate-spewing hashtags and handles, up 30 percent from last year and countries like Pakistan and Myanmar are dealing with an onslaught of anti-Semitic and subversive outbursts via Facebook. It seems like the language of the Internet is headed on a downward spiral towards oblivion, pushing the limits of social responsibility and free speech. But according to one Reddit user, the conversation within one of the most prevalent and often-times maligned forums on the Internet is shifting dramatically towards a more progressive and often-times tolerant state.

One Redditor, Aakil Fernandes, mined data from Reddit posts that included hate speech, collecting the usage of the word “faggot” and “fag” within top comments in threads. “I don’t think most of us [Redditors] who used the word were anti-gay, we just didn’t really understand (or care) what we were saying,” Fernandes wrote to introduce the background involved in the study he created. He noticed a drastic decline in usage and decided to investigate the reasoning behind it. “Over time I’ve started using the word a lot less, and I’ve noticed a similar trend amongst my friends. Part of this comes from genuine belief that the word shouldn’t be used. Another part of it comes from a growing respect for political correctness (or as one Redditor suggests – fear of its consequence).”

The way hate speech is being presented on the internet has deviated drastically from the early years, before the discussion thread’s booming growth in popularity. As seen in the graph below, created by Fernandes to show how “faggot” has risen and fallen throughout top comments, the trend of usage has sharply decreased.  The data was collected by scouring through the Reddit Archive. Around 150,000 posts were accounted for, with approximately 20,000 randomly chosen from the pool. The top comments from the post were then fetched for “any instance of the word “fag” or “faggot” which occurred as a full word. If a comment had multiple instances of either word, it was still only counted once.”

“We see a pretty clear trend here. Redditors seem to either be using the word less, or down voting anyone who does,” Fernandes wrote on his Reddit Alerts page. “This might be a change in the demographics of Reddit or it might be a change of sentiment within all demographics. Either way – the changing landscape is clear.”

It seems that the conversation supported by top Reddit comments has shifted in such a way that it’s more likely to involve insightful and often times quick-witted or clever responses (thus worth the up vote) as opposed to a slur. The phrase “op is a faggot,” which is the most frequent comment associated with the slur, originated in the depths of 4chan, where it “became popular there partially due to hatred, and partially because it was deliberately shocking, and the community there prides itself on being immune to shock,” according to Fernandes. The phrase itself became a self-servicing meme that was accessible to anyone in on the joke.

User BillyBuckets explained that “‘op is faggot lol’ as a meme is an earnest slur. It doesn’t matter if the user does not self-identify as a homophobe,” they wrote. “Referring to something that is wrong just because it’s part of the ‘good old days of the Internet’ does not make it harmless. A good litmus test is to just insert the worst racial slur you can think of and see if that changes how that ironic meme affects your perception.” In response, zjm555 wrote “Respectfully, no, ironic use of a slur is not equivalent to an earnest use. Earnest use is meant to demonstrate hatred or disrespect towards the target group; ironic use is actually meant to make fun of those who use the slur earnestly. I think these distinctions are important, lest we lose sight of the context of words in an overabundance of political correctness.”

Fernandes agreed with this sentiment. “[Faggot] got ported to Reddit and became a way of self-identifying one’s self. Many Redditors consider free speech under attack by political correctness. ‘op is a faggot’ is a way of making it clear which side they come down on.”

The word “faggot” has been part of the Reddit lexicon for so long that whenever there’s a repost, commenters only need to write something as simple as “everyone know’s what the OP is” or “OP is a bundle of sticks”, referring to the literal definition of the word, and the connotation is already present and well understood by those in the know. Fernandes agrees with that take-away as well, but sees that instead of just becoming more of a softened, euphemistic language, larger Reddit communities are actually becoming less tolerant of the usage. Commenters on the graph’s submission even stated that the reason comments such as “op is a faggot” are getting down voted isn’t because the Reddit community is becoming less tolerant of hate speech, but because “in the context of that joke having gotten retreaded too many times [...] now people no longer find those references funny.”

Fernandes also equated the decline in its usage due to the more heavily moderated comments section in Reddit. 4chan is a free-for-all, where comments are more often challenging the limits of free speech, while Reddit has moderators that crack down on the more blatant and egregious slurs. “The graph doesn’t conclusively show a decline in the word, only a lower tolerance for it from the wider community. It’s very possible that the usage of the word has increased — but only in smaller communities and it is more often down voted.”

“I think it’s a reflection of what’s happening in the real world. Reddit allows us to be anonymous and speak without consequence, in a way it’s a better reflection of people’s opinions than what they say in public.” According to Fernandes, the use of the slur has “become less tolerated for a few reasons. One of those reasons is the greater empathy for LGBT people — especially after stories like Tyler Clementi. Another is understanding that the Reddit community is looked at by ‘outsiders’ like CNN (i.e. Boston Bombing) and words used there are not contained. These larger outlets very rarely look at 4chan, but Reddit is different.”

“Every now and then I think back to a conversation with a friend of mine who said that he gets hurt when people use the word,” Fernandes recalled. “At the time, I told him he was being too sensitive and that he should know me enough to know I don’t have a problem with LGBT people. But every time I see ‘op is a faggot’ that conversation flashes back to me.” Whether the Internet itself is evolving, or people are just sick of the joke, it’s clear that the conversation generated by the most ubiquitous user generated content site is shifting, and it’s time we started listening.