Reducing harassment in online communities

Prominently posted rules in online forums decrease harassment, whilst boosting participation, new study finds.
03 May 2019


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Prominently posted rules in online discussion forums decrease the likelihood of harassment and rule-breaking behaviour, and increase participation from new members, a new study finds.

“In many online communities harassment and other kinds of social problems are extremely common'', reports Dr. J. Nathan Matias of Princeton University, author of the study.

“In the U.S., between 40 and 46 percent of people have experienced some kind of online harassment.” In addition to the direct effects of the harassment, some fear that unfriendly online environments could discourage new members from participating in important social discussions.

Matias, a behavioural psychologist, set out to see if prominently posting notices of expected conduct, or accepted social norms in online communities could influence the discourse for the better.

To conduct the study, Matias collaborated with users of reddit.

“Reddit is one of the largest online platforms for discussion, anywhere”, explains Matias.

The website is divided into communities, known as “subreddits”, which typically focus on a specific topic. The subreddits typically have their own rules for acceptable behaviour, which are enforced by a volunteer team of users known as “moderators”, who are given special privileges, and access to data.

For this work, the science discussion community “r/science” was selected, and Matias worked closely with the moderators.

“In this study we used software that the community consented to invite into their online group.” The software took the form of a user profile, which was granted moderation powers.

The machine-controlled profile randomly selected certain new discussion topics (known on reddit as “threads”) to receive a prominent notice at the top of the discussion about the rules and standards of behaviour in the community, along with the penalties associated with breaking the rules, and information about the size of the moderation team.

The software would then monitor the threads that had received this notice, and those which had not, and recorded various statistics.

“We found something that was surprising to many of us”, explains Matias. The study found that posting information about the rules “did increase the chance that a first time commenter would actually follow those rules”, by about 8%.

Interestingly, the study also found that prominent placement of the notice increased newcomer participation in threads by around 70%.

“There are many people who worry that clear or strict rules about behaviour online might actually reduce participation in important public conversations.” This study seems to contradict that idea, and support prominent placement of such notices.

The mechanism behind this effect is not immediately clear, but Matias believes it may be related to humans' tendency to seek out information about the social norms within new groups they join, in order to inform their subsequent behaviour.

Matias believes that this work could inform a larger discussion amongst moderators and managers of online communities, about the best ways to not only decrease the prevalence of harassment and rule-breaking behaviours, but increase the quality of discourse within online communities in general.

“Throughout my time working with moderators of online communities I’ve been really inspired by the range of creative ideas that communities have for creating flourishing’s certainly something that I get excited about.”


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