Study: Tiny percent of Reddit communities spark majority of conflicts

Stanford researchers reveal how tribalism and infighting ignite the “front page of the internet.”

Morgan Little Senior Director, Audience
Morgan leads the teams managing CNET's presence and content across social media, news platforms and more after stints in the marketing world and LA Times. Eventually his last byline on the site will be about something other than Godzilla
Morgan Little
2 min read

How does a simple disagreement on Reddit blow up into a mess of feuding, personal attacks and brigading? That's what a team of Stanford University computer science and linguistics, inspired by a predictably hyperbolic post on r/conspiracy, have worked to find out.

The post has since been removed, but its intention is clear: to invade the r/documentaries community.

The group took 40 months of Reddit activity and examined what specifically happened when conflict arose between two communities. These conflicts are distinguished from standard internet fights by their scale: entire groups of like-minded users are called upon to attack or scrutinize another.

At the heart of the findings was the discovery that a mere 1 percent of communities on the site were responsible for 74 percent of all of these conflicts, as illustrated by the map below.


Controversial topics, as it turns out, are controversial.

Computer Science and Linguistics Departments, Stanford University

But when this subset of the larger Reddit ecosystem does attack, they lash out against similar groups.

"Overall, we find that negative mobilizations are initated by a handful of communities that attack highly similar communities," the report states, so r/NYYankees and r/RedSox may have more in common that they'd like to admit.

More often than not, these battles aren't a back-and-forth exchange. As with much of the internet, user activity reinforces echo chambers. The study found that "attackers interact 2x more with other attackers compared to their interactions with defenders, while defenders interact 20x more with other defenders compared to attackers."

These attacks often have a tangible impact on the participating communities. In the 30 days after a group is attacked by another, attackers post more frequently and defender posting declines. The researchers call this "colonization," a behavior "where members of the attacking community become regular members of the target community."

"However, we find that this negative outcome is prevented when defenders break echo-chambers and engage in direct heated conversations with attackers," the researchers said, indicating that actually talking to humans can actually quell an attack.

Amid all of this online feuding, there is a silver lining. Though it can be hard to tell based on the tenor of a lot of online discourse, not that many people actually take part in these fights. And at least the conversation around the study within r/dataisbeautiful has avoided the worst behaviors highlighted in the study.

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