An increase in political polarization on Reddit boards earlier than the election of Donald Trump was pushed by new, largely right-wing customers, College of Toronto researchers recommend in a brand new examine.
The paper, printed this week in Nature, challenges the idea that polarization on Reddit was primarily attributable to present customers who turned extra excessive by means of membership in on-line echo chambers.
“Polarization on Reddit was disproportionately pushed by new customers showing on the platform, and the impact was fairly substantial,” says Ashton Anderson, assistant professor within the division of laptop and mathematical sciences at U of T Scarborough and lead creator of the examine.
“We noticed some present customers turning into polarized in 2016, however the impact was actually pushed by new customers who joined the location nearer to the right-wing extremes than present customers.”
It’s been prompt that being a part of like-minded on-line communities reminiscent of Reddit can result in polarization, however what isn’t clear is whether or not present particular person customers are influenced to maneuver in direction of extra ideological extremes, or if it’s new customers becoming a member of these communities that causes the impact.
Anderson and PhD pupil Isaac Waller developed a machine-learning method to evaluate social stances, together with political leanings, throughout 10,000 completely different subreddits – or on-line communities inside Reddit – from a pattern of 5.1 billion feedback over 14 years.
They discovered that the political exercise of particular person customers didn’t turn into considerably extra polarized over this era, however that the platform as an entire did turn into extra polarized across the time of the 2016 election. The 2016 change in platform-level polarization was 2.17 occasions what it will have been if new customers “arrived on the common 2015 polarization stage, regardless of solely accounting for 38% of political exercise
throughout 2016,” the researchers wrote.
“What we’re seeing right here is that platform polarization is just not being pushed by individuals themselves altering. Somewhat, it’s the composition of the platform that’s altering,” Anderson says.
He factors to the rise in reputation of r/The_Donald, a subreddit created in 2015 devoted to discussing and selling Trump. (Reddit eliminated the subreddit after the Capitol Hill assault, saying it violated its insurance policies in opposition to selling hate and inciting violence.) Anderson says, as on-line communities develop, they often transfer in direction of the centre as they turn into extra various. However r/The_Donald remained close to the acute right-wing.
“Reddit genuinely modified within the sense that the political exercise on the location was more and more turning into extra homogeneous and shifting farther and farther away from the centre,” he says.
Whereas these new customers shifted right-wing dialogue additional to the precise, the researchers discovered that exercise on left-wing and centrist communities barely turned polarized in any respect. Some polarization did occur on the left, however Anderson says the impact was nowhere close to as giant as that skilled on the precise.
The researchers word that the brand new customers driving this polarization solely accounted for a fraction of exercise on the location. “They have been a minority of the customers, however they drove the vast majority of polarization throughout that interval,” Anderson says.
Anderson says the tactic developed on this examine will also be used to quantify the social make-up of different on-line communities. He says this will help higher perceive the social contexts of on-line behaviour, reminiscent of poisonous language being utilized in predominantly previous or younger communities, and to tell the design of different on-line platforms.
The findings recommend that a rise in polarization could come right down to altering dynamics of a particular inhabitants, fairly than a broader, society-level change in beliefs.
“Typically, particularly in these on-line communities, it won’t be that folks inside the neighborhood out of the blue transfer towards these partisan extremes,” he says.
“Massive-scale polarization, no less than in on-line communities, would possibly merely be attributable to a turnover within the individuals utilizing them.”