A Simple Way to Reduce Harassment in Online Discussion Groups

New research finds that prominently posting community rules can make a big difference in deterring trolls.
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"Making community norms visible prevented unruly and harassing conversations by influencing how people behaved," writes Princeton University psychologist J. Nathan Matias.

Online discussions can get quite ugly very quickly. Even before the advent of fake news, hate-spewing trolls had already upended the idealistic vision that the Internet would forge productive, positive connections between people around the world.

New research points to a simple step that discussion groups can take to mitigate the pernicious problem of trolling. A recent study finds that simply posting "community rules," and making sure they remain prominently displayed, increases compliance with those guidelines, as well as participation by newcomers.

"Human behavior is guided by our subjective perceptions about what is common or acceptable to others in a situation," writes Princeton University psychologist J. Nathan Matias. "Making community norms visible prevented unruly and harassing conversations by influencing how people behaved ... and who chose to join."

In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Matias describes an experiment he conducted with the New Reddit Journal of Science, a 13-million-subscriber community on the Reddit platform. "The community hosts discussions about peer-reviewed journal articles, and live question-and-answer sessions with prominent scientists," he notes. "Many of those discussions attract conflict and harassment."

How bad can things get on a science-focused platform? This bad: "When Professor Steven Hawking answered questions in 2015, commenters mocked his medical condition and personal life with abuse and obscene insults."

Working with community moderators, who monitor and remove such inappropriate comments, Matias designed a message that ran at the top of each discussion between August 25th and September 23rd, 2016. It simply read: "Welcome to r/science. Comments will be removed if they are jokes, memes, abusive, off-topic, or medical advice (rules). Our 1,200 moderators encourage respectful discussion."

These simple rules were posted on 2,190 separate discussions of specific papers during that month. Matias reports that they made a real difference.

"Without posting the rules, a first-time commenter ... has a 52.5 percent chance of complying with community norms," he writes. "Posting the rules causes an 8.4 percent increase in the chance that a newcomer's comment will be allowed to remain by moderators."

In addition, "posting the rules also affects who chooses to participate in a conversation, increasing the participation rate of first-time commenters in a discussion by 70 percent on average," Matias writes. Once the rules were clear, more newcomers felt it was safe to jump in.

The Internet is often described as a lawless space that can encourage people to indulge in their worst instincts. Still, many websites do have guidelines, and this study suggests that simply making them clear and obvious can help foster a more civil discussion—and encourage more people to take part.

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