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So That’s Where All the Horrible YouTube Comments Come From

YouTube comments are the infamous cesspool of the internet, and they remain stubbornly hateful despite the introduction of comment moderation and (controversial) programs like YouTube Heroes. While a solution to the problem remains elusive, academics may have identified one of the causes. (Spoiler alert: it’s 4chan.)

In the papers, “Kek, Cucks, and God Emperor Trump: A Measurement Study of 4chan’s Politically Incorrect Forum and Its Effects on the Web,” and “The Web Centipede: Understanding How Web Communities Influence Each Other Through the Lens of Mainstream and Alternative News Sources,” researchers attempted to analyze 4chan’s effect on the wider web. Specifically, they looked at the effects of the “Politically Incorrect” board, better known as /pol/. As one of the researchers on both papers, Gianluca Stringhini, explained in an interview with Nature, we understand a fair amount about how content spreads once it’s been posted on a platform – how a “fake news” story gets shared on Facebook or retweeted on Twitter, for example – but we don’t have as much data about inter-site traffic. How does hate travel from site to site?

Researchers for the “Kek, Cucks, and God Emperor Trump” paper analyzed over 8 million /pol/ posts for insights into both the types of content that appear on the board, and how that content leads to user behavior. The revelations about the content will surprise exactly zero persons. It’s full of hate speech, memes, and links to extremist “tabloid and right-wing leaning” sites. “We find that 12% of /pol/ posts contain hateful terms [i.e., hate speech]…In comparison, analyzing our sample of tweets reveals just how substantially different /pol/ is from other social media: only 2.2% contained a hate word.”

The content on /pol/ is also often original, making it a clear starting point for plenty of racist memes. “Most content on 4chan is quite unique: 70% of the 1M unique images in our dataset were posted only once and 95% less than 5 times,” said the researchers. “In fact, /pol/’s ability to find or produce original content is likely one of the reasons it is thought to be at the center of hate on the web.”

However, the revelations about /pol/’s effect on YouTube were a little more intriguing. “The website most linked to on /pol/ is YouTube,” the researchers found, “with over an order of magnitude more URLs posted than the next two sites, Wikipedia and Twitter.”

Seeing YouTube’s popularity on /pol/, the researchers then studied “raiding” behavior. As defined in the paper, “a raid is an attempt to disrupt another site, not from a network perspective (as in a DDoS attack), but from a content point of view. I.e., raids are not an attempt to directly attack a 3rd party service itself, but rather to disrupt the community that calls that service home.”

“We studied ‘raiding’ behavior by looking for evidence of /pol/’s hateful impact on YouTube comments,” the researchers wrote. “We used signal processing techniques to discover that peaks of commenting activity on YouTube tend to occur within the lifetime of the thread they were posted to on /pol/.”

In short, although explicit calls for “raids” aren’t allowed on 4chan, when /pol/ users share a YouTube video they disagree with, it often serves as a call to other /pol/ users to leave abusive comments on that video.

In his interview with Nature, Stringhini also discussed the “Web Centipede” paper’s findings about /pol/’s effect on other sites. “Twitter influences the other services a lot, which makes sense,” he said. “Users of /pol/ and reddit will see news on Twitter, and then they will post those stories on their own boards and talk about them. But we also found that the opposite happens. To give you an example, we found that about 12% of the alternative news on worldnews — one of the main news boards on reddit — is coming from 4chan. And over 16% of the alternative news on the same board is coming from The_Donald.”

As we come closer to understanding the causes and sources of the most hateful news in our media ecosystem, and how that content spreads, the next step will be masterminding solutions. Given how much traffic this content can generate, I’m not sure I trust companies like YouTube and Twitter to develop those solutions – but at least academics are on top of researching the causes.

(Via Boing Boing and Nature; image via Justin Taylor on Flickr)

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