Around the same time the WHO put a name to the mysterious respiratory disease spreading with alarming speed around the globe: COVID-19, two of the internet’s most popular communities for discussing this unfolding crisis began to drift apart—with one increasingly embracing racist language and conspiracy theories, while the other tended to avoid those topics.
The study, which is currently under peer review, comes at a time when many internet platforms are struggling to crack down on hate speech. On June 29, 2020, Reddit banned thousands of communities from its site, including one of the biggest platforms for supporters of President Donald Trump, r/The_Donald—a case study in how social media sites have become what study coauthor Brian Keegan calls « laboratories for democracy. »
« You’re seeing these online communities explore what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to different ways of doing governance, » said Keegan, an assistant professor in the Department of Information Science.