Getty Images / reddit / WIRED
It started out as a bit of a joke. In June 2018, a user on a now-banned subreddit made a tongue-in-cheek suggestion about creating a bot – an automated account that could call out racists by going through their post history and tallying up the number of racial slurs they had used.
Someone almost immediately went away and built it. Within a few hours of seeing the post, a Reddit user called ‘ogkushmonster’ had started working on a bot to serve exactly that function. “I had just finished an introductory programming class at college and thought it would be a relatively easy bot to make to improve my new coding skills and that it would be funny to actually make it,” says the 23-year-old from Michigan who does not want to be named.
It was called ‘nwordcountbot’ – and it could be summoned by any Reddit user to provide a count of the number of times any other user had used the racial slur. All they had to do was tag the bot, along with the username they wanted to check in a comment, and the bot would quickly reply with the information. The bot is one of a number of tools that Reddit users have been employing to fight back against hate speech online.
“Getting the bot up and running was pretty easy and only took a few hours. Improving the bot so that it could respond to comments almost instantly, keep a database of all the users it investigated and comments it replied to, and run on a server for months at a time without crashing took much more learning and effort,” says the creator.
It was a huge hit. The bot exploded in popularity, swiftly breaking out beyond its more fringe subreddits into bigger ones like r/teenagers. By May 2020, it had been summoned more than 190,000 times, and counted 1.7 million uses of the n-word from 120,000 different users. One user, now banned, had used it more than 300,000 times. “I was surprised that it got so popular. I think that some people viewed it as a valuable tool for combating racism, while other people thought it was funny to see how much they could spam the n word,” says ogkushmonster. “There was something for everybody.”
The bot had a relatively short life. Three months ago, citing the cost of the servers required to run the bot, its creator decided to shut it down. “I never expected the bot to get so popular but I’m glad that you all liked it so much, from the chapos [members of r/ChapoTrapHouse, a now-banned subreddit associated with a left-wing podcast] using it to cancel people to the edgy teenagers competing to see who could say the most n words,” they commented on a Reddit post announcing the bot’s departure.
But there was clearly a demand for the service. And so, in June 2020, a new bot – wordscounterbot appeared as its “officially endorsed” successor. The new bot has been summoned almost 1,000 times in three months – sometimes to make a point during arguments about policing in America or politics, but often just as a joke. “People usually use it when they see someone say something “suspicious,” says its creator, alashow. “There are also imbeciles that spam comments the n words by commenting on spam posts to get a high ‘nwordcountbot score’.”
As well as bots, redditors have also built browser extensions that can help them identify suspicious users. The ‘masstagger’ extension for Chrome and Firefox was created two years ago by a user called ‘morpen’ – building on a previous version that had been around since 2013. “At some point, I found myself baited into an argument only to find out that my opponent was an active member of several (literal) Nazi subs,” they write on their website, explaining the genesis of the extension, which applies a coloured tag to members of certain ‘hate subreddits’ who may be engaged in so-called ‘concern trolling’. This is where users intentionally troll other subreddits by pretending to agree with their point of view, but then engaging in bad faith and subtly undermining aspects of their arguments.
Reddit has forcefully tightened its community guidelines in recent months and clamped down on a number of subreddits where hate speech was rampant, including pro-Trump subreddit The_Donald, which had more than 800,000 subscribers. But those users haven’t gone away – they’ve simply migrated to other, more private niches on the website – occasionally emerging to troll, or run organised raids on other subreddits.
The site was always prone to such echo chambers. Split into subreddits, one front page could look completely different from the next, with all the content moderated by users themselves. Reddit built some of its popularity on providing a semi-anonymous discussion platform – unlike Facebook or Twitter, few people use their real names, which emboldens them to speak more ‘freely’ than they might otherwise. But free speech doesn’t mean you can say whatever you want with no consequences. Tools like wordscounterbot and masstagger may be crude and yes, subjective, but they offer a reminder that the internet never forgets.
Amit Katwala is WIRED’s culture editor. He tweets from @amitkatwala
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