Scholar Spotlight - Saskia Poulter

Laidlaw Scholar Saskia Poulter, on Reddit's proliferation of extreme content.
Scholar Spotlight - Saskia Poulter

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Saskia Poulter, a Durham University Laidlaw Scholar, on Reddit's proliferation of extreme content.

Research title: Smelling the Covfefe - Discursive Ecologies and ‘Maximalist’ Moderation in an Alt-Right Reddit Community

Since its launch in 2005, social news aggregation platform Reddit has gained significant notoriety as an incubator of alt-right discourse. The literature attributes Reddit’s tendency to harbour extreme content at least partially to its idiosyncratic approach to content moderation: In contrast to sites such as Facebook and Instagram, which use algorithmic detection programmes and large bodies of staff to enforce strict regulations on submissions, Reddit relies on over 100,000 volunteer moderators to discretionarily enforce subreddit-specific rules of their own design (‘subreddits’ are the topic-focussed communities which make up the Reddit site. All posts published on Reddit are initially submitted to a subreddit). Reddit’s volunteer moderation is often inconsistent or even willfully unenforced; moreover, particularly on political subreddits, volunteer-designed rules sometimes explicitly prohibit criticism of the subreddit’s favoured position. In an extreme example of this design’s results, research has found that 11.6% of all posts that moderators deemed acceptable on one right-wing subreddit were explicitly Islamophobic.

Completed under the supervision of Professor Mariann Hardey, my project involved using natural language processing to identify patterns of user activity in one prolific alt-right subreddit, r/The_Donald, which was dedicated to support for US President Donald Trump. Specifically, the project sought to (i) identify how hateful slurs and media are popularised across the community, (ii) understand how frequently r/The_Donald users communicate on other subreddits, and (iii) develop a method for assessing whether r/The_Donald’s shut-down on 29th June 2020 stalled the proliferation of extreme content or merely caused users to migrate elsewhere on the site. The findings of this research provide insights into how a more interventionist approach to content moderation on Reddit might be effectively designed.

Where did your passion for this research originate?

My interest in this research had two roots. The first was its subject matter: I submitted my project proposal in December 2020, just as the UK was entering a second round of pandemic lockdowns, and for the best part of a year political communication had overwhelmingly taken place online. Unsure of how permanent this setup would be, it seemed obviously important to understand whether and how the design of digital platforms had affected political expression – and so, potentially, sociopolitical outcomes. During the first lockdown, I’d also read Sadie Plant’s brilliant Zeroes and Ones, Laboria Cuboniks’ Xenofeminist Manifesto, and Nick Srnicek’s Platform Capitalism, each of which drove home that as a society we could be using technology better.

The second root was the project’s methodology – in particular, its focus on natural language processing and quantitative text analysis. I’d seen these techniques used in a huge variety of exciting social science work (by Matthew Williams in migration research and Tom O’Grady in political sociology, for example) and was keen to learn to implement them myself. I couldn’t have asked for a better learning environment than that provided through the one-on-one supervision of a leading academic, and I’m extremely grateful to the Laidlaw Foundation and Professor Hardey for this opportunity.

A carnival game that we brought to trade fairs
to advertise BikeRecycling’s work

What are some insights & lessons from your experience?

During my second summer in the Laidlaw Programme, I spent six weeks in Mexico City with Zachary Ferretti from Tufts University. While there, we worked with MakeSense Mexico as consultants to a local social enterprise called BikeRecycling, which uses bamboo bicycles to collect recyclable waste from homes and businesses. Public waste collection services in Mexico City are widely unreliable, so residents often pay for private collections to ensure that their refuse is removed; booking private recycling collections, however, is more expensive than purchasing general waste collection only, so recycling rates in the area are chronically low. BikeRecycling aims to challenge this by providing affordable collection alternatives.

Our task for the six weeks was to design and pilot a strategy through which BikeRecycling could expand its user base. Working in an unfamiliar market, in another language, to recruit and lead a team of 13 volunteers to help us implement our plan provided a rich source of learning on leadership. One important lesson was the value of diversifying the spread of stakeholders from whom you gather information; of course, formal meetings, interviews, and surveys with customers, employees, and market experts yielded important insights, but some of the information that most profoundly shaped our work emerged from incidental encounters with tour guides, street vendors, and translators. A fellow passenger on a boat trip, for example, provided us with details about how gangs operate in the Mexican waste collection industry which were vital for keeping ourselves and our team safe. Another way of expressing this point is that curiosity and epistemic humility are integral to good leadership.

What are your top 3 leadership tips?

  • Leadership is, as much as anything, about leveraging the skills of your team. Pay attention to each team member’s specialisms and what drives them as an individual.
  • Keep your team’s objectives at the heart of every decision you make and every conversation you have within the project. Be open to those objectives changing.
  • Lead with tenacity, proactivity, and commitment. Know that finding the energy and self-confidence to do this is far easier when you make time to pursue activities outside work that fulfil you.
Reuniting with Zach at the Boston Laidlaw Conference,
after working together in Mexico

What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?

To me, being a Laidlaw Scholar has meant being a part of a community of driven, talented and fundamentally kind people; at every turn, they have been generous with their advice on research, careers, leadership and much else beyond. It’s meant an opportunity to produce original research in a way that simply wouldn’t have been possible without the stipend or supervision; it’s meant chances to present my work at conferences in the US, UK and Canada; and, through the LiA component, it’s been a reason to pick up languages that I thought I’d never touch after secondary school. The alumni mentoring scheme that Durham runs as part of the scholarship programme has opened doors to multiple academic-adjacent career options: It was through this that I came across the Civil Service Research placement that I’ve been working in for the past year. Without a doubt, Laidlaw has been a highlight of my time as an undergraduate.

Which leaders inspire you the most and why?

Fred Hampton – who led the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers before his assassination by the CIA aged 21 – is perhaps as close to an exemplary leader as anybody could be. For one, Hampton approached his activism with a vitalising sense of urgency and moral probity: while still in school, he gained national recognition for his campaigns against discrimination towards Black athletes and within the US education system. Moreover, every organisation that he led was radically inclusive: the Illinois chapter ran a now-famous free breakfast programme, provided childcare for members, and helped with legal aid – in recognition of the fact that if you expect people to commit themselves to a cause, it’s necessary to create the material conditions in which they can do so. In a similar vein, Hampton ensured that women took on leadership positions immediately on the chapter’s inception, fervently protesting sexism in other Black Panther chapters. His ambition and willingness to challenge the organisations of which he was a part are characteristics that all leaders would do well to emulate.

Briefly describe a scene from the future you are striving to create.

I believe that everybody having the opportunity to identify and pursue those activities that bring them fulfilment – whether creative, sporting, social or otherwise – should be a foundational goal for all societies. Some basic degree of economic equality is a necessary precondition for this, so inclusive and considered socioeconomic policy is something that I hope I can help push for. On an individual level, I hope that by producing and sharing innovative research in a higher education setting, I might be able to help others understand what it is that stimulates them.

Quick-fire Questions

🎥 Film to watch: One Fine Morning

📚 My top book recommendation: Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes

🎶 My anthem: Get Out Of My House by Kate Bush

🎵 Podcast obsession: Transformation of European Politics 

🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: Seeing so many friends graduate and move on to amazing post-university roles!


You can find Saskia on LinkedIn. If you are interested in learning more about Saskia's research, check out her research report.

Saskia is a Laidlaw Undergraduate Leadership and Research Scholar at Durham University. Become a Laidlaw Scholar to conduct a research project of your choice, develop your leadership skills, and join a global community of changemakers from world-leading universities.

Find out more about the Laidlaw Scholars Undergraduate Leadership and Research Programme.

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Go to the profile of Princess Agina
11 months ago

Impressive, Saskia! Your research on Reddit's content is eye-opening. It's vital to understand how online spaces influence our beliefs. Keep up the fantastic work and continue to inspire!