UMD: A Globally Connected University

Global Spotlight Series Hosts Global Community Moderation and Reddit Researcher Sarah Gilbert

Global Spotlight Series Hosts Global Community Moderation and Reddit Researcher Sarah Gilbert

Dec. 9, 2021 | By Sara Wiatrak



The latest installment in the new Global Spotlight Series by International Student & Scholar Services (ISSS) explored research on global web content moderation by Dr. Sarah Gilbert, an international postdoctoral associate at the University of Maryland studying online community governance and patterns of content moderation across media platforms.


The lecture, titled “Behind the Banhammer: An Ethnographic Exploration of Online Community Moderation,” focused on Gilbert’s research in the context of Reddit, a platform with vast information and volunteer moderators. With its 1.2 million subreddits and 440 million active monthly users, according to Gilbert, Reddit is one of the top 10 most popular sites in the United States and served by millions of content moderators.


“It’s centered around topic-based communities that you subscribe to,” Gilbert said. “These are known as subreddits, and so these subreddits are created by users and regulated by users who are community moderators. If you have a Reddit account, you can upvote content or downvote content or comments that you don't like.”


Gilbert has engaged with these users herself to identify issues important to them, acting as a moderator and managing moderation work to learn more. Ultimately, she’s noticed that while this form of content moderation and “participation” in community governance is most common, it isn’t equipped for more scholarly and fact-intensive subreddits.


Her work has focused on the subreddit r/AskHistorians, for which she serves as a moderator. Founded in 2011 with almost 1.4 million current subscribers, the page welcomes questions about history with the intent to provide academically informed answers. Because of the purpose of the subreddit, Gilbert explained, it uses an alternate content moderation model that relies on designated moderators rather than all users. r/AskHistorians is run “technically by 41 moderators,” across different time zones, Gilbert said, though three of them are bots.




“The current models that we have… people are getting hurt because there's not enough moderation,” she said. “It turns out that when you let people say whatever [they] want to, ...the light actually doesn't provide disinfectant for hate or disinformation.”


When encountering sensitive topics, the moderators of r/AskHistorians balance providing informational answers against removal of potentially harmful or conspirative content. While freighted questions like “Why was America so primitive before colonization?” and “Why is Africa so poor?” can evoke informative answers that elucidate implicit biases, posts that outright deny or perpetuate suffering of marginalized groups prompt pre-written answers that aim to minimize damage. In extreme cases, a user’s access to the page is banned (hence the term, “Banhammer”).


“That's like the crucial logic in play here behind content moderation,” Gilbert said. “And so this calls for an alternative content moderation model. So moving beyond removing content to where you'll be more accountable to rethinking what your freedom of speech looks like, how freedom should actually be enacted.”


Gabriela Gillespie, the integration program manager for ISSS, launched the Global Spotlight program with graduate assistant Cameron Busacca this spring. The series provides visiting international scholars a space to present their research both as a lecture and as a conversation with the audience.


“We have long wanted to provide an opportunity for scholars to showcase their research, but also to provide a service to them as scholars,” Gillespie said. “The Spotlight Series gives a great opportunity for scholars to get feedback and to get consulting on how to share research to the community members that may not be as familiar with details of their research in their field.”


ISSS has a team of advisors that processes immigration documents in order to bring the scholars to UMD, Gillespie explained. Though the term “scholar” casts a wide net, the Global Spotlight Series focuses on international scholars who are doing a postdoc at the university, or students in their dissertation phase and are conducting research.


The events are moderated by Joe Scholten, an associate director in the Office of International Affairs, who also provides prior feedback on how to make the information more accessible to audiences who are outside the specific discipline of the speaker. 


As a researcher with a background in information technologies, human rights and technology ethics, Gilbert was a unique addition to the program’s speakers so far, Gillespie noted.


“She's the first speaker—that I have seen—that we've hosted that has not focused on science or math, and I think that's perfect,” Gillespie said. “I think all disciplines should be highlighted at some point. But they're all connected.”


Gilbert’s presentation contributed to a robust calendar of events during International Education Week at UMD, Nov. 15-19, celebrating international education and exchange worldwide. Past speakers include Niklas Mueller, who presented “Quantum Computing and its Value in Multiple Disciplines,” and Lisa Milani, who lectured on the estimation of rainfall and snowfall to understand availability of water resources on Earth. Gillespie explained that the focal point of the Global Spotlight Series is to create both connections across disciplines and to create community, as well.


“For the speaker, I hope that they will get an present their research in a non-competitive, informal but collaborative experience…really to get to talk to people outside of their area and explain why their research is relevant,” she said. “And for the audience members, it's to showcase the variety and the vast research that our international scholars do and contribute to the University of Maryland’s research community.”