Reddit has long been a safe haven for users who yearn for the good old days when the internet was basically the Wild West. Whether myth or reality, many redditors believe that Reddit remains one of the few spaces on the internet where unfiltered opinion can persist unchecked, largely due to Reddit’s mechanism that permits any user to create a new subreddit on any topic. Buried within Reddit’s subreddit forums are spaces where offensive messages are not only tolerated, but often openly encouraged.
Case in point: a few years ago, one of Reddit’s most infamous (and popular) trolls, Violentacrez, was unmasked by a Gawker journalist. In that expose, Gawker reported on Violentacrez’s Reddit activities, which included creating a subreddit (r/jailbait) dedicated to posting pseudo-pornographic images of underaged girls, as well as other overtly racist subreddits; we also learned that Violentacrez’s online behaviour was essentially condoned by Reddit staff and moderators.
For most of its existence, Reddit prided itself on being a space where user behaviour was largely unregulated. This online culture became embroiled in controversy last year, however, when a user created the subreddit r/TheFappening to share nude photographs of celebrity Jennifer Lawrence stolen from her phone and re-posted without her permission.
In a blog post, former Reddit CEO Yishan Wang defended r/TheFappening, saying that he considered Reddit to be a “government of a new type of community” that should “exercise restraint in the usage of its powers”. Making exceptions for any behaviour that might lead to direct danger of a user’s health or life, Wang outlined Reddit’s policy to influence user behaviour primarily by positive modeling and “exhortation”. In response to Reddit’s role in distributing nude photographs stolen from female celebrities and other women, Wang suggested that it the individual user, not the site, who was responsible for any such “moral actions”.
r/TheFappening was later removed for technical reasons.
Later last year, however, Wang resigned as Reddit’s CEO, and in January, Ellen Pao — formerly of Kleiner Perkins, who bravely (if unsuccessfully) sued the company regarding systemic sexual harassment and discrimination — joined Reddit as interim CEO. Pao is currently appealing the decision in her gender discrimination lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins.
Pao’s joining of the company signaled a new direction for the company, one that would curtail the site’s tolerance of harassing behaviour. In February, the site announced a reversal of its policy on the posting of stolen nude images and revenge porn. Citing a new commitment on digital privacy, Reddit wrote:
Last year, we missed a chance to be a leader in social media when it comes to protecting your privacy — something we’ve cared deeply about since reddit’s inception. At our recent all hands company meeting, this was something that we all, as a company, decided we needed to address.
We’re so proud to be leading the way among our peers when it comes to your digital privacy and consider this to be one more step in the right direction. We’ll share how often these takedowns occur in our yearly privacy report.
Last month, Reddit announced a further expansion of their anti-harassment policies. In a blog post, Reddit administrators said they were “unhappy with harassing behavior on reddit”.
Instead of promoting free expression of ideas, we are seeing our open policies stifling free expression; people avoid participating for fear of their personal and family safety. Last month, we conducted asurvey of over 15,000 redditors—these are people who are part of the reddit community—that showed negative responses to comments have made people uncomfortable contributing or even recommending reddit to others. The number one reason redditors do not recommend the site—even though they use it themselves—is because they want to avoid exposing friends to hate and offensive content.
Under Pao’s leadership, Reddit announced a major shift that involved recognizing harassment as:
Systematic and/or continued actions to torment or demean someone in a way that would make a reasonable person (1) conclude that reddit is not a safe platform to express their ideas or participate in the conversation, or (2) fear for their safety or the safety of those around them.
Yesterday, in pursuit of this new policy, Reddit announced they would be banning at least five subreddits, the most widely followed of which were forums dedicated to fat-shaming.
This move prompted thousands of Reddit users to create a series of subreddits (e.g. r/PaoMustResign) aimed directly at harassing Ellen Pao. Users declared their intent to try and Googlebomb Pao’s name with a variety of images, users also created threads calling Pao a “cunt”and posted photos likening her to Hitler or photoshopping her head onto the bodies of obese people and subjecting her to fat-shaming language. A separate subreddit (r/PaoYongYang) takes on a distinctly more racist overtone, comparing Pao’s leadership of Reddit to North Korea (Because she’s Asian! Get it?), referring to her as either Great Leader or Chairman Pao. Currently, over 5000 redditors are subscribed to either subreddit.
This latest Reddit revolt comes on the heels of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in favour of Anthony Elonis, which limited the legal consequences of posting threatening messages to the internet. It is becoming increasingly clear that our perspectives regarding online harassment have not kept up with the rapid growth of the internet.
I also remember the old days when the internet truly was the Wild West. I remember the optimism that asserted that online technology would foster a wondrous new marketplace of ideas. But, we soon learned that unrestricted speech also resulted in spaces distinctly hostile to women and minorities; no one would dispute that this remains true even today. Increasingly, attention has focused on the role of the internet to facilitate cyberbullying, which has contributed to anxiety and even suicide among teenagers and adults, particularly those who identify as a marginalized group. Yet, don’t all of us — including those of us who are women and/or minorities — have a right to fully participate in online spaces, too, without fear of threatening and harassing behaviour?
The fact of the matter is this: regardless of how romantic unmoderated spaces devoted to unregulated speech sound, in reality we see too often that users infiltrate and abuse such spaces to bully those already marginalized from the mainstream.
Freedom of speech protects citizens from federal restriction of speech (although even the First Amendment does not protect all forms of speech), but it offers far less protection when it comes to a private organization’s internal policies. And, despite Wang’s assertions, Reddit is not a government and is therefore under no constitutional obligation to permit unrestricted speech on its servers. Reddit is a private company, with the legal right to limit and moderate user behaviour by whatever guidelines it chooses to implement.
Reddit users who are angry at Pao for curtailing harassing behaviour on the website have taken to Reddit to express their displeasure with vile messages and memes that push every conceivable boundary of respectful discourse; and not surprisingly, all they have really succeeded in doing is demonstrating why Reddit’s new policy is in place in the first place.