As a company, Reddit has shown itself to be either ambivalent or complicit in abuse on the site, but users are fed up. Two new but rapidly-growing subreddits — r/esist and r/fuckthealtright — want to do something about it, and they have already claimed credit for getting hate speech community r/altright banned for harassment. Yesterday, they set their sights on one of the Reddit's worst offenders.
For the past 11 years, an eternity in internet time, Reddit has touted itself — repeatedly, and loudly — as the place to have 'authentic conversations' online. For a variety of reasons, that sentiment has always rang hollow. Now, Reddit, in its goal to be a laissez-faire haven of (relatively) free expression, has been overrun by nationalist trolls. Its staff of volunteer moderators is losing hope in the site's future.
Last night, Gizmodo received several extremely similar tip emails in a short span of time, all containing the same screenshot of a post on r/the_donald — Reddit's largest Trump community and the de facto meeting place for Trump fans online. The post encourages Trump opponents to kill themselves by jumping off a building, using the same #JumpAgainstTrump hashtag that recently got a New York priest in hot water. (Posts that encourage violence or incite harassment are against Reddit's content policy.)
What set the post apart from other hateful threads on the_donald was that one of the community's moderators "stickied" it, a mechanic that pins content to the top of a forum for maximum visibility. The post has since been un-stickied and the_donald moderators have not responded to a request for comment.
Image: imgur via reddit
Stickying a thread so clearly against content policy runs counter to what makes the_donald work: Plausible deniability. Because Reddit's site moderators (the paid staffers who oversee the site's volunteers) prefer to take action against individual users rather than whole communities, the_donald mods have remained insulated from eviction — though community moderators themselves have been known to create abusive posts. The_donald and Reddit staff have reached a detente of sorts, it would appear, based on leaked messages from a private Slack chat populated by the site's highest ranking moderators:
[moderator 1]: sticky post encouraging suicide [link]
[moderator 2]: seems like a poor tasted joke, but not something I would consider urgent or rule breaking
[moderator 1]: if you say so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
[moderator 2]: I get that that you dislike the_donald, but we really need to keep this channel reserved for actually urgent things. With regards to self-harm, we want to limit that to people what are actually at risk.
[moderator 1]: fair enough
[moderator 2]: thanks <3
(The moderator who sent Gizmodo the chats asked that we reprint the interaction rather than post an image of it, and that they remain anonymous. Members of the chat are kicked out for leaking screenshots, as was the case with a mod who did just that after Reddit CEO Steve Huffman was caught editing users' posts in November.)
How is telling people to kill themselves, even under the flimsy "lol jk" defence, not rule-breaking worthy of urgent attention? That isn't clear and the moderators involved did not respond to requests for comment.
What is clear is that staffers let this one slide, as they have done many times before. It's what makes recent remarks from Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian that users should "come for the cats, stay for the empathy" so galling. Ohanian also did not respond to a request for comment.
Attempts at addressing Reddit users' bad behaviour through tech solutions has done little to curb abuse. There are, however, other solutions. As the mod who leaked these chats told Gizmodo, "as I've seen with reddit over the years, their policy tends to change... if users and the media keep contacting them about one specific mod/situation." Users on r/esist and r/fuckthealtright seem to have figured this out.
One of last night's tipsters told Gizmodo that "we've contacted NY times and Wired basically any journalist who we thought would be interested in this". Given Reddit leadership's reluctance to address any issue without being pressured to do so, it's understandable why they'd turn to carpet-bombing the inboxes of reporters.
This was apparently the first media outreach campaign made by these groups — their apparent takedown of r/altright was accomplished purely by messaging the site's moderators — but it seems it won't be the last. Or, in the words of one of the tipsters, "there will be more action."
Reddit did not respond to a request for comment.