Reddit: Highlights from the Controversy

by Jenny Shore

Reddit is known as the front page of the Internet, but in the last few weeks it also might have found its place on that front page. A series of controversial events at Reddit, including the banning of five subreddits under Reddit’s recently instated anti-harassment policy, the firing of popular employee Victoria Taylor, and the resignation of then CEO Ellen Pao, has led to Reddit co-founder Steve Huffman to take the company’s reins as CEO.

Huffman’s first public move has been to propose a new content policy. It aims to preserve Reddit as a place of “open and authentic discussions” (note: not as a “bastion of free speech,” per a recent Reddit post by Huffman), while also prohibiting content that “incites harm or violence” and requiring an opt-in login to view content that “violates a common sense of decency,” among other things.

In the weeks leading up to this discussion about the content policy, the recent Reddit happenings have become the subject of fascinating and important reflections on freedom of expression and the role of social media companies in mediating that freedom. Here is a (undoubtedly very incomplete) selection of pieces from that debate, which we hope can illuminate its contours:

“How The Reddit Debacle Proves Libertarians Wrong,” Talking Points Memo , Amanda Marcotte

“In reality, this amounts to a battle over who gets to own Reddit as a space: Poop-flinging bigots or ordinary people who want to have free-wheeling conversations that still maintain enough decency to be actual conversations?”

“Former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao: The Trolls Are Winning the Battle for the Internet,” The Washington Post , Ellen Pao

“The Internet started as a bastion for free expression. It encouraged broad engagement and a diversity of ideas. Over time, however, that openness has enabled the harassment of people for their views, experiences, appearances or demographic backgrounds. Balancing free expression with privacy and the protection of participants has always been a challenge for open-content platforms on the Internet. But that balancing act is getting harder. The trolls are winning.”

“No Matter What Reddit Does, It’s Going to Alienate People” Wired , Davey Alba

“And so Reddit seems to be at an impasse. If it allows harassers and trolls to stay, it risks sending the rest of its community fleeing. If it bans some content, it’s lambasted for violating its ideals. Its latest attempt to split the difference appears to be the kind of compromise that, in classic democratic fashion, ends up leaving no one happy. But that may be the price Reddit has to pay if it doesn’t want to turn its ideals over to the machines.”

“How to Detox Reddit,” Slate , David Auerbach

“Rather than taking one side in this conflict, which has generated a dismal amount of noise and sanctimony in the last few months, I propose a technical solution to appease both sides. By carefully employing social stigma, the site can effectively quarantine its hate speech and its most hateful users without violating the free speech principles of its founders or alienating its user base.

“...Reddit already classifies hateful subreddits as 18-plus, along with subreddits devoted to pornography and gore. What’s needed is another category, labeled with no ambiguity: “hate”. Subreddits that support, encourage, or fail to moderate hate speech will be tagged with the hate label, which will accompany them whenever they are mentioned on the site…”

“Was Reddit Always about Free Speech? Yes, and No,” The Verge , Adi Robertson

“Sometimes Reddit is a bastion of free speech, sometimes it isn't, and sometimes it doesn't seem to matter. That's what makes this debate so tricky. If there's no "original" version to rely on, the community will have to decide what Reddit should be, not just figure out how to return it to an earlier, unsullied state. And it will have to do it while trying to become a real, profitable business — not just a tiny experiment.”