This morning when you visited Reddit to see pictures of parakeets riding dogs, you may have noticed something a tad peculiar. Specifically, if you visited the subreddit “/all,” you might have seen a ton of swastikas and other obscene material.
What’s going on?
On most mainstream websites, censoring hateful content is standard operating procedure. But historically, Reddit has been different. Aside from a few exceptions, the site has erred on the side of free speech.
“We will not ban questionable subreddits,” Reddit’s former CEO, Yishan Wong, once wrote in a blog post titled Every Man Is Responsible For His Own Soul. “You choose what to post. You choose what to read. You choose what kind of subreddit to create.”
But under the leadership of Pao, the tide has turned. As she recently explained in a blog post titled Promote Ideas, Protect People:
One of our basic rules is “Keep everyone safe”. Being safe from threat enables people to express very personal views and experiences—and to help inform and change other people’s views.
Because of this, we are changing our practices to prohibit attacks and harassment of individuals through reddit with the goal of preventing them. We define 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.
Obviously, personal threats and attacks against an individual should not be tolerated. No one should have to endure the threat of violence, or have their personal information shared online. It’s worth noting that Pao also implemented a policy helping victims of “revenge porn.”
Pao has also stated that the site is “banning behavior, not ideas,” which sounds reasonable. However, the terms of the harassment policy are still somewhat vague, probably by design.
What is the definition of a “reasonable person”? Is there an online test users can take to determine how reasonable they are? And what is the definition of “safety” in terms of feeling safe to “participate in the conversation”? Again, it’s understandable that threats of violence should not be tolerated. But if someone expresses unpopular views in a particular subreddit, and is continually mocked and ridiculed for their posts, does that constitute a systematic effort to prevent them from expressing their ideas? Where does a heated debate stop and bullying begin? I’m not saying there isn’t a difference. There clearly is. But where is Reddit drawing this line?
As Jason Koebler of Motherboard points out, today’s protests are, for the most part, “an echo chamber of a vocal minority of a few thousand Redditors causing a fuss.” Most users had never heard of “/HamPlanetHatred” before today, and almost no one will weep now that it is gone. But the vague “I know it when I see it” notion of ‘safety’ that’s being used to take down these disgusting subreddits should give us all pause.
At the end of the day, Reddit is a privately owned company, so it is free to moderate the site however it sees fit. And attempting to protect people from hate and harassment is noble. But as Time.com points out, Reddit’s sudden change of heart on free speech seems to coincide with a $50 million influx from venture capitalists who will no doubt seek to “attract more mainstream advertisers that would otherwise shy away from being associated with harassment.”
So excuse me for being cynical, but perhaps Reddit’s decision isn’t completely altruistic. As Reddit’s former CEO Yishan Wong said, “Virtuous behavior is only virtuous if it is not arrived at by compulsion.”