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Reddit’s ‘decency’ reckoning has begun. Why are trolls and racists still winning?

Reddit finally began contending with the hate-filled parts of its popular internet free-for-all on Thursday, as new leadership vowed to crack down on the site’s baroque selection of pornography and to isolate other “content that violates a common sense of decency”.

Dozens of so-called “subreddits” devoted to images and fantasies of rape and violence have now vanished, less than one week after Reddit’s female chief executive departed amid a chorus of death threats and slurs from the site’s notoriously toxic users.

Hours after ousted interim CEO Ellen Pao emerged to declare that “the trolls are winning”, her replacement took to the vibrant forums that both power and taint global online discussions, warning users that Reddit would soon ban spam, incitement, bullying and images suggestive of child abuse along with anything “actually illegal, such as copyrighted material”.

But Steve Huffman, the new interim CEO and Reddit co-founder, stopped well short of a full-on purge, appearing to allow the continued existence of the site’s sizeable and seedy underbelly.

“We believe there is value in letting all views exist, even if we find some of them abhorrent, as long as they don’t pollute people’s enjoyment of the site,” Huffman wrote in an Ask Me Anything session on Thursday.

Huffman said the subreddit “r/rapingwomen” would be banned and that other inappropriate content would become more difficult to find. Threads like “r/coontown” and “r/PhilosophyofRape”, however, remained, as will discussion of illegal activities such as drug use.

“There are many subreddits whose contents I and many others find offensive,” Huffman wrote, “but that alone is not justification for banning.”

The policy shift demonstrated an awakening within Reddit to a long acknowledged problem: the site might not be able to survive without the unpaid labor of a teeming sewer of neo-Nazis, rape enthusiasts, corpse fetishists and the bullies and trolls who have helped to drive away senior employees – many of them women – including Pao, who often stood up for the users’ right to express themselves however they wanted.

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In an email exchange with the Guardian, Huffman said he “had almost no involvement with reddit during the Ellen months”. But ahead of his new content mandate on Thursday, labor lawyers and civil rights groups told the Guardian they viewed the site’s practices as undoubtedly suspect in terms of ethics – and questioned whether or not Reddit could exist without them.

In any case, it appeared white supremacists and rape fetishists had already found new places to go.

Who moderates the moderators?

Pao, who became an international emblem for women in technology when shelost a landmark gender discrimination lawsuit earlier this year, resigned on Fridayafter a torrent of abuse following the dismissal of a popular administrator, Victoria Taylor.

Taylor was a Reddit employee and point of contact for the many unpaid Reddit moderators – or “mods” – in charge of allowing discussions to continue, even amid a torrent of abusive discussions and topics. The mods shut down forums including the popular Q&A board “r/AMA” in protest.

On Thursday, Pao spoke out about the end of her eight-month tenure at the company in detail for the first time since her resignation.

“Expecting Internet platforms to eliminate hate and harassment is likely to disappoint”, she wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, arguing that Reddit’s popularity – the site had 164 million unique visitors last month – had become a stumbling block. “If mistakes are made 0.01 percent of the time, that could mean tens of thousands of mistakes.”

“Balancing free expression with privacy and the protection of participants has always been a challenge for open-content platforms on the Internet,” Pao wrote. “But that balancing act is getting harder. The trolls are winning.”

While the trolls may be winning and the so-called “mods” culled from Reddit rabble remain in control, Huffman and his co-founder insisted on Wednesdaythat was not created to be a “bastion of free speech”.

In response – in fact, in the same Reddit thread – Pao’s predecessor, Yishan Wong, put the blame squarely on the shoulders of Reddit users themselves: “We tried to let you govern yourselves”, he wrote, “and you failed.”

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One synecdoche for the site’s trouble with trolls is the subreddit “r/Catholic”, which allows earnest Christians to hold forth on their personal struggles – sometimes with relationships or sexuality, sometimes with the church’s decisions or policy.

With the sole exception of a cartoon-loving user named platinum4, all of the Catholic subreddit’s moderators also oversaw forums devoted to rape, race hatred or gore – sometimes all of the above. One subreddit with five overlapping r/Catholic moderators was r/cutefemalecorpses; r/beatingwomen was also popular among them. (Under the new policy, the latter sub-forums has been eliminated. The former has not.)

There is moderator overlap between r/CountryMusic and r/TrayvonMartin; between r/Gaza and r/PicsofDeadKids; between r/AdventureTime and a subreddit featuring X-rated cartoons of the popular children’s show, r/ATPorn. Subreddits usually have multiple moderators – often more than a dozen – and mods often oversee dozens of communities.

In the email exchange with the Guardian on Wednesday, Huffman declined to detail his concerns with hate speech in the Reddit community, saving them for his mea culpa in the AMA on Thursday.

But he said the site would “be adding more tools for both moderators and the community managers we employ at reddit”.

“I think we can save everyone a lot of time,” Huffman wrote.

What will happen if you quarantine the trolls?

Reddit has also been a windfall for the growing online communities of white supremacists around the US and the world.

When discussion of valueless subreddits arises, as it did on Thursday, users have been quick to ask the site’s administrators why the notoriously hate-filled sub-reddit “r/Coontown” is still allowed to exist.

In the days following Pao’s departure – in which she said hate speech from users directed at her “made me doubt humanity” – the regulars on that particular racist forum had begun anticipating a ban.

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Even after Thursday’s massive policy shift, it remained.

“People who are in reddit already, when they stumble on [one of the many racist subreddits], get this immersive experience of being surrounded by all this white supremacist content,” said Keegan Hankes of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups.

As one user pointed out during Huffman’s Q&A session on Thursday, “r/Coontown” approaches the white supremacist site in terms of traffic.

Huffman said he was baffled by the notion that Reddit could solve its problem with hate groups by quarantining them. “Why would Reddit do that?” Hankes asked. “Why would they lend their name and the legitimacy that comes with that? Reddit’s a household name. That’s almost more disturbing than how it’s operating now. Then you lose the idea that the good voices even out the bad.”

Along the side of the “r/Coontown” main page are links to communities that have even fewer rules, including the group’s chat network on the web client Kiwi IRC, which often exists as a kind of shadow discussion forum alongside Reddit communities.

“I don’t have any issue with the type of users coming into Kiwi,” the client’s co-founder, Darren Whitlen, wrote in an email on Thursday, saying that the site was seeing an increase in traffic from Reddit as the content debate has raged.

On Kiwi, the would-be exiles from “r/Coontown” seemed energized by what they saw as persecution: “I do think the biggest thing holding us back about Reddit is we can’t act,” wrote one user. “But without reddit we’d be a force to contend with.”

“It turns out they didn’t have to worry, so they celebrated. Even before the AMA concluded, r/Coontown had a new header on its page, with a mocking “reddit seal of approval” on it.

The digital media’s content factory

Reddit remains a weak hitter, financially speaking: it has those 164 million unique users, by its own accounting – not far behind Buzzfeed’s 192 million – but it made just $8.3m last year. BuzzFeed broke the $100m mark before Thanksgiving, even as it mines Reddit for source material.

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In his email to the Guardian on Thursday, Huffman called the attention from news organizations “[o]n one hand flattering, on the other frustrating” and suggested improving the notoriously low-tech site: “Better sharing functionality should help with this,” he wrote.

Of course, none of Reddit’s moderators are paid – just its administrators, who remain a separate and much smaller group. The moderators’ primary reward for managing high-traffic sections of the site – such as the celebrity AMAs – is the ability to act as super-users, managing powerful, high-traffic fiefdoms.

“It seems odd that so much of the business of the company is being done by unpaid workers,” said Juno Turner, a labor lawyer at Outten & Golden.

Jonathan Segal, of the firm Duane Morris, said trolls and racists might “be less sympathetic, but I’ve been surprised by some of the people that government agencies have found sympathetic”.

Labor concerns don’t yet appear to trouble the company. On Thursday, Huffman told Redditors, his primary concern is making sure the site’s basement does not cause trouble with the rest of the site.

“[The new policy] is what we will try,” he wrote, “and if the hateful users continue to spill out into mainstream reddit, we will try more aggressive approaches.”


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