“PAO GET OUT NOW” shouts a post on the first page of the front page of Reddit. It links to a picture of Adolf Hitler with the face of CEO Ellen Pao superimposed upon it. This is now a common sight on Reddit, the influential “Front Page of the Internet”, a website whose users are in full-scale revolt against their administrators.
Submissions on Reddit rise and fall depending on the number of votes they receive, which gives the outside world an indication as to what topics users of the site are currently interested in. And right now, they are overwhelmingly interested in seeing the back of their CEO.
Hundreds of posts have been deleted and removed from the front page as Reddit admins try and contain the damage, but new posts and new discussion threads continue to appear, as Reddit users make new accounts and new subreddits to evade bans.
Reddit previously had a reputation as a bastion of unfettered free speech on the internet, much like the anonymous imageboards of 4chan and 8chan. All of that changed this Wednesday, when Reddit’s admins initiated an unprecedented crackdown against a number of offensive communities on the site. But Reddit users (like most people) are fans of free speech, and they blame the CEO for what has happened.
They aren’t wrong.
Reddit’s previous CEO, Yishan Wong, was not particularly popular with Redditors either. They are a notoriously independent bunch, and highly mistrustful of authority, so this was not entirely surprising. But even as Reddit was under siege from a hostile media condemning it for allowing the existence of the subreddit “/r/thefappening”, where leaked pictures of nude celebrities were being shared, Wong reiterated Reddit’s commitment to free expression.
“Every man is responsible for his own soul”, wrote Wong in September. “While we may believe that users should behave in a certain way… You choose what to post. You choose what to read. You choose what kind of [community] to create and what kind of rules to enforce.”
“The reason is because we consider ourselves not just a company running a website… but the government of a new type of community. The role and responsibilities of a government differs from that of a private corporation, in that it exercises restraint in the usage of its powers.”
Although external pressure eventually forced Wong to delete the offending subreddit, his words were a reassuring affirmation of the values of Reddit’s users. Wong was articulating classical liberal principles — that coerced morality is not morality at all, and a site where millions of people communicate and express themselves should be governed by principles roughly approximating the First Amendment of the United States.
Wong’s post reassured Redditors that the closure of /r/thefappening would not herald a new age of censorship on the site. And true enough, no such censorship emerged.
Until Ellen Pao arrived.
Although she was appointed by Wong, Pao made it clear from the beginning that she did not share his philosophy. Where Wong emphasised Reddit’s commitment to free expression, one of Pao’s first announcements made it clear that Reddit under her leadership would “not [be] a completely free speech platform”. Adopting the language of “safe spaces” common among pro-censorship radicals on campuses, it seemed that while Wong took his cues from the First Amendment, Pao took hers from Tumblr.
Despite Redditors’ wariness of Yishan Wong, perhaps they didn’t fully appreciate how lucky they had it.
At the same time, it isn’t clear whether Reddit’s sudden shift towards censorship can be explained solely by Pao’s motivations. In a viral post, one Redditor explained potential economic factors behind Pao’s decision, and much of the media coverage has noted that a crackdown on offensive subreddits is likely to make the site more palatable to advertisers.
Nonetheless, Pao is the CEO, and the site’s new direction began almost as soon as she arrived at the company. In the minds of users, her name is now irrevocably linked to censorship on the website.
Concern about censorship is even beginning to spread beyond Reddit’s borders. Washington Examiner columnist Ashe Schow recently had an article deleted from the front page of Reddit for dubious reasons, while Erik Kain, a popular columnist for Forbes, has also raised concerns about the censorship of news articles and reviews on the site. In a bizarre twist, another article detailing the removal of Schow’s initial article was also removed from the frontpage.
A petition calling on Pao to resign as interim CEO is now approaching 10,000 signatures. The petition was set up three months ago in response to the deletion of a number of discussion threads detailing the notoriously litigious history of Pao and her husband, Buddy Fletcher. But the vast majority of signatures came in the past three days, in response to the new wave of censorship on Reddit.
Ellen Pao has turned Reddit’s users against Reddit’s management. In the minds of users, her name will forever be associated with the worst period of censorship in Reddit’s history. The idea of “Chairman Pao” is now etched into the internet’s memory. And the internet does not forget.
Follow Allum Bokhari @LibertarianBlue on Twitter.