New Reddit CEO Vows to Silence Communities Deemed ‘Abusive’

Noam Galai/Getty Images for TechCrunch

Reddit co-founder Steve Huffman has outlined a new content policy that many users fear marks a new era of censorship on the platform.

Under the proposed policy, many of the site’s user-created communities “may be hidden” from public areas of the site or even face deletion.

According to Huffman, who recently replaced interim CEO Ellen Pao after two tumultuous user revolts on the site, the following content will be banned or restricted on Reddit:

  • Publication of someone’s private and confidential information
  • Anything that incites harm or violence against an individual or group of people
  • Anything that harasses, bullies, or abuses an individual or group of people (these behaviors intimidate others into silence)

Although inoffensive to a normal observer, anti-harassment drives of the kind outlined by Huffman have become controversial recently. On Twitter, “anti-harassment” tools often serve as a mask for politically motivated ostracization, while college activists are increasingly fond of disinviting offensive or politically disagreeable speakers on the grounds that they feel “unsafe.”

Huffman clarified to a user that disagreeing or indicating dislike for a group of people would still be allowed on Reddit, telling the user, “It’s ok to say, “I don’t like this group of people.” It’s not ok to say, “I’m going to kill this group of people.” In another reply, Huffman elaborated further. “Mocking and calling people stupid is not harassment.”

The fact that Huffman’s clarification was necessary reflects the suspicion that many Redditors feel towards the administration. A previous purge of subreddits enacted under Ellen Pao led many to view the site’s owners as inherently pro-censorship, hence the decision of some Redditors to give her the moniker of “Chairman Pao.”

Prior to Huffman’s posts, speculation had been mounting about the level of censorship he would engage in. Redditors on some anti-censorship subreddits predicted an “inevitable sh*tstorm” or a “purge” of offensive subreddits.

Huffman’s previous track record at Reddit, which he acknowledges in his post, was one of arbitrary censorship. In the early days of Reddit, Huffman admitted that he would regularly ban users who “spewed hate,” and the community “rarely questioned him.”

However, Huffman now says he is eager to avoid bans wherever possible, describing them as the Internet equivalent of “capital punishment,” only to be used in “the clearest of cases.”

Instead, he has opted for a technical solution. With the exceptions of subreddits that incite violence or harass others, Huffman will reach for the quarantine pen rather than the ban hammer.

Huffman confirmed that /r/coontown, a racist community that many Redditors  (including ex-CEO Yishan Wong) believed would be banned in the coming “purge,” would remain on the site. Instead of being banned, it will be hidden from the public areas of Reddit, only to be seen by users who opt-in to offensive content.

It’s somewhat odd that a poisonously anti-black community is seen as less of a problem to Reddit than “fat-shaming” communities like the recently-banned “/r/fatpeoplehate.” Nonetheless, many anti-censorship Redditors will be relieved that a new purge has yet to materialise.

Huffman is modeling his approach to filtering offensive content on the approach used to filter adult content. “Separation and opt-in techniques have worked well for keeping adult content out of the common Redditor’s listings, and we think it’ll work for this other type of content as well,” writes Huffman.

Poor communication with moderators, one of the grievances cited by subreddit moderators in last week’s Reddit Revolt, still seems to be an issue. The moderators of KotakuInAction, a top 50 subreddit that houses the site’s GamerGate-supporting community, tell me they have heard nothing from the admins on the status of their subreddit and whether it falls afoul of the new rules.

“We’re running on pure speculation at this point,” says TheHat2, the head moderator of KotakuInaction. “I don’t think KiA will be banned, but the possibility is always there, just because of our association with GamerGate, and its association with harassment. Frankly, I just don’t know what will happen.”

GamerGate’s association with harassment is, of course, specious. Peer-reviewed research from the feminist group Women, Action and the Media, as well as independent data science, show no evidence that there is any more abuse in GamerGate than there is in other online movements–or indeed the Internet at large. Nonetheless, allegations that GamerGate is a harassment movement has appeared across the media, making the moderators of KotakuInAction wary of new rule changes.

Another moderator of the subreddit, Logan_Mac, was particularly concerned. “I for one think this is just the first step, they will slowly ban any ideological dissent.”

Gawker is in a gloomy mood too, but for different reasons. Gawker’s bloggers, especially Sam Biddle, have been beating the drum about “toxic” Reddit communities for some time. They now appear to be disappointed by Huffman’s failure to enact a draconian purge. “Either Reddit has a severe, profound misunderstanding of what its problems actually are,” writes blogger Ashley Feinberg, “or it just doesn’t care.”

Follow Allum Bokhari @LibertarianBlue on Twitter.