I just deleted my reddit account and committed to no longer visiting the site. Why? Reddit refuses to ban openly racist and hateful subreddits.
What About Free Speech?
Reddit is based on the principle of uncensored speech, shielded by anonymity. Sounds good, right? Anonymity is especially important for activists working in countries with repressive regimes. Even in the United States, where you can often criticize your own government without fear of repercussion (I’ve done so many times on this blog, though higher profile dissenters do face risks), there is value in anonymity. Many commenters on this blog comment anonymously about health issues and the like, and thus write more freely, sharing more information than they would otherwise.
Uncensored speech is equally important. Speech (and writing) that goes against the prevailing orthodoxy is often jarring and even offensive to the mainstream. Galileo’s astronomical notions were once considered heretical. Values and beliefs change over time; next week my daughter attends “Camp Galileo”. The same is true for Darwin’s ideas, many of which the political right are still having trouble digesting. While heliocentrism is generally accepted today — as far as I know even Texans accept that the Earth goes around the sun — attempts to censor Darwin’s ideas are still quite active.
But problems arise when free speech and anonymity are combined with hatred and willful ignorance. The result is online communities that steer marginalized loners towards violence.
Seeing something in writing — including slurs and blanket generalizations about racial groups or women — legitimizes the hateful treatment of that group. For young people especially (who may not yet have fully developed critical thinking skills) participating in echo-chamber hate forums comes to no good. In the “kind of bad” scenario, a hypothetical heterosexual young man who participates in “men’s rights” forums views begins to view women as “the enemy” and is thus set back in developing joyful trusting relationships with women. In a “very bad” scenario a young man like Dylann Roof is incited to violence and kills innocent people. It’s not only racist forums that contribute to violence. “Men’s rights” and “pick-up artist” sites probably contributed to the misogynistic attitude of mass killer Elliot Rodger.
Is there a difference between racist forums (including subreddits), pick-up artists sites, and sites that promote actual violence (like jihadi recruiting websites)?
Sure there is, but reddit should ban all of them. Major content websites (and reddit is in the top 20) need to take responsibility for their content. Like it or not, reddit is mainstream. It’s possible that reddit is so popular because they so staunchly support uncensored anonymous posts, but reddit should ban hate speech even if it means they become less popular. Corporations should do their part in marginalizing hate speech. Otherwise mainstream consumers like me will leave in droves, and reddit will be left as a cesspool of racist and misogynistic hatred. There goes the neighborhood (and there go your profits).
Reddit co-founder Steve Huffman has recently returned as CEO and has given the racist subreddits a pass. Reddit’s new proposed content policy will “ban spam, illegal activity and harassment, as well as the posting of ‘private or confidential information’ and sexual content involving minors” but will continue to host subreddits that “violate a common sense of decency”. This list includes /r/coontown and dozens of other subreddits that foment hatred and prejudice.
From the wikipedia article on controversial subreddits:
Reddit’s general manager Erik Martin noted that “having to stomach occasional troll reddits like /r/picsofdeadkids or morally questionable reddits like /r/jailbait are part of the price of free speech on a site like this,” and that it is not Reddit’s place to censor its users. The site’s former CEO, Yishan Wong, has stated that distasteful subreddits will not be banned because Reddit as a platform should serve the ideals of free speech.
Huffman himself writes, “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.’” While I acknowledge that Huffman faces a difficult “lose lose” decision (any policy change will alienate both free speech advocates and people trying to marginalize and discourage racists), for me personally the line is in the wrong place. Huffman’s “I don’t like this group of people” is a euphemism for “I hate this group of people,” and the latter is very close to “let’s take real world measures to hurt this group of people.”
As entertaining as I have found the cute animal pictures, fascinating news stories, and in-depth discussions of Dungeons & Dragons rules mechanics, I no longer want to spend time on a site that hosts malevolent, noxious hate groups.
Update Nov. 2016: reddit has commendably banned some of its more noxious subs. I do sometimes look at reddit these days (though I haven’t recreated an account)–it’s a fun break as long as I don’t get sucked in. Social policing is not censorship; it’s protecting users from harassment, bullying, and sometimes even death threats. It’s a hard thing to understand as a white male because you just don’t see the worst of it. If you’re a white male on the fence on this issue, ask your female and non-white friends about their social media experiences. I’d like to see Twitter be at least as responsive on this issue as reddit has been. Maybe then they could sell the company. – JD