Reddit CEO Steve Huffman announced Wednesday that the site plans to take action against its "most toxic" users in a sweep that could end up being a virtual bloodbath in the Trump-supporting subreddit known as r/the_donald. Following a dustup last week over the revelation that he had, vengefully, edited the comments of several users in the forum that were directed at him, Huffman also continues to apologize and assure users that no such clandestine editing or censorship will happen again. "I am sorry for compromising the trust you all have in Reddit, and I am sorry to those that I created work and stress for, particularly over the holidays," he writes in a statement. But he says Reddit won't be torn apart by the egregious trolling and rule-breaking behavior of a toxic few hundred, and the site will now take steps to warn and/or ban the worst of the worst most of whom are all-caps typing, Trump-supporting, bigotry-spewing, anger-management-needing, likely very lonely and unfortunate people whose only social outlet is a subreddit.
Also, in another move likely to piss off the_donald's faithful, posts from that subreddit will no longer be allowed in the "r/all" feed on the site, which was something that these users coveted and took steps to achieve, making sure that their rage, and conspiracy theories, and passion for Donald Trump made it to the largest audience of Reddit users possible.
"The United States is more divided than ever, and we see that tension within Reddit itself," Huffman says, adding that he's growing increasingly weary, as an experienced and jaded moderator himself, with the incessant harassment by users of the_donald, who have sought to hijack the entirety of Reddit this election year and shout everyone else out of the room. "We have dedicated many of our resources to fighting harassment on Reddit, which is why letting one of our most engaged communities openly harass me felt hypocritical," he says, trying to explain why he ended up "trolling the trolls" last week he edited several comments that said "fuck you, spez" (his username), without a trace, to say "fuck you" to the moderators of the_donald.
The implications of Huffman's actions were bigger than just some angering of Trump supporters in this subreddit, however. As discussed last week, Reddit thrives on being a no-censorship zone where a great deal of vitriol is tolerated, and typically any comment edited or deleted by a moderator or administrator would come with an asterisk and notification. Huffman's ability to make edits without a trace stems from him being the original engineer of the site, and he now assures users that no other admins have such capabilities, and steps will be taken internally "to prevent this sort of thing from happening in the future," as he tells TechCrunch.
But it seems that Huffman was driven to extremes by the uncontrollable behavior of the 50 or so volunteer moderators of the_donald, who have been given free reign to flout the site's rules about respecting other users, and curbing harassment. And at least a few of these moderators have been shown to conspire to artificially upvote posts, and to harass moderators of other subreddits on the site, proving to be trolls themselves even, in one instance, prompting a user or someone to vandalize another moderator's car, and multiple moderators getting death threats.
"Historically, we have relied on our relationship with moderators to curb bad behaviors," Huffman says. "While some of the moderators have been helpful, this has not been wholly effective, and we are now taking a more proactive approach to policing behavior that is detrimental to Reddit."
As Gizmodo discusses in a new piece today, the_donald has had the effect over the last year of tearing Reddit apart perhaps even moreso than when Ellen Pao was ousted as CEO in 2015 over her attempts to rid the site of trolls. As a moderator of one of the site's "default" subreddits that cover more broad topics tells Gizmodo, "I know there’s always been a 'dark side' to reddit. But the dark side used to be confined to the corners. It was manageable. What The_Donald has become, and what it’s doing to the site isn’t."
The saddest thing is that the chaos at Reddit, this virtual civil war over civility, is a reflection of the larger culture IRL, and is not unlike the struggle Twitter is having in taming its user base after years of unabashed free speech and trolling a growing backlash has led them even to consider banning Trump himself, if necessary.
Reddit faces a challenging future in our increasingly polarized political landscape. What’s considered acceptable opinion has diverged. For a site that houses disparate communities that don’t get along, it must find ways to promote civility without unnecessary censorship, and give people space to share their opinions while fighting back when those opinions fester into harassment of other users or hate speech against specific demographics. ...
If Reddit swings too far toward totalitarian control, it may push away users who’ve relied on the forums as a home for free speech, contrarianism and niche beliefs. But if it can’t stop the trolls from blatantly abusing the rest of the community or projecting hate, it will have failed society and more mild-mannered users will move to cleaner pastures.
Cleaner pastures, at this point, might include Facebook, which has long had more stringent community guidelines and broader definitions of harassment and hate speech. But even Facebook faces its own dilemmas when it comes to limiting speech that may be offensive. NPR pointed out in a recent piece that Facebook moderators have let stand an image of a noose with a sign that said "Nigger Swing Set" next to it, posted by a group called White Lives Matter, for reasons of free speech. Facebook stands by the decision saying that they would only remove it if the image included a person, i.e. a specific subject of a lynching or hate crime.
Tech pundits are broadly suggesting that this is a moment of truth for Reddit, which risks an exodus of users who have remained loyal only because of the freedoms the site has allowed them.
And, former CEO Ellen Pao even ways in, chatting with Huffman about the fact that she would have fired anyone who did what he did last week. Observe:
As Gizmodo wisely notes, "A shitstorm of bad blood and digital vandalism, no matter how bad, is always temporary." But will Reddit survive this fresh moment of crisis without being blamed for liberal bias? Will Trump's ever-angry internet fan base ever recognize that they might just be getting discriminated against for behaving like major assholes, and not for their political beliefs?
Don't answer that.