Free Speech vs. Harassment: Why Did Reddit Ban Five Subreddits?
Reddit officially announced the decision to ban five subreddits , due to ongoing harassment problems. This is a change in policy for the website, which has previously refused to ban even the most hateful subreddits because of their belief in free speech.
In 2012, then-CEO Yishan Wong said, “We stand for free speech. This means we are not going to ban distasteful subreddits. We will not ban legal content even if we find it odious or if we personally condemn it.”
Current CEO Ellen Pao, and the rest of the Reddit management, have decided that they are going to ban subreddits that “allow their communities to use the subreddit as a platform to harass individuals when moderators don’t take action.”
Content warning: some of the banned subreddits include homophobic, fatphobic, and racist slurs.
What Was Banned And Why?
Only one banned subreddit was mentioned in the main post because it was the biggest, and that subreddit was /r/fatpeoplehate, which had over 150,000 subscribers. Pao later commented with the names of the four other banned subreddits:
Reddit administrators say that these five subreddits are responsible for seriously harassing people, and that is why they were banned. One administrator followed up with a comment about this to clarify:
When we are using the word “harass”, we’re not talking about “being annoying” or vote manipulation or anything. We’re talking about men and women whose lives are being affected and worry for their safety every day, because people from a certain community on reddit have decided to actually threaten them, online and off, every day. When you’ve had to talk to as many victims of it as we have, you’d understand that a brigade from one subreddit to another is miles away from the harassment we don’t want being generated on our site.
Users who try to visit any of these subreddits now will be greeted by this image:
The administrators said in their announcement that they are hoping to keep their involvement at a minimum, but they do hope to make “incremental changes” in the future to keep everyone safe.
Who Is Mad About It?
As with most topics, there are people on many different sides. Mainly, there are those who are completely against the new policy and those who feel it is a step in the right direction. Both of these sides (but mainly the former) have been tweeting with #RedditRevolt.
Let’s start with the backlash.
“We Are Being Censored!”
A large part of the Reddit community has been fighting back against what they call censorship. The front page of Reddit quickly had a Nazi swastika post ranking as the highest post so that when people googled Reddit’s CEO, they would find that symbol.
Some Redditors even started a Change.org petition to remove Ellen Pao from her position as CEO of Reddit, which, at the time of this writing, has almost 9,000 signatures.
Not everyone is being reasonable. Some within the community have been resorting to extremely racist depictions of Pao, relating her to Chairman Mao Zedong. Yeah. The CEO of a company makes a move that its community doesn’t like, and suddenly they think she’s comparable to the Chinese dictator who was responsible for “an estimated 40 to 70 million deaths through starvation, forced labour, and executions, ranking his tenure as the top incidence of democide in human history.”
Others have taken to vandalizing her Wikipedia page, saying she was born as the Korean Dictator Kim Jong Un (who was also guilty of many human rights violations). Pao’s page has since been corrected, but it’s incredible how Redditors are resorting to the exact kind of harassment that got the subreddits banned in the first place. It’s reminiscent of the time when Anita Sarkeesian talked about gender inequality in video games and was subsequently brutally harassed.
— ?? Alcario Tuzon ?? (@zemichi) June 10, 2015
Most of the community, however, seems to be focusing on the free speech argument instead of such attacks. These people argue that even though they don’t approve of or endorse the content posted on all subreddits, they believe that all subreddits should be allowed to exist on the basis of free speech.
— breitbart bass (@sophsa) June 11, 2015
One Reddit moderator even resigned over the change in policy. BetterJosh resigned from /r/koans, a subreddit that is about modern Zen teachings. This was a major point of his statement:
But as for me- I simply refuse to spend any more time building content and traffic for an organization that simply does not share my core values anymore.
He did make a point that adds more nuance to the conversation, which others have been picking up on as well:
My biggest problem with the new pro-censorship policies of Ellen Pao is that they are inconsistent. I myself am extremely offended both by many of these remaining subreddits, and by the behavior of reddit admins. However, for reasons known only to reddit administration, some offensive subreddits will be banned, and other allowed to thrive.
Many have noticed that though five subreddits were banned, tons of other equally offensive and horrid subreddits still exist. You don’t have to search far on Reddit for something that will make you want to gag.
One Redditor suggested banning /r/shitredditsays because they have been found to harass people, but the response from administrators was that that subreddit didn’t have the same level of ongoing harassment as the five that were banned.
“This Isn’t Censorship!”
On the other side of this coin are the people who don’t believe that banning harassment is considered limiting free speech. This has been a huge debate in recent years on a variety of sites.
Facebook recently introduced a flagging feature to cut down on harassment, and Twitter is widely known for having a harassment problem (especially for women and those in marginalized communities). Twitter has taken steps to rectify that in March and April of this year, but those policy changes were widely criticized for not being effective enough.
Getting back to Reddit: one Twitter user used an XKCD comic to summarize the argument.
— Donna Dickens (@MildlyAmused) June 11, 2015
According to this argument, the right to free speech isn’t what is being infringed upon here because the government has said nothing about what users can and can’t post on Reddit. Instead, a private company is taking steps to cut out the most toxic, harassment-happy sections of its website.
The question, for Reddit, is this: is it worth having vitriolic, hateful content on your website – and for your site to be a place where people coordinate harassment campaigns on individuals – in order to say that you stand for free speech?
Unless they fold under the backlash, Reddit’s answer seems to be no. Reddit seems to believe that free speech has limits, and that harassment shouldn’t be tolerated.
One Reddit user brought this up in a thread about the Reddit Revolt:
Reddit is an US based company, therefore if it willingly ignores and allows communities that are cyberharassing people the company will have to deal with their own legal issues because in most states in the US have laws against cyber harassment.
I, for one, am all for the site doing what it can to stop cyber harassment instead of ignoring it, even if the only reason they do it is to make sure their own asses are covered legally.
This is not a “freedom of speech” issue for so many reasons, but one of the biggest reasons it is not, is because freedom of speech doesn’t give you freedom from facing consequences of breaking the law. Harassment is illegal and so is cyber harassment in a large portion of the US states.
This all comes after a survey done in March that showed that Reddit users were upset with the harassment rampant within the community. This resulted in a blog post from Reddit saying that they would be cracking down on harassment. Now they have actually followed up on that.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Reddit will continue to live on with millions of active users, who don’t mind (or even realize) that a few hateful subreddits were removed. It’s possible that Reddit will lose some members who are upset about this, but in the long-term, they’re aiming to draw in more people by making Reddit a safer place.
Do you use Reddit? What do you think about the banning of these subreddits? Let us know in the comments!
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