Reddit Makes Cosmetic Changes, Keeps The Racism And Misogyny
Reddit CEO Steve Huffman explained in an AMA (“ask me anything”) on Thursday that the site will ban subreddits and content that “harasses, bullies, or abuses an individual or group of people (these behaviors intimidate others into silence)” but will provide an opt-in for NSFW content, as well as:
“Content that is difficult to define, but you know it when you see it, is the content that violates a common sense of decency. This classification will require a login, must be opted into, will not appear in search results or public listings, and will generate no revenue for Reddit.”
He also clarified that “Harboring unpopular ideologies is not a reason for banning.” What all of this means, in effect, is that r/rapingwomen is banned because it actively encourages people to rape women, but that r/philosophyofrape stands because it’s just discussing the idea of raping women.
Moreover, r/coontown, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has described as harboring “the most violently racist internet content” in a report they issued specifically about the subreddit, stands. Never mind the fact that r/coontown users have been cheering on Charleston shooter Dylann Roof: That does not constitute inciting violence, in the minds of Reddit’s executives.
As Samantha Allen points out at the Daily Beast, the problem in the language here is that Huffman’s policy changes are too vague to be effective:
“To rid Reddit of the specific forms of hatred that make it unappealing to a large percent of adult Internet users, you actually have to, you know, name some of them. Here are some words that are noticeably missing from Pao’s ‘harassing subreddits’ post, Huffman’s AMA, and the oft-cited ‘promote ideas, protect people’ Reddit blog post: racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, and basically any other identifiable form of prejudice.”
Reddit’s executives seem to be operating under the very same assumption under which the prejudiced anons who populate their site operate under: That the only real form of harm that a person can suffer is material harm, that language has no real effect and no real power. Ergo, if r/philosophyofrape and r/coontown (which are far from the only violent subreddits still standing) promote hate, prejudice, and violence, the assumption goes that it doesn’t matter, that none their users carry that hate, prejudice, and violence into the real world.
The thing with ideologies that are “unpopular” is this: Dylann Roof had an ideology. Elliot Rodger had an ideology. The reason people get sensitive and upset about racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia isn’t that it just offends our sensibilities, it’s that people of color, women, gays, and trans* people have real cause to fear for our lives because of people with prejudiced ideologies. Do Reddit’s executives want the site to be an incubator for those ideologies?
There’s also a double-bind in the idea that Reddit will not profit from these subreddits. If the site did profit from the subreddits, Reddit would face the accusation that it was depending on racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and so on for revenue. But saying that the site will host those discussions but not profit from them means that, as David Futrelle points out, Reddit is willing to foot the bill for prejudice to exist on the site. At some point you have to ask: If Reddit is not a “bastion of free speech,” as Huffman said just a few days ago, then why not just tear those subreddits down?
The changes that are being made are not spectacularly principled and appear, rather, to be mostly cosmetic. Reddit’s executives seem like they’re grasping at something in the general direction of justice but falling short because of their own blind spots. It’s hard to say, “Well, baby steps” or “Any progress is good” when there’s no clear progress to be seen at all.