In the midst of Mark Zuckerberg’s hours-long testimony before the Senate Commerce and Judiciary Committees, Reddit dropped its 2017 transparency report. It contained a list of nearly 1,000 user accounts the company believed were involved with the Russia-backed Internet Research Agency—and unlike other social media companies, Reddit has also preserved those banned accounts’ posts for review by any user. But the more alarming admission was made by CEO Steve Huffman in the comments below.
“I need clarification on something,” a user asked “Is obvious open racism, including slurs, against reddits rules or not?”
Huffman replied from his Reddit account, “It’s not.”
It’s a strong admission and one Huffman was under no obligation to make, although it’s consistent with the site’s ethos. Reddit typically opts for narrow enforcement—taking action against specific users rather than whole communities no matter how distasteful. Likewise, its definition of harassment appears to be limited to actions taken against a specific user over several interactions.
Granted, whether or not the use of a racial slur is harassment is dependent on context (it could just be regular racism!), and individual communities can and do enforce internal rules on Reddit against this sort of behavior. But the site as a whole does not have a policy on hate speech. To put into context what a glaring omission this is, here’s an incomplete list of platforms and services with some form of policy that either prohibits the use of hate speech, or limits its acceptability to extremely specific circumstances.
To wit: Facebook and Instagram; Twitter; Google+, Google AdSense, Google Play, Blogger, and, YouTube; Tumblr; Snapchat; LinkedIn; Pinterest; MySpace; Yahoo; Microsoft, Xbox Live, and Bing Ads; Steam; Playstation Network; Nintendo; Disqus; Amazon and Twitch; eBay; Imgur; Pornhub; GitHub; Yelp; Wikia; Wikipedia; and Apple’s App Store.
Does that list sound like it describes the overwhelming majority of the modern internet? It does! And of the top sites in the US not listed, many either assume common sense on the part of their users’ candor (Craigslist’s broader language around “offensive, obscene, defamatory, threatening, or malicious postings or email”) or don’t have social functions for people to abuse (like IMDB, which shuttered its forums over a year ago.)
“On Reddit, the way in which we think about speech is to separate behavior from beliefs. This means on Reddit there will be people with beliefs different from your own, sometimes extremely so. When users actions conflict with our content policies, we take action,” Huffman added, though the clarification seems largely academic, since the means of determining a user’s beliefs is almost entirely reliant on their behavior in posts and comments.
Reddit’s commitment to being “a bastion of free speech on the World Wide Web” is documented, although lately the company has been making a number of concessions, revising its policies to reflect the social and legal realities of life online in 2018. Changes in recent months have taken aim at removing communities centered around sex work, extremism, drug use, and gift exchanges, among other interests. It’s unclear if hate speech—something other platforms have come strongly under fire for failing to prevent—is something the fourth largest site in the US intends to take action against as part of its campaign to prove its maturation.
We’ve reached out to Reddit to learn if Huffman accurately represented the site’s current policy, or if this policy will see an update in the near future.
Update 4/12/18 2:45pm ET: Some 30 hours after we first ask for clarification from Reddit, the site’s CEO has instead edited his original comment to users outlining his confounding views on open racism—adding a full seven paragraphs of backpedaling to augment what is far from his first public gaffe.
“While the words and expressions you refer to aren’t explicitly forbidden, the behaviors they often lead to are,” Huffman stated, largely reiterating the same comment that got him in hot water to begin with, “When it comes to enforcement, we separate behavior from beliefs. We cannot control people’s beliefs, but we can police their behaviors.” The use of racial slurs in posts and comments seems to clearly fall under the category of “behaviors,” but if Huffman feels otherwise he doesn’t bother to back up his claims.
He further adds that, “I believe the best defense against racism and other repugnant views, both on Reddit and in the world, is instead of trying to control what people can and cannot say through rules, is to repudiate these views in a free conversation, and empower our communities to do so on Reddit,” putting the onus of refuting, educating, or ignoring hateful, low-value users on the very people they seek to demean and abuse. Having these slurs excised from Reddit, he notes, would be “presenting a sanitized view of humanity [that] does us all a disservice.” Though Huffman may be unaware of it, there’s a vast range of human expression possible even without the ability to insult strangers over their beliefs or the circumstances of their birth.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that Huffman is an albatross around the neck of a company is trying very hard to grow up.