Reddit, the long-time haven of weirdos, perverts and miscreants the Internet over, has been, from its beginning, the mainstream bulwark for free speech online.
But in a strange twist that perfectly illustrates the current culture-wide debate around online speech, a group of disgruntled users have begun an exodus off the site — claiming, against all odds, that Reddit is censoring them as a matter of corporate policy.
This is, for the record, the same Reddit that defended Violentacrez, the Texas man who ran forums on beating women and sexualizing underage girls. The Reddit that allowed rampant speculation about the Boston bombing, even when it became dangerous. The Reddit that, just this past fall, supported a booming trade in stolen celebrity nude photos, and still, even now, hosts a variety of racist, misogynistic, homophobic and otherwise “NSFL” content that I dare not link to from The Washington Post.
If this isn’t enough free speech, what is?
To understand that question (let alone the answer to it), you have to start with a working knowledge of Reddit’s labyrinthine depths. The site is, for the uninitiated, basically a social news service divided into tens of thousands of themed forums, called subreddits. Users submit links, photos and in-jokes to the forums, which are voted up or down by other users. The forums themselves are run by volunteer moderators, or mods, who can basically make and enforce rules as they see fit. In general, corporate Reddit — Advance Publications-affiliated Reddit, $50-million-funding-round Reddit, only-70-employees Reddit — doesn’t step in unless the company is at risk of being sued.
The core philosophy, co-founder Alexis Ohanian explained in a book on Reddit’s early days, was “giving the people what they want.” Whatever they want. Accordingly, each forum looks a little different. In r/aww — one of my personal favorites — mods ban slurs, harassing comments and anything “sad.” In r/thefappening, where users shared the celebrity nudes that ruled September’s news cycle, slurs and harassing comments were basically the norm. (And that was, on its own, pretty sad.)
“We will not ban questionable subreddits,” Reddit’s then-CEO, Yishan Wong, wrote in the aftermath of that catastrophe. “You choose what to post. You choose what to read. You choose what kind of subreddit to create and what kind of rules you will enforce. We will try not to interfere — not because we don’t care, but because we care that you make your choices between right and wrong.”
That echoed Reddit’s official line on the Violentacrez scandal in 2012: “We stand for free speech. This means we are not going to ban distasteful subreddits.”
That said, Reddit doesn’t necessarily stand for absolute free speech — i.e., free speech above/to the detriment of every other human right in existence. It’s important to note that corporate Reddit does explicitly prohibit five types of speech, including child pornography, personal information and requests for up-votes, which manipulate post rankings. It also allows, and even encourages, individual moderators to make their own rules, which can range from “don’t post the same thing twice” to “no disrespectful commentary.”
While it’s impossible to generalize about tens of thousands of rules across tens of thousands of subreddits, they all essentially boil down to one core philosophy: Within online communities, speech is a right equal to other rights — and when speech conflicts with other rights, it doesn’t always win.
For example, if you post a photo to Reddit without the photographer’s permission, your right to speech doesn’t trump the photographer’s right to her intellectual property. And if you take a photo of a child in a bathing suit at the beach, your right to speech doesn’t necessarily trump that kid’s right to leave his house without being sexualized and preyed upon by some creep with a camera.
As the sociologist Zeynep Tufecki put it in 2012 during the Violentacrez saga, ” ‘free speech’ as an absolute value … that is not balanced by any other concern is at best an abdication of responsibility, and at worst an attempt to exercise power over vulnerable populations.”
It would appear that many of Reddit’s individual moderators agree with her, even if Reddit itself does not. On Feb. 8, a Redditor using the unsubtle handle redditiscorrupt0 posted a lengthy, and popular, diatribe in Reddit’s /r/conspiracy, claiming that a secret “cabal” of moderators was censoring speech along “radical feminist and social justice” lines. That same day, a group of other disgruntled Redditors started a forum called r/subredditcancer — the better, they said, to document the anti-misogyny, anti-racism, pro-censorship conspiracy taking over Reddit.
Within hours, a Reddit knockoff called Voat — based in Switzerland, and thus subject to different laws — had seen a “large influx” in users and activity, mostly from ex-Redditors seeking greener, and presumably freer, pastures.
“So essentially,” wrote one Voat convert during a Q&A with the site’s founders, “I can be offensive to anybody, as offensive as I want, as long as no death threats, etc., and you guys will not ban me?”
This, to be clear, is the real issue at the heart of the so-called Reddit exodus: As fun — and complicated — as the grandiose conspiracy theories are, there’s no evidence that anything’s actually going on there, besides a lot of moderators sharing a common philosophy on free speech. Voat has emerged, almost by accident, as a symbol for another kind of philosophy: that everyone should always be allowed to say anything they want, particularly if it offends what Tufecki calls “vulnerable populations.”
“We are not SJW and don’t plan on becoming it,” Voat’s founders wrote in the most popular question of their Q&A. “Also (luckily for us), no SJW girlfriends.” Winky-face.
The bottom line: On Voat, sticky issues like “social justice” won’t interfere with the inalienable right to be, as one user puts it, “serious, serious d***s.”
But can that philosophy succeed in any community, online or off it? It certainly has little precedent “in real life,” where the Supreme Court has ruled on at least half a dozen exceptions to the First Amendment. And other Web sites that promise absolute free speech have generally not fared well or have been forced to roll back that vision: 4chan is a notorious cesspool, and 8chan’s registrar recently took it offline for hosting child porn.
“Didn’t Reddit start as a free-speech oriented site too?” Asked one new Voat user. “In the end how will we be any different over here?”
Just ask the fervent converts of “VoatWatch,” who are already policing their new home for users who don’t believe in absolute free speech. They’ve come up with a novel way to do it, too: To prevent censorship, censor the would-be censors first.
Update: This story has been clarified to reflect that Wong is no longer Reddit’s CEO, and that Advance Publications is Reddit’s largest shareholder, not its sole owner. We regret the error.
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