Mentions of the word “fat” on Reddit in the 18 hours after the subreddit ban. (TrackReddit.com)

When Reddit banned five forums for violating its anti-harassment policy Wednesday, users went, in a word, insane. They started a petition on Change.org to get CEO Ellen Pao fired. They promised to migrate to “freer” sites, like Stumbleupon and Voat.

But most of all, more than anything, they plastered Reddit’s front page with mocking, hateful photos of obese people. This was their Alamo.

[These are the five forums Reddit banned]

They may not have the moral high ground on other so-called speech issues — threats and racist hate speech come to mind — but this, at last, was a form of prejudice the mainstream could get behind. Nevermind that Reddit banned five forums, and that only two of them had to do with fat-shaming. Nevermind, likewise, that the bans weren’t spurred by content, but by reports of serial harassment.

The details don’t matter; the ideology did. And there’s no way Reddit’s extremist speech warriors would let a group of “fatties” win.

***

It’s important to understand …

before we dive into the particulars, that the controversy rocking Reddit today actually has little to do with Reddit or censorship. Instead, consider this “revolt” the latest symptom of the growing pains afflicting the entire social Web.

For years, Reddit — much like Twitter and 4chan before it — took a hands-off approach to community management. And it worked, in the early days, when Reddit was little more than a newsboard for nerds.

[The battle for the soul of Reddit]

As Reddit grew larger, however, that dynamic changed — a natural consequence of the community’s scale, and a problem Twitter and 4chan also faced. Whatever small harms or indignities existed before Reddit had 150 million monthly users were now amplified a thousand times. There were more people, more extreme people, higher ratios of users to site administrators. Where once fat-shaming trolls traded tasteless jokes, they now stole, and rebroadcast, obese peoples’ photos.


An archived screenshot of Fat People Hate. (Via Internet Archive)

But even if early Reddit had allowed that type of mischief — and by all accounts, it did allow some pretty nasty things — the situation has changed. Where Reddit was once a niche community far from the Internet mainstream, it’s now a major social network with a board and a PR firm and millions of users. Just as 4chan began banning Gamergate threads, and just as Twitter began exorcising its trolls, Reddit needed to clean up harassment or risk alienating the bulk of its (now mainstream, multitudinous) users.

By and large, these were business decisions. They were never based on ideology. But as multiple networks ramped up their anti-abuse measures in tandem, a fluid contingent of users began interpreting them that way.

[Reddit, Voat and the state of Internet speech]

This group is best defined by what they oppose, since what they stand for is much harder to interpret. To wit: social progressivism, political correctness, any kind of perceived “censorship.” They call their enemies “social justice warriors,” a catch-all for anyone espousing more progressive views. And they see SJWs in the shadows of every social network policy change — even though, in reality, these changes have very little to do with politics or corporate values.

With the new Reddit crackdown, anti-SJWs received an amazing gift. Reddit was trying to protect fat people, they argued. And for better or worse, that’s one type of bias that lots of otherwise normal people agree with.

***

Let’s be really, really clear up-front:

Reddit is not actually protecting overweight people. Of the five forums banned, two — Fat People Hate and Ham Planet Hatred — did relate to fat-shaming. But fat-shaming forums still flourish on the site, as do forums containing far more hideous and offensive things.

[48 hours inside the Internet’s ‘most toxic’ communities]

“We will ban subreddits that allow their communities to use the subreddit as a platform to harass individuals when moderators don’t take action,” the company said in a statement. “We’re banning behavior, not ideas.”

That behavior included doxing and harassing named individuals, despite repeated warnings and in direct violation of Reddit’s anti-harassment policy. Fat People Hate was known to up-vote screenshots of members terrorizing overweight people in off-site apps and forums, among other things. (It had more than 150,000 users at its peak.)


A word cloud of the most-mentioned words in the comments on Reddit’s subreddit-ban announcement. (Reddit)

Of course, in the absence of details like that, the anti-SJW crowd has begun to foment alternate theories: This is just another kowtow to “special snowflakes,” another case of PC overreach. And because the largest share of Americans still believe obesity is a choice — in other words, there isn’t the same level of empathy for this particular group as there may be for other minorities — that’s a narrative that’s caught on among unusually wide swaths of Reddit. It’s not just anti-SJW trolls saying these things.

In the past 18 hours — roughly the time since Reddit announced it was banning the five subreddits — Redditors have dropped the word “fat” on nearly 24,000 occasions.

“There’s nothing wrong with disliking people who make horrible health decisions on a daily basis and want sympathy for it,” snarked one defender of Fat People Hate.

“The slobs are too f***ing entitled,” another Redditor wrote, “and that does need to stop.”

In some corners of Reddit, this latest bout of controversy already has a catchy name. They’re calling it, aptly, “the Fattening.”

***

So what is wrong with making fun of obesity?

According to Reddit’s use policies, absolutely nothing. Again, this particular incident isn’t about fat-shaming. Full stop. The end.

… But it has revealed a nasty strain of Internet prejudice.

Even 24 hours into the drama, pictures of overweight people dominate Reddit’s highly trafficked front page. They’re captioned with comments like “another popper” and “queen of hams.” They’re submitted to new forums with names like r/getoffyoura**.


A selection of the most popular posts on Reddit today. (Reddit)

“STOP COMFORT EATING,” reads one post of an obese woman, currently up-voted to the front page. “It gives you a moment of happiness and a lifetime of regret. Eat something healthy today.”

The overwhelming conclusion one would take from these posts is that obesity has nothing to do with context or genetics, but that it represents a personal, moral failing. That’s exactly the way people viewed alcoholism — in like, 1903.

Researchers call this “weight stigma” or “weight bias,” and they say it has far-ranging consequences for people who are overweight. (Among other things, it exacerbates depression, social isolation and anxiety and cuts the probability that that person will lose weight.) It also doesn’t jibe with the current science on obesity, which suggests that the disease is caused by a multiplicity of factors: not only personal choice and lifestyle, but also genetics, health conditions, medications, education, personal environment and economic status.

And yet, on r/OverweightAwareness — a new forum created for the purpose of “fighting censorship” — a trio of anti-SJW trolls just keep harping about cakes and cows and “hideousness.”

***

Where does this leave Reddit, exactly?

Frankly, I think the storm will pass. Reddit is large enough at this point that the complaints of a few thousand users no longer really matter.

More pressing, I think, is where this battle leaves overweight people: both the ones specifically harassed by forums like Fat People Hate, and the ones reading the vitriol. How horrifically painful and tragic it must be to see your face on the Reddit front page with a caption like “look at this cow.”

At times like this, it’s actually comforting to remember that Reddit is a vast, diverse, contradictory place. There’s still plenty of (SJW?) positivity amidst the anti-fat hate.

“With all this fat people hate nonsense going on in r/all, I was refreshed to come here and see none of it,” reads the current top post on r/fitness, the site’s most popular healthy living subreddit. “Let’s all remember to help other people improve (if that’s what they’re trying to do), and not ridicule them.”

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