Redditors descended on r/news, the center of Reddit’s crowdsourced news-gathering, looking for vital updates on the mass shooting in Orlando on Sunday. But instead of news, visitors this weekend found something very different: thousands of deleted posts, furious Redditors accusing individual moderators of censorship, and a subreddit that appeared to be bleeding subscribers.
In other words, the subreddit was in the middle of a war, one that overshadowed any actual news on the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. Once Reddit’s main Donald Trump subreddit started accusing r/news moderators of deliberately trying to “censor” reports that Orlando shooter Omar Mateen was Muslim in order to cover it up, any Orlando news disappeared further into a barrage of brigading, arguments and chaos.
Redditors who wanted to find updates on the shooting at a popular gay night club that left 49 people dead and 53 injured had to go elsewhere.
Everyone seems to agree that something went very wrong for r/news on what should have been a crucial day for the subreddit. But the reason for that is the subject of heated debate, with the sides of the argument falling along the now familiar fault lines of Reddit’s ongoing culture war between free speech absolutists who believe Reddit has become too “politically correct” and those who believe the site needs to do more to limit the frequency and spread of hateful, harassing and abusive speech on the platform.
Steve Huffman, Reddit’s CEO, addressed the r/news drama in a lengthy statement posted to Reddit late on Monday. “A few posts were removed incorrectly, which have now been restored.” Huffman wrote, adding, “We have seen the accusations of censorship. We have investigated, and beyond the posts that are now restored, have not found evidence to support these claims.”
Huffman also indicated that Reddit would make a few process changes in the coming months to address some of the problems that came up over the weekend. Those include a coming change to the algorithm governing r/all “to promote more diversity in the feed,” and a promise to increase support to the volunteer moderators of major subreddits.
“To be clear, we know that we f—ed up,” one volunteer moderator of r/news wrote on a late Sunday afternoon post on the subreddit. Another moderator — who like all the moderators we spoke to requested anonymity — wrote in a private message to The Intersect that the entire team was now getting death threats, along with other threats of violence, “especially from white supremacists.”
Huffman promised on Monday that the site would “be taking action” against “users, moderators, posts, and communities” that had engaged in or encouraged harassment of r/news’s mods.
The posts deleted from r/news in the midst of the story’s development included hate speech, off-topic comments and other violations of the subreddit’s rules. But moderators also deleted posts that contained actual news: updates from the FBI on the possibility that the gunman had an affiliation with the Islamic State; a post identifying the suspect’s full name, and another one that contained information on how to give blood.
Once screenshots of those posts showed up in r/The_Donald, the news subreddit was flooded with complaints, personal insults and repeated accusations that r/news’s mods were conspiring to “cover up” the religious affiliation of the gunman.
“It is mind boggling that these liberal entities want to cover up the fact that this person and all of these other criminal incidents are Muslims,” one user wrote in r/news’s megathread on the shooting. “Facts are facts. It is as if they want a take over.”
R/news’s mods have a very different explanation for what went wrong: incompetence, understaffing and overreaction.
The subreddit has a long list of rules aimed at keeping its discussions civil and on-topic. Those rules ban anything that “invokes a witch-hunt,” is “unnecessarily rude (inflammatory comments, personal attacks),” baiting comments, stories that are behind a paywall, and stories that were already submitted elsewhere, among other things. According to an r/news moderator, very few mods were working on Sunday — as is typical for the subreddit on the weekend. The mods were overwhelmed and made some bad decisions as the subreddit was flooded.
In order to help enforce its rules, r/news uses an automated filter — an automod — that scans new and edited posts in a subreddit and responds to any potential rule violations in many of the same ways that a human moderator could. A moderator said the automatic filter was the culprit behind some of the more egregious post removals on Sunday. For instance, posts linking to news stories noting that the shooter might be Muslim were flagged as “already submitted” in the system, as users repeatedly submitted the same story.
Once the brigading started on r/news, things only got worse. “We did a poor job reacting to the brigades,” the moderator wrote. The post also notes that some moderators were choosing to delete entire threads — instead of individual rule-breaking comments — when things started to get out of control, meaning that content that technically didn’t break any of the rules was treated as guilty by association and deleted. That, everyone seems to agree, was a mistake.
Making matters even worse? At least one r/news moderator started fighting fire with fire against the brigade, responding to accusations of censorship with trolls and personal insults that very clearly violated the rules of the subreddit they moderate. Huffman said on Monday that the moderator in question had been removed as a mod.
Late on Sunday, the mods said they were in the process of trying to undo some of the overzealous deletions that happened yesterday, and to get the subreddit back on track in the coming days. But the damage has already been done to r/news’s reputation.
Meanwhile, r/The_Donald is now celebrating what it sees as a victory over one of its enemies in a typical fashion: with memes.
[This post, originally published at 10:06 am, has been updated with a statement from Reddit’s CEO]