Very occasionally, a war on Reddit consumes everyone there. This is one of those times, and it is (in part) chief executive Steve Huffman’s own doing. And now Huffman, who is also a Reddit co-founder, is trying to find a peaceful solution.
Last week, Huffman admitted to trolling members of a popular Donald Trump-supporting subreddit, r/The_Donald, by secretly editing posts that were criticizing him. It was supposed to be a joke on their level, Huffman says, a way to get back at the board for the harassment he and many of the site’s moderators had endured from some of its members. Instead of finding Huffman’s use of his administrative powers funny, r/The_Donald was infuriated, and Huffman quickly figured out that his Thanksgiving week joke was actually a terrible idea.
“It is heartbreaking to think that my actions distracted people from their family over the holiday; instigated harassment of our moderators; and may have harmed Reddit itself,” Huffman wrote Wednesday afternoon on Reddit under his u/spez account. He also announced some changes to how Reddit handles harassment. For one thing, Huffman said, the site’s leadership has identified “hundreds of the most toxic users,” and will take action against them — from warnings to permanent bans.
“We will continue taking on the most troublesome users, and going forward, if we do not see the situation improve, we will continue to take privileges from communities whose users continually cross the line — up to an outright ban,” Huffman said.
This particular round of hostility between Reddit’s leadership and the pro-Trump board began when Reddit banned r/pizzagate, a subreddit devoted entirely to supporters of a conspiracy theory accusing Democrats of running a secret child trafficking ring, headquartered in a Washington pizza shop. The New York Times and others have debunked the theory, which has only encouraged its believers to implicate those debunkers in the conspiracy, too. Reddit shut down the subreddit, which had a lot of crossover membership with r/The_Donald, for repeatedly posting people’s personal information to the board, in violation of Reddit’s policies.
But the bigger tension between r/The_Donald and Reddit’s leadership has been brewing for months. The Trump-supporting subreddit has long accused Reddit of trying to censor them because of their political beliefs, while other Redditors and subreddits have said the site hasn’t done nearly enough to stop systemic abuse and harassment — including that originating from the pro-Trump board.
Huffman reiterated Wednesday that it is the “behavior” of some members of the subreddit that is at issue (and how that behavior is moderated) not their political orientation.
Over the past several months, r/The_Donald has been extremely skilled at exploiting Reddit’s algorithms to spam the site with aggressive pro-Trump memes, conspiracy theories and inside jokes. Reddit had to change one of its algorithms over the summer to try to stop r/the_Donald from dominating the board that displays all of Reddit’s content, known as r/all.
Huffman said Wednesday that “stickied” posts from r/the_Donald’s moderators would no longer appear on r/all, at all. The ability to sticky posts, or to keep them at the top of the subreddit’s list of posts, “was not meant to circumvent organic voting, which r/the_donald does to slingshot posts into r/all, often in a manner that is antagonistic to the rest of the community,” Huffman said. Reddit also introduced the ability for users to filter r/all for themselves.
Two days before Huffman’s announcement, r/The_Donald posted a pledge “to stay on Reddit,” despite believing that it “has become abundantly clear that we are not welcome here.” The moderators of the pro-Trump subreddit also said that they would ban any user from r/The_Donald who engages in harassment, but strongly disputed that their board, as a whole, was responsible for that behavior. “Reddit admins have reached out to us and accused us of ‘fostering,’ and ‘encouraging,’ harassment,” the post said. “BULLS—.”
In response to Huffman’s announcement, r/The_Donald’s mods stickied a tweet from Lauren Southern: “Soft quarantine for @thedonaldreddit & @reddit is acting like they’re benevolent for not outright banning the sub.”
Reddit’s moderators, who are largely non-staff volunteers, have asked Huffman to ban r/The_Donald for repeatedly violating the site’s guidelines, citing instances of harassment targeting them and the communities they run. In leaked Slack chats involving Huffman, several moderators expressed frustration with Reddit’s lack of action against the pro-Trump board. One moderator said that they had personally been subject to “Car vandalism, pipe bomb threat (specific). Rallying calls to ruin my personal life,” all connected to members of r/The_Donald.
“You make it seem like I don’t care about figuring out t_d,” Huffman wrote later in the chat. But he believed that “banning it,” as many of the moderators had asked, “would create a mess.”
On Wednesday, Huffman repeated that reluctance to ban the subreddit:
“More than anything, I want Reddit to heal, and I want our country to heal, and although many of you have asked us to ban the r/the_donald outright, it is with this spirit of healing that I have resisted doing so,” he said. “If there is anything about this election that we have learned, it is that there are communities that feel alienated and just want to be heard, and Reddit has always been a place where those voices can be heard.”