Steve Huffman, the chief executive of Reddit, knows he has some explaining to do.
Huffman, also a Reddit co-founder, landed in hot water Wednesday after admitting that he used his administrative powers to secretly edit user comments that were critical of him on r/The_Donald — a popular, pro-Trump forum (or “subreddit”). He swapped all mentions of his own username with the names of the pro-Trump group's leaders, meaning that expletive-laden posts aimed at him looked instead as if they were insulting the group's leaders.
It was not a good idea, he told The Washington Post Friday by phone. “I abused my power to give the bullies a hard time,” he said. Huffman thought of his name-swapping as a joke: a way to poke back at the people who’ve been harassing him and some of the site's volunteer moderators for months.
It was not taken that way.
Huffman's admission fanned the flames of controversy that had been surrounding the subreddit — and its relationship with Reddit — for months. It also capped off what had already been a long week. Reddit was already warring with self-proclaimed Trump supporters after shutting down a subreddit devoted to “pizzagate” -- the claim that there is secret child sex-trafficking ring run by prominent Democrats. The New York Times and others have debunked this theory. The company deleted that group for revealing people's personal information.
The subreddit and its users are known for promoting conspiracy theories and fake news across Reddit and gleefully invading and bombarding the rest of the platform with pro-Trump memes. In fact, it was so effective at flooding the site’s front page with aggressive memes and posts that Reddit changed its algorithm over the summer to try to limit its reach. Nearly all of the abuse directed at Huffman, he said, came from avid posters to r/The_Donald. After Huffman's admission, many in the pro-Trump group demanded his resignation; he has not addressed those calls.
Huffman told The Post that he had been letting the abuse from the subreddit's users roll off him, but then wondered whether turning the other cheek was setting a bad example. “If The_Donald had done this to another Reddit employee, I would have banned them,” he said.
He said he intended to swap the names for just a few hours — even though doing so violates Reddit employee policies — just to give the subreddit’s moderators a taste of what he goes through on a daily basis. Then, he said, he intended to put everything back.
Still, the decision to step in and directly edit user comments was a surprising move from Huffman, who has often said Reddit’s purpose is to provide a place for communities of all stripes to set up their own groups.
Reddit has struggled to address communities who regularly test the boundaries of its guidelines, or outright break them. In 2015, it introduced new anti-harassment rules and banned a handful of subreddits that regularly violated the site's guidelines — including two forums dedicated to “ fat-shaming” and one that existed to coordinate harassment of members of a progressive gaming site.
The bans sparked an all-out war between the company and the small but dedicated extreme subreddits — some of which had used Reddit to circulate stolen photos, among other things. Reddit’s former interim chief executive, Ellen Pao, resigned in the middle of that war last year; Huffman succeeded her. And since taking over, Huffman has maintained that Reddit will not interfere with users' posts, as long as they stayed within the basic guidelines.
To take a step across that line, especially for a joke, is a major departure from that philosophy.
“What he did completely destroys the credibility of Reddit,” wrote UnimatrixZeroOne, a Reddit moderator who “out of anger” released images of Slack conversations Thursday between Reddit moderators, admins and Huffman about the altered posts. Huffman confirmed Friday that the images were authentic.
In those conversations, some of the site’s other moderators expressed frustration with the pro-Trump subreddit and asked Huffman to ban it for repeatedly violating guidelines. One wrote that the group’s members had released personally identifying information about others during the election season. That person also mentioned receiving specific threats: “Car vandalism, pipe bomb threat (specific). Rallying calls to ruin my personal life,” the moderator wrote.
Huffman's distaste for the group is clear, but the chats showed he does not agree with banning it outright. “You make it seem like I don’t care about figuring out t_d,” Huffman wrote later in the chat, going on to say that “banning it,” as many of the moderators had asked, “would create a mess.” (The moderators regularly abbreviate “The_Donald” to “t_d” or “td.”)
“You managed to pull a move that actually unified us with them against this mistake,” one moderator replied.
Even Reddit users that don't support Trump have criticized Huffman. “I can't stand the thought of Trump entering the White House, but I have to stand up to this,” one commenter said on the site. “It's wrong and totally unprofessional. It's going to zap any trust people have with the organization.”
Huffman said that he knows what he did may set a bad precedent that could hurt users' trust in the site. But he also said that, having seen this torrent of abuse first hand, he will have Reddit step up its efforts to let users filter out negative content, and to take on the general problem of harassment.
He didn't offer a timeline for those steps. But, he promised, they will have more finesse than his ill-received attempt at a joke.
“I had my fun with them, they had their fun with me,” he said. “But we are not going to tolerate harassment for any others.”