Controversial Reddit communities
The social news site Reddit has occasionally been the topic of controversy due to the presence of communities on the site (known as subreddits) devoted to explicit material. Yishan Wong, the site's CEO, has stated that "We stand for free speech. This means we are not going to ban distasteful subreddits. We will not ban legal content even if we find it odious or if we personally condemn it."
The subreddit "/r/jailbait" was one of the most prominent subreddits on the site before it was closed down in October 2011 following a report by CNN. The controversy surrounding /r/Creepshots a year after /r/jailbait's closure prompted a Gawker exposé of one of the subreddit's moderators by Adrian Chen, which revealed the real-life identify of the user behind the account. This started discussion in the media about the ethics of anonymity and outing on the Internet.
Reddit's staff was initially opposed to the addition of obscene material to the site, but they eventually became more lenient when prolific moderators such as the user "violentacrez" proved capable of identifying and removing illegal content at a time when they were not sufficiently staffed to take on the task. Communities devoted to explicit material saw rising popularity, with the /r/jailbait subreddit (featuring provocative shots of teenagers) being chosen "subreddit of the year" by a user poll in 2008 and at one point making "jailbait" the second most common search term for the site. Erik Martin, general manager of Reddit, defended the jailbait subreddit by saying that such controversial pages were a consequence of allowing free speech on the site.
The jailbait subreddit came to wider attention outside Reddit when Anderson Cooper of CNN devoted a segment of his program to condemning the subreddit and criticizing Reddit for hosting it. Initially this caused a spike in Internet traffic to the subreddit, causing the page to peak at 1.73 million views on the day of the report. Following these news reports, a thread was created in the community by a Reddit user which prompted dozens of requests for nude photos of a minor. Other Reddit users drew attention to this discussion and the /r/jailbait section was subsequently closed by administrators on October 10, 2011. Critics such as /r/jailbait's creator disputed claims that this thread was the basis of the decision, instead claiming it was an excuse to close down a controversial subreddit due to recent negative media coverage. Others claimed that the thread believed to have prompted the closure was created by members of the Something Awful forum in an attempt to get the section shut down, rather than the regulars of the forum.
Following the closure of /r/jailbait, The Daily Dot declared violentacrez, the community's creator, "The Most Important Person on Reddit in 2011," and called the /r/jailbait controversy "the first major challenge to the site’s voluntary doctrine of absolute free speech."
A year after the closure of the jailbait subreddit, a Reddit community called "/r/Creepshots" drew controversy in the press for hosting sexualized images of women without their knowledge. In the wake of this media attention, violentacrez was added to /r/Creepshots as a moderator, and reports emerged that Adrian Chen was planning an exposé that would reveal the real-life identity of this user, who moderated dozens of controversial subreddits as well as a few hundred general-interest communities. Several major subreddits banned links to Gawker in response to the impending exposé and the violentacrez account was deleted. Moderators defended their decisions to block the site from these sections of Reddit on the basis that the impending report was "doxxing" (a term for exposing the identity of a pseudonymous redditor), and that such exposure threatened the site's structural integrity.
Chen published the piece on October 12, revealing that the operator of the violentacrez account was a middle-aged programmer from Texas named Michael Brutsch. Within a day of the article being published, Brutsch's position was terminated by his employer and the link to the exposé was briefly banned from Reddit. He stated on Reddit after the article was published that he has received numerous death threats.
Reddit CEO Yishan Wong defended the content Brutsch contributed to the site as free speech and criticized efforts to ban the Gawker link on the same basis. Wong stated that the staff had considered a site-wide ban on the link, but rejected this idea for fear it would create a negative impression of the site without getting results. Brutsch later briefly returned to Reddit on a different account and criticized what he stated were numerous factual inaccuracies in the Gawker exposé.
A week after the exposé, Brutsch held an interview with CNN that aired on Anderson Cooper 360. In the interview with journalist Drew Griffin, Brutsch was apologetic about his activity on Reddit. He explained that he was most fond of the appreciation he got from other redditors, and that Reddit helped him relieve stress. Brutsch also described the support he had from administrators, stating that he had received an award for his contributions. Reddit noted that the award was for winning a community vote for "Worst Subreddit", and stated that they regretted sending it as well as claiming the violentacrez account had been banned on several occasions. Brutsch subsequently noted on reddit that he regretted doing the interview and criticized the accuracy of the statement Reddit gave to CNN.
Ethics of outing
Gawker's outing of Brutsch as violentacrez led to contentious discussion about privacy and anonymity on the Internet. Such discussions included claims that outing, or "doxxing", was necessary to draw attention to objectionable content so it could be removed and claims that it impedes the ability for people to exercise their right to legal free speech online due to fear of public retribution.
Sady Doyle, writing in The Guardian, compared it to the outing of the alleged blackmailer of Amanda Todd and suggested that such outings may be justified, but that they may also unduly focus attention on individuals without confronting the underlying problems by engaging in "sensationalism" at the expense of cultural reform. In PC Magazine, Damon Poeter stated that, while he has defended protecting anonymity on the Internet, he still supported Brutsch being outed because he felt the various subreddits he contributed to as violentacrez were serious invasions of privacy, regardless of legality, and that it was therefore justifiable to reveal his personal details. Other commentators expressed similar views about double-standards from those objecting to Brutsch's outing as a violation of his privacy.
The public outpouring of hostility towards Brutsch following the exposé prompted commentators such as Danah Boyd of Wired and Michelle Star of CNET to question the morality of outing as a way to enforce societal standards online. Several commentators have expressed concern that the public shaming of Brutsch to serve as an example to others is legitimizing online vigilantism and exposing individuals such as Brutsch to mass retribution.
In July 2013, the subreddit "/r/niggers" was banned from reddit for engaging in vote manipulation, incitements of violence and disrupting other communities with racist content. Reddit general manager Erik Martin noted that the subforum was given multiple chances to comply with site rules, noting that "users can tell from the amount of warnings we extended to a subreddit as clearly awful as r/niggers that we go into the decision to ban subreddits with a lot of scrutiny."
Reddit's men's rights sub-forum was included in a list of twelve websites in the spring 2012 issue ("The Year in Hate and Extremism") of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report in a section called "Misogyny: The Sites". The dozen sites were described as "women-hating" and "thick with misogynistic attacks that can be astounding for the guttural hatred they express".
More specific claims were made about /r/MensRights in particular, saying that it showed anger "toward any program designed to help women," and that the subreddit propagates conspiracy theories about feminism, using a moderator's statements as an example of this behavior. Outlets such as The Huffington Post interpreted the report as saying the subreddit was a hate group.
In late March 2012, Mark Potok (the Intelligence Report's editor) was asked in an interview if the SPLC had formally classified r/MensRights as a hate group, and his response was that "We wrote about the subreddit Mens Rights, but we did not list it as a hate group" and expressed doubt that the SPLC would ever designate the community as a hate group, noting that "it's a diverse group, which certainly does include some misogynists—but I don't think that's [its basic] purpose."
Later that year, the SPLC published a statement about the reactions to their report, saying it "provoked a tremendous response among men’s rights activists (MRAs) and their sympathizers."
In April 2013, the subreddit was threatened with a shutdown by the Reddit admins for releasing information about a supposed blogger of feminist issues who said some controversial things about her school's admission practices. Later on it was discovered that they had identified the wrong woman, and had been sending death threats to her school and employment. Georgetown University confirmed that she was not the same person as the blog's author after receiving threatening messages.
Following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, members of subreddit /r/findbostonbombers wrongly identified a number of people as suspects, including a 17-year-old track athlete and a 22-year-old Brown University student missing since March. A body reported to be that of the missing Brown student misidentified as a Boston bomber suspect was found in Rhode Island's Providence River on April 25, 2013 as reported by the Rhode Island Health Department. The cause of death is under investigation.
Reddit general manager Erik Martin later issued an apology for this behavior, criticizing the "online witch hunts and dangerous speculation" that took place in these investigation-oriented communities. In September 2013, a similar subreddit dedicated to finding the Navy Yard shooters was banned by the Reddit admins.
Free speech rationale
In accordance with the site's policies on free speech, Reddit does not ban communities solely for featuring controversial content. Reddit's general manager Erik Martin noted that "having to stomach occasional troll reddits like /r/picsofdeadkids or morally questionable reddits like /r/jailbait are part of the price of free speech on a site like this,” and that it is not Reddit’s place to censor its users. The site's CEO, Yishan Wong, has stated that distasteful subreddits won't be banned because reddit as a platform should serve the ideals of free speech. Critics of this position have argued that reddit has not been consistent in following its free speech philosophy.
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