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 former 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 identity of the user behind the account, Michael Brutsch. This started discussion in the media about the ethics of anonymity and outing on the Internet.
- 1 Banned subreddits
- 2 Controversial subreddits
- 3 Free speech rationale
- 4 References
- 5 External links
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 a user named /u/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 /r/jailbait, which featured provocative shots of teenagers, being chosen "subreddit of the year" in the "Best of reddit" 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.
/r/jailbait 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. In the wake of these news reports, a Reddit user posted an image of an underage girl to /r/jailbait, subsequently claiming to have naked images of her as well. Dozens of Reddit users then posted requests for these nude photos to be shared to them by private message. Other Reddit users drew attention to this discussion and the /r/jailbait forum was subsequently closed by Reddit 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 the community's creator, /u/violentacrez, "The Most Important Person on Reddit in 2011", calling the /r/jailbait controversy "the first major challenge to the site's voluntary doctrine of absolute free speech".
Soon after the closure of /r/jailbait, the similar subreddits /r/teen_girls, /r/niggerjailbait and /r/picsofdeadjailbait were closed.
A year after the closure of /r/jailbait, another subreddit called /r/Creepshots drew controversy in the press for hosting sexualized images of women without their knowledge. In the wake of this media attention, /u/violentacrez was added to /r/Creepshots as a moderator, and reports emerged that Gawker reporter 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 account /u/violentacrez was deleted. Moderators defended their decisions to block the site from these sections of Reddit on the basis that the impending report was "doxing" (a term for exposing the identity of a pseudonymous person), and that such exposure threatened the site's structural integrity.
When Chen informed /u/violentacrez about the impending exposé, the user pleaded with Chen not to publish it because he was concerned about the potential impact on his employment and finances, noting that his wife was disabled and he had a mortgage to pay. He also expressed concern that he would be falsely labeled a child pornographer or anti-semite because of some of the subreddits he created. Despite offering to delete his postings and leave Reddit, Chen insisted he would still publish the piece.
Chen published the piece on October 12, 2012, revealing that the person operating the /u/violentacrez account was a middle-aged programmer from Texas named Michael Brutsch. Within a day of the article being published, Brutsch was fired 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 /u/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.
Chris Slowe, a lead programmer of Reddit until 2010, said of the relationship between Brutsch and the Reddit staff: "We just stayed out of there and let him do his thing and we knew at least he was getting rid of a lot of stuff that wasn't particularly legal."
Ethics of outing
Gawker's outing of Brutsch as /u/violentacrez led to contentious discussion about privacy and anonymity on the Internet. Such discussions included claims that outing, or "doxing", was necessary to draw attention to objectionable content so it could be removed, while others claimed that it impeded 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 /u/violentacrez were serious invasions of privacy, regardless of legality, and that it was therefore justifiable to reveal his personal details.
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 June 2014, a subreddit called /r/beatingwomen was closed by Reddit administrators. The community, which featured graphic depictions of violence against women, was banned after its moderators were found to be sharing users' personal information online, and collaborating to protect one another from sitewide bans. Following the ban, the community's founder rebooted the subreddit under the name /r/beatingwomen2 in an attempt to circumvent the ban.
In August 2014, Reddit users began sharing a large number of naked pictures of celebrities stolen, using phishing, from their private Apple iCloud accounts. A subreddit, /r/TheFappening, was created as a hub to share and discuss these stolen photos; the situation was called CelebGate by the media. The subreddit contained most of the images. Victims of "The Fappening" included high-profile names such as Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton. Some of the images may have constituted child pornography, as the photos of Liz Lee and McKayla Maroney from the leak were claimed to have been taken when the women were underage, though this remains controversial. The subreddit was closed by Reddit administrators in September 2014. The scandal led to wider criticisms concerning the website's moderation from The Verge and The Daily Dot.
On June 10, 2015, Reddit banned five subreddits, citing an anti-harassment policy. The largest of the banned subreddits, /r/fatpeoplehate, had an estimated 151,000 subscribers at the time of its banning. The other four subreddits were /r/hamplanethatred, /r/transfags, /r/neofag, and /r/shitniggerssay. A Reddit admin said, "We will ban subreddits that allow their communities to use the subreddit as a platform to harass individuals when moderators don’t take action".
Because of the ban, Reddit users flooded the site with pictures of overweight people and Reddit's interim CEO Ellen Pao. Due to the decision to ban these subreddits, some users moved to Voat, a social aggregation website similar to Reddit.
The term "Chimpire" refers to a collection of subreddits and affiliated websites that promote anti-black racism, including frequent use of racial slurs. In July 2013, the subreddit /r/niggers was banned from Reddit for engaging in vote manipulation, incitements of violence and using racist content to disrupt other communities. 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". Following the ban of /r/niggers, the subreddit /r/Coontown grew to become the most popular "Chimpire" site, with over 15,000 members at its peak. Many of the posters on these subreddits were formerly involved with /r/niggers. One of these subreddits, /r/shitniggerssay, was banned in June 2015 at the same time as fatpeoplehate. In the midst of changes to Reddit's content policy, /r/Coontown was banned in August 2015.
"Pizzagate" is a conspiracy theory that emerged from social media and fake news websites in early November 2016 which falsely alleged the existence of a child trafficking ring that involved officials in the Democratic Party and restaurants such as Comet Ping Pong. The /r/pizzagate subreddit, which spun off from /r/The_Donald, was dedicated to discussing this conspiracy theory and had over 20,000 subscribers. This subreddit was banned on November 23, 2016, for violating Reddit's policy against doxing, as users would post the personal details of people allegedly connected to this conspiracy.
/r/Physical_Removal was banned on August 15, 2017, for inciting violence. The subreddit was controversial for its promotion of violence against leftist political opponents and minorities, and had attracted further attention after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia due to its mockery of the death of Heather Heyer.
In summer 2017, a petition on change.org called for /r/incels, named after an abbreviation for "involuntary celibate", to be banned for inciting violence against women. Following the October implementation of a new Reddit policy that prohibited the incitement of violence, the subreddit was banned on November 7, 2017. At the time that it was banned, it had about 40,000 subscribers, most of whom were men who expressed misogynistic views. Examples included threads titled "all women are sluts" and "proof that girls are nothing but trash that use men". Several posts in the subreddit condoned, advocated, or downplayed raping women, who were called "femoids" by the subreddit's users.
Reddit's men's rights subreddit (/r/MensRights) 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 SPLC reported that "Although some of the sites make an attempt at civility and try to back their arguments with facts, they are almost all 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 "trafficks in various conspiracy theories", 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. 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", and "It should be mentioned that the SPLC did not label MRAs as members of a hate movement; nor did our article claim that the grievances they air on their websites – false rape accusations, ruinous divorce settlements and the like – are all without merit. But we did call out specific examples of misogyny and the threat, overt or implicit, of violence."
In April 2013, the subreddit was threatened with a shutdown by Reddit admins after /r/MensRights subscribers gathered personal information on a supposed blogger of feminist issues, and the subreddit's moderators advised members of the subreddit on how to proceed with this 'doxing' without running afoul of site rules. Later on it was discovered that they had identified the wrong woman, and it has been reported that many death threats had been sent to her school and employment. Georgetown University confirmed that she was not the same person as the blog's author after receiving threatening messages.
Rape report spam
In mid-December 2013, users from /r/MensRights as well as 4chan spammed the Occidental College Online Rape Report Form with hundreds of false rape reports, following a user's complaint that the form was vulnerable to abuse, because of the submitter's ability to be anonymous. Around 400 false rape accusations were made by men's rights activists against members of the college, feminists and fictional people.
Following the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, members of the 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, who had been missing for a month before-hand, was found in Providence River in Rhode Island on April 25, 2013, as reported by the Rhode Island Health Department. The cause of death was found to be suicide. The subreddit was later made private.
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 shooter(s) was banned by the Reddit admins. These events were dramatized in TV shows The Newsroom and The Good Wife.
In January 2014, Mother Jones published a story describing the sale of guns on the site. The report suggested that sellers were doing so to exploit a loophole in U.S. federal law. Nearly 100 AR-15s were engraved with the Reddit logo as part of licensing deal made with the page in 2011.
In April 2014, it was made apparent that moderators of /r/technology, a subreddit with 5 million subscribers, were using automatic filters to automatically remove submissions that contained certain keywords, such as "Tesla", "Comcast", "NSA", or "Snowden". This ultimately led to community protests, claims of censorship from users, and to /r/technology losing its default subreddit status.
The subreddit /r/The_Donald, which is intended for subscribers who support Donald Trump, was originally created for his 2016 presidential campaign. Due to harassment of Reddit administrators and manipulation of the site's algorithms to push content to Reddit's front page using the "sticky" feature of subreddits, Reddit banned many of the sub's "toxic" users. This occurred after Reddit's CEO Steve Huffman admitted to silently editing comments attacking him made by the communities' users. The CEO modified the site's algorithms to specifically prevent the sub's moderators from gaming the algorithms to artificially push the sub's content to Reddit's front page. Additionally, the CEO introduced a filtering feature which allows individual users to block content from any sub. While this feature was being worked on prior to the problems /r/The_Donald were causing, it has been suggested that it was introduced specifically to counter them. Huffman has referred to /r/The_Donald's user's complaints of harassment "hypocritical" because of their harassment of others.
Free speech rationale
In accordance with the site's policies on free speech, Reddit's admins say that they do not ban communities solely for featuring controversial content. Reddit's general manager Erik Martin noted that "having to stomach occasional troll [sub]reddits like /r/picsofdeadkids or morally questionable [sub]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 former CEO, Yishan Wong, has stated that distasteful subreddits will not 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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