Obvious, open racism is not against Reddit’s rules, CEO Steve Huffman told a user in April. “On Reddit,” he said, “the way in which we think about speech is to separate behavior from beliefs.”
Huffman didn’t really unpack his reasoning at the time. But in a private chat with a different user this past weekend, Huffman, who goes by the username “spez,” finally explained why he has refused to ban hate speech on Reddit: Apparently, it’s just too hard.
Huffman’s April comments sparked an uproar because they largely excused r/The_Donald, a nearly 630,000-member subreddit that is a vicious and wildly popular breeding ground for targeted racism of all sorts. That outrage prompted Huffman to kinda-sorta walk back his initial statement, adding soon after that “while the words and expressions you refer to aren’t explicitly forbidden, the behaviors they often lead to are.” Nothing about that comment provided any clarity, but muddying the waters is a useful tool for frustrating would-be critics of Reddit, which was acquired by the major publishing company Conde Nast in 2006 and is now owned by Conde’s parent company, Advance Publications.
This past Saturday, Zachary Swanson, a Reddit user and cybersecurity researcher who goes by the username “whatllmyusernamebe,” decided to ask Huffman to reconsider his stance on hate speech.
After pointing out that Reddit’s rules ban violent speech ― which Reddit defines as “content that encourages, glorifies, incites, or calls for violence or physical harm against an individual or a group of people” ― Huffman argued that “hate speech is difficult to define. There’s a reason why it’s not really done.” He also claimed that enforcing any sort of hate speech ban is “a nearly impossible precedent to uphold.”
As Gizmodo has pointed out, though, defining and limiting hate speech very much is done. Some of the companies that officially ban hate speech include Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google Plus, YouTube, Tumblr, LinkedIn ― the list goes on. (Tumblr is owned by HuffPost’s parent company, Oath.)
And for whatever reason, the difficulty of policing hate speech hadn’t stopped Reddit before. In 2015, after months of public criticism and internal controversy, Huffman announced the following:
Today we removed communities dedicated to animated [child pornography] and a handful of other communities that violate the spirit of the policy by making Reddit worse for everyone else: /r/CoonTown, /r/WatchNiggersDie, /r/bestofcoontown, /r/koontown, /r/CoonTownMods, /r/CoonTownMeta.
That was just two months after Reddit shut down the subreddits r/fatpeoplehate, r/transfags and r/shitniggerssay, which were dedicated to mocking people for being overweight, trans and black, respectively. Policing hate speech in these instances seemed easy enough.
The main difference between these since-banned groups and r/The_Donald ― in which one user found 35 specific calls to violence, including “kill all SJWs” (that is, “social justice warriors”) and “kill the unnecessary ones” ― is that these groups were tiny by comparison, usually maxing out at around several thousand members. R/The_Donald, however, has a population roughly equivalent to the state of Vermont — and it’s a group that’s been historically, aggressively vocal when it feels it’s been victimized. For instance, Reddit had to completely change the method it uses to rank posts after r/The_Donald waged continual targeted voting campaigns that effectively hijacked Reddit’s front page for its own purposes.
This is about as far as Reddit has been willing to go in its attempts to do anything about the users of r/The_Donald, a group that once pinned a post to the top of its page that said, “In order to properly educate /r/Sweden about who exactly they are letting fuck their wives (and their goats), our ‘no racism’ rule will no longer be enforced at all with regards to the middle east.”
After speaking with Huffman, Swanson posted screenshots of his conversation in two different subreddits ― r/stopadvertising, which is dedicated to curtailing hate speech on Reddit, and r/ChapoTrapHouse, a subreddit for listeners of the podcast by the same name. After he did, Swanson received the following message from Reddit:
It appears that some people are protected on Reddit — specifically, people who are the company’s CEO.
Reddit did not immediately respond to a request for clarification about its hate speech policy and why Swanson was suspended.