On the original internet after its initial opening to non-military, academic and government interests, a lack of huge sites concentrating all traffic made free speech a non-issue. If one became a problem, people moved to the other.
In current usage, most people visit a half-dozen sites on a regular basis and go to others for specific tasks only, like ordering pizza or renting a car. This makes speech on the bigger sites an issue because most of these sites censor not just to remove the child pornography and hacking information, but to take away any data that might offend potential customers.
Happy hugbox for 18-to-35s who have taken refuge in a liberal beta vision of reality, Reddit took the lead in being free speech until recently, when it has formalized its clique status by banning “harassing” speech:
Systematic and/or continued actions to torment or demean someone in a way that would make a reasonable person (1) conclude that reddit is not a safe platform to express their ideas or participate in the conversation, or (2) fear for their safety or the safety of those around them.
The above is carefully constructed to appear legal, but it creates a broad and entirely subjective standard. Who fears for their “safety” based on words on the internet, unless those words consist of their home address and a direct threat? Who feels a platform is not “safe” to “express their ideas”? People who are easily offended.
With this new standard, Reddit is venturing into Facebook territory. The leading social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr have similar approaches to censored content, which generally takes two forms: (1) disturbing stuff that is not political, philosophical or religious speech or (2) political, philosophical or religious speech that offends others. We can separate a message that consists of nothing but ethnic slurs, crude jokes about fat people, rating women by appearance, and so on as the first category distinct from political commentary on the viability of diversity, the impact of obesity, or analysis of the differing average IQs of women and men as the second category. Facebook lumps much of this together and uses human power to determine what gets banned:
Facebook operates a fascinatingly strict set of guidelines determining what should be deleted. Pictures of naked private parts, drugs (apart from marijuana) and sexual activity (apart from foreplay) are all banned. Male nipples are OK, but naked breastfeeding is not. Photographs of bodily fluids (except semen) are allowed, but not if a human being is also shown. Photoshopped images are fine, but not if they show someone in a negative light.
[…]Moderators are told always to escalate specific threats – “I’m going to stab Lisa H at the frat party” is given as the charming example – but not generic, unlikely ones, such as “I’m going to blow up the planet on New Year’s Eve.”
It is, of course, to Facebook’s credit that they are attempting to balance their mission “to make the world more open and connected” with a willingness to remove traces of the darker side of human nature.
The problem with this solution is that it creates an invisible hierarchy of those who make the decisions as to what is accepted and this anonymity means that the difference between political censorship and removal of pointless blight and vandalism is erased. The effect of categorizing all traffic as “offensive” by type of content means that certain political viewpoints or topics can be removed using the justification that some of what was included in them qualifies under the banned category. One journalist found out just how arbitrary and partisan this process tends to be in reality:
My experience on both ends of the reporting regime suggests the process is neither rational nor transparent. Facebook censors operate under a cloak of anonymity, with no accountability to users. When the Supreme Court issues rulings, the justices present detailed, carefully reasoned (and often quite lengthy) written justifications for their decisions. So whether you agree or disagree with what the Court decides, you at least know the basis of their judgments.
Not so with Facebook. As powerful as the nine Supreme Court justices may be, they are no longer the most consequential arbiters of acceptable speech around. While the justices’ decisions affect over 300m Americans, and establish precedents for years to come, it is a rare individual who says or publishes something that rubs up against the wishes of the government. But for the 1.3 billion users of Facebook, anything you post could lead to an anonymously issued user report. The judgment comes swiftly—and, as far as this correspondent can tell, quite capriciously.
For a long time, Reddit dodged this problem by having no official censorship; it merely allowed groups of SJWs to police the site with mass downvotes and negative public attention, in addition to permitting journalists to expose problem users. This let Reddit keep its hands clean, continue claiming that it was a free speech platform, and yet have some of the most politically offensive content removed by a cadre of hardline politically-correct activists.
Reddit is now venturing into Facebook territory by creating a dividing line between “safe” and “unsafe” information. This distinguishes not by category (like “body parts”) but by a mixture of intent and effect on others, which can be totally subjective. One of the first hiccups with his new policy involved the disappearance of /r/EllenPaoInAction, a reddit sub-forum dedicated to discussion of new CEO Ellen Pao and her husband Alphonse “Buddy” Fletcher, who have a long history of alleged extortionate discrimination lawsuits, ponzi schemes and low work performance.
In addition, Pao raised some eyebrows with her admission that she is enforcing “social justice warrior” (SJW) — intensely politically-correct, civil rights oriented leftists for whom internet activism is a hobby (see Pao’s comments on Twitter) — standards in hiring:
Ms. Pao, who said she wants to stay long-term as Reddit’s CEO when a one-year interim period ends, said she has removed salary negotiations from the hiring process because studies show women don’t fare as well as men. She has brought in well-known Silicon Valley diversity consultant Freada Kapor Klein to advise the company. And she has passed on hiring candidates who don’t embrace her priority of building a gender-balanced and multiracial team. “We ask people what they think about diversity, and we did weed people out because of that,” she said.
It used to be that you had to avoid offending the boss with a strong political statement. Now, you must agree with the boss on political topics or you will not get hired in the first place. This above statement, plus the Reddit policy of removing “harassing” information, has made many users nervous and cynical. They are seeing a mostly free speech (minus child porn, illegal/stolen information, and “doxxing” or revealing of user real-life identities) platform become one where the users have to tip-toe around the various pretenses of different groups that are offended by any number of comments, some of them factually or logically true. The blending of removal of destructive activity and “offensive” speech, plus the clear direction of Reddit’s culture and hiring in an SJW direction, virtually guarantees that the platform will remove everything but politically correct speech.
It was of great interest then when the sub-reddit /r/EllenPaoInAction disappeared, with the moderator wfa19 leaving a cryptic message explaining the disabling of the sub-forum and removal of its messages:
This was intended as a discussion post about the controversy, not a place to be racist against Asians. Find somewhere else to post your stuff. I don’t want to be shadowbanned for this.
He refers to the notorious Reddit practice of “shadowbanning” or hiding everything a user posts from everyone but themselves, ostensibly to combat spam but used as a general purpose removal tool for troublesome users and some allege, politically-nonconforming ones. Once shadowbanned, a user has little chance of restoring his or her ability to interact with the site, and some users find that if they create new accounts on the same IP they are banned again, often for little more than offending one of the existing groups on Reddit. This message suggested that possibly a threat had occurred.
To clear up any drama, Amerika reached out to wfa19 to get his side of the story.
You were the moderator/founder of reddit.com/r/EllenPaoInAction. What inspired you to start this sub-reddit (or “sub”)? What did you hope would happen? Why do you think it was important?
I support Gamergate, as in we need more transparency in video game journalism, and I was kind of sick of having actual news on this being replaced by news on Ellen Pao on the front page of KotakuInAction. I wanted somewhere else for this stuff to go, so I decided to start it.
What kind of content appeared in /r/EllenPaoInAction? What types of comments? Were you satisfied with the quality of thinking in these submissions and comments? What do you wish had been there?
It was divided into two sections, either posts (usually articles) about what Ellen Pao or Buddy Fletcher had done, and just straight up shitposts, usually in text posts in Chinese gibberish to make fun of her being Asian.
On May 30, 2015, you wrote: “This was intended as a discussion post about the controversy, not a place to be racist against Asians. Find somewhere else to post your stuff. I don’t want to be shadowbanned for this.” What racist comments against Asians did you see? What percentage of the comments/threads did you think were racist?
When I originally started the subreddit, I wanted it to be a place where both sides could debate about the subject of Ellen Pao, and not be divided into separate hugboxes like Reddit has done on many other issues. However, when I made the mod team, I realized that they mostly from Fatpeoplehate, Mensrights, and other controversial subreddits. I was initially ok with this because I send out a pm to the mods saying that they should not delete any post that is for Ellen Pao and I wanted this to be a neutral sub. Unfortunately some of the mods and the userbase decided to basically turn it into a hugbox of sorts.
One mod decided to mod his main account, which turned out to mod extremely distasteful subreddits like CoonTown. He then immediately changed the CSS to include extremely racist pictures (one of which was a picture of Ellen Pao photoshopped to look like Mao Zedong with the Japanese Imperial Flag in the background), which I was not ok with. I unmodded him and unsuccessfully tried to remove the images from the CSS. This drew some ire from the mod team but there was no more drama. Then a bunch of users decided to shitpost links to the chinese front page of reddit, and racist more pictures of Ellen Pao comparing her to WWII Japan or Communist China. Then one day, bunch of mods of subreddits critical of Ellen Pao were shadowbanned. I wasn’t certain if my subreddit was on the admins radar, but considering my mod team, and the userbase of the sub, I didn’t want to take any chances.
Did anyone directly threaten to shadowban you, or was this more a response to what you saw as the direction reddit was taking after CEO Pao’s announcement that it was not a free speech space, but a “safe space”? Had you had any contact with admins or other mods regarding /r/EllenPaoInAction?
No admins had ever approached me about my decision to shut the sub down. I only did it due to the points I made in my previous question.
Was there any “crypto-racism,” e.g. dog-whistling or other coded symbols for racist ideas?
I don’t think so.
What was the reaction of the Reddit community to your taking the sub down? Were they supportive, and did they understand your reasons?
The only posts made about it were on subreddits like Subredditcancer, who already have a deep distaste of Pao, so nobody actually supported me taking the sub down. However, half of the top comments that were on that post were laughable (most of them insisting the subreddit was not racist, when the CSS had pictures referencing the Japanese Imperial Army and Communist China). Some people said that I was a coward, and I admit my behavior was cowardish in shutting the sub down, but I didn’t want to hand the subreddit over to anyone on the mod team because I knew the racism would just get worse.
If you could summarize your reasons, why exactly did you take /r/EllenPaoInAction down, and does it relate to either the failure of the sub to achieve the objectives you set out for it, or the negative behaviors that it evoked, or both?
The mods were racist, the userbase was racist, there was a ton of shitposting, the older the sub got, the less actual good content was posted, and it became a hugbox instead of an actual place of discussion.
If you feel comfortable with this question, can you tell us about yourself? How did you get involved in being critical or at least feeling that a watchdog was needed regarding Ellen Pao? Are you a longtime redditor? What do you like about Reddit?
I thought that there definitely is a problem with a company when the CEO’s husband is accused of running a Ponzi scheme, and I just think that there should be a place on a platform as big as reddit, to discuss the leader of the platform.
What do you think will happen with Reddit in the future?
The admins will eventually have to take some sort of action. The whole Cooper fiasco with Jailbait will re-sprout either with CoonTown, Fatpeoplehate, or somewhere else, and the admins will either decide to save face by shutting them down or decide to be a “free speech” platform and I’m almost certain it’ll be the former.
If people want to stay in touch with you and what you do, where should they go and what should they read?
Just send me a PM on Reddit.