On Free Speech and Reddit

This post is based on a viewer request, which is being filled due to a donation to the Secular Student Alliance via during Secular Students Week (June 10-17, 2015). Thanks to all for your contributions!

This is probably the most interesting and difficult request I received over the course of Secular Students Week. Right in the middle of the week, the popular link aggregator site, Reddit, decided to have a collective breakdown after a handful of subreddit forums were banned based on spreading hate speech. The front page was flooded with negative images of Reddit CEO Ellen Pao and unflattering photos of obese people, due to the largest of the banned subreddits being r/fatpeoplehate. Countless redditors claimed that their right to free speech was being violated, and that they were being unfairly censored. So, someone decided to ask my opinion on the whole matter.

I’ve been using Reddit for a few years now, but I stay pretty compartmentalized to subreddits that suit my interest, which is really what the site seems to be designed for. The site also harbors a lot of vile, dark corners  dedicated hate speech, racism, sexism, and violence, most of which I have managed to stay blissfully ignorant to. However, this past week wasn’t the first time that the Reddit community threw a collective tantrum over a subreddit banning, even in just the time that I recall. r/jailbait, which was dedicated to often non-consensual pornographic images of women on the edge of legal ages of consent, was banned in 2011 after being the subject of a CNN segment by Anderson Cooper.

More recently, r/TheFappening, which was dedicated to the distribution of hacked nude photos of celebrities, was banned in 2014, which also led to backlash from the greater Reddit community.

From what I have seen, Reddit has historically been run and populated by extreme believers in free speech, who advocate for the forum to have little to no moderation or censorship of content. However, this certainly isn’t true across the board: each subreddit has a specific set of rules that can place any number of limitations on the smaller sub-communities.

Ellen Pao, who is the current target and pariah of these Reddit traditionalists, has a different direction and vision for Reddit. Her opinion seems to be that the position of Reddit as an unfiltered free speech platform has turned countless potential members away by harboring antagonistic hate groups, and wants the community to be more about acceptance and openness to all instead of being a staunch paragon of extreme free speech at the expense of certain groups. In the wake of all of the negative coverage about places like r/jailbait, r/TheFappening, r/creepshots, and others, I think it is pretty easy to understand why this is Pao’s projected direction.

The criticism of Pao comes from two distinct perspectives. One population wants her removed, and Reddit as a whole to refocus on being a broad and essentially lawless land of free speech. The other (less vocal) population has focused their criticisms on Pao not taking the policy far enough, noting that numerous subreddits that promote racism and sexism have been left unbanned. Obviously, it is impossible to make both of these populations happy at the same time, and Reddit is at a crossroads of which way it should go.

My opinion on the matter is that the flag-bearing advocates for absolute free speech on all platforms will always exist, but that they are a generally toxic element to communities. Their belief in equal-opportunity verbal assault and expression without repercussion naturally favors those who are in majority and privileged positions, and thus creates communities that primarily only serve those people (because everyone else is implicitly turned away). This population is naturally going to drift into the next platform that is going to be willing to accept them, and it is really inevitable that they will do so sooner or later. Growing communities have to diversify their user base, and the free speech brigade can serve to actively work against that goal, even if that isn’t what they intend.

The most common complaint that I have heard from the absolutist free speech advocates about the changing state of Reddit is that banning subreddits based on content will lead to subjective bannings in the future for everything from blasphemy to dissenting political opinions. Personally, I don’t think that is particularly realistic: places like r/atheism and r/politics aren’t in any danger, because they don’t (for the most part) actively harass people, and have their own internal guidelines dictating post content.

A good example of this in the film world is the MPAA ratings board, Despite all of the problems with the Motion Picture Association of America ratings board, it was initially created as an insurance of free speech in film: an internal policing/labeling organization for the film industry to subvert any attempts at censorship by local or state governments. It has become a thoroughly corrupt institution now, but that’s a conversation for another time. The point is, its purpose isn’t unlike subreddit moderators: to self-censor and label content, so the big guys (the government, Reddit) don’t have to get involved. As long as subreddits are held to a basic standard of not harboring hate speech, threats of violence, harassment, illegal activities, etc, then all should be fine and dandy. Subreddits already follow a labeling standard not unlike the one the MPAA started with: NSFW (not safe for work) and SFW (safe for work), and no one seems to be bothered by that. Of course, this isn’t a perfect parallel: Reddit, as a private entity, can ban subreddits, users, and content (as it should be able to) as retribution for violating guidelines, whereas the MPAA ratings are strictly about labeling, and the government is limited in how it can interfere with the individual films. Still, the parallels are notable.

Personally, I think the concepts of both the MPAA ratings board and the Reddit site-wide content standards are good. Reddit’s changing standards will hopefully continue to make the site more welcoming to a diverse set of users and drive away the darker, toxic elements of the community. The MPAA, on the other hand, has at least allowed for an effective system of labeling content (except for all of that corruption involved), and theoretically hasn’t stood in the way of films being made (in practice, that hasn’t been the case). Again, I could spend a lot of time just talking about the positives and negatives of the MPAA ratings, but that isn’t what this post is about.

I’m not going to get too deep into how misguided the free speech warriors of Reddit are, but I will say that they aren’t necessarily uniformly awful. Free speech is a serious issue, particularly when it comes to government censorship of art, protest, and blasphemy, and these die-hard free speech folk do a lot of speaking out on those fronts. However, a private company refusing to offer a platform to hate speech isn’t a free speech issue. When it comes down to it, they don’t have any obligation to provide soapboxes to anyone. Likewise, a movie studio turning down a proposed remake of Triumph of the Will isn’t a free speech issue: you can make that movie if you want, but nobody is under an obligation to help you do so. In a more realistic and current example, no one is under any obligation to help Uwe Boll make yet another shitty movie. So, regardless of how much good work these free speech warriors might otherwise do, it is pretty much irrelevant for this conversation, and it doesn’t make them any less damaging to the construction / cohesion of a diverse community.

Looking at Reddit as the private company that it is, I think that it is doing exactly what it needs to: in order to continue forward growth and diversification, the growing pains are going to be experienced in saying farewell to the free speech warriors who have historically provided the site’s foundation. Realistically, the free speech flag-bearers are going to find new platforms to suit them, and Reddit will be able to move on with a user base that doesn’t allow for as much hate and toxicity. I don’t think that is going to happen tomorrow, but I see it as an inevitability on both fronts. Reddit is never going to be able to serve the free speech warriors the way it used do, and the free speech warriors are only going to increasingly serve as an anchor to growth going forward.

So, I think Reddit should lean in, and continue becoming a place that is less hospitable to the free speech warriors. Of course there will be complaining and revolting, but all of that noise, I think, is going to work in the long run to Reddit’s benefit: it will sound a bell out to the previously disenfranchised ex-Redditors and folks who were turned off by the site’s darker elements that the coast is clearing, and that Reddit is re-branded and open for business.

There is a lot of tension between Reddit and a rival website, Tumblr. The two sites have no need to be at odds, though: they are fundamentally different in structure, and perfectly capable of co-existing for a cross-section of users. The tension that exists is solely because of the generally more progressive user base of Tumblr, which frequently butts heads with the free speech warriors who call Reddit home. If those free speech warriors can successfully be jettisoned, and Reddit refocused as a link aggregator and community host rather than a safe haven for hate speech and radical free speech advocates, then I think it can better serve the up and coming base of the internet. This might be to the malign of many, but it is what makes the most sense for the website going forward. It might mean a lot of shitposts from 14 year olds for the time being (which are both bearable and inevitable regardless, and are at least better than white supremacists flooding the site), but they will eventually grow into shitposting 24 year olds and 34 year olds in time, which is better for the site in the long run.

Just as I kind of expected, this post meandered and rambled a bit. I hope folks found it interesting, though, and I highly recommend checking out the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated for a crash course on the MPAA ratings board and the history of film censorship in the United States, and the YouTube video of Uwe Boll getting pissed off about Rampage 3 just for the hell of it (both videos are embedded in this post). Next week, I’ll be back to the usual movie reviews!

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