What does Reddit CEO's editing 'joke' mean for free speech on the site?

Many are calling for Reddit CEO Steve Huffman’s resignation after he secretly altered abusive posts on the site, saying that he violated the core free speech principles of the site and its users' trust.

Charles Krupa/AP/File
Supporters hold pro-Donald Trump signs before a campaign rally for in Manchester, N.H. A Reddit group supporting Mr. Trump has fired back against the company's CEO, calling for his resignation after he edited abusive posts made by Trump supporters.

A move that started as a “joke” on pro-Donald Trump Reddit users has thrust the site into the center of an ongoing debate regarding free speech, harassment, and the ethical line between the two.

Reddit CEO and co-founder Steve Huffman admitted last week that he used his administrative access on the site to edit disparaging comments directed toward him, opting to show the names of those who led a pro-Trump subreddit, r/The_Donald, in place of his. That way, the spiteful comments appeared to insult those users rather than himself.

“I abused my power to give the bullies a hard time,” he told The Washington Post. “I had my fun with them, they had their fun with me. But we are not going to tolerate harassment for any others.”

Social media sites have come under fire lately for being both too heavy-handed, as when Facebook censored the iconic Vietnam war photo of a young girl fleeing a South Vietnamese napalm attack, and too laissez-faire, as when the same company facilitated the spread of propaganda disguised as news during the divisive 2016 presidential election. For many executives, there’s a challenge to determine what type of content promotes controversial views, and what constitutes harassment and abuse of others that crosses an ethical or legal line.

As the digital era has served to connect people and information in ways like never before, the question of what role social media executives should play in policing speech has become hotly debated. When companies like Reddit have tried to fight harassment, they find themselves using a double-edged sword that has the potential to slash free speech.

Reddit’s latest move has hampered users’ trust in the site – even for those who didn’t support Mr. Trump in the election. Others in the pro-Trump camp have made calls demanding Huffman’s resignation.

For many, Reddit represents a place for speech that is largely uninhibited, allowing users to conceal their identities and communicate with one another in discussion groups, known as subreddits. While Reddit was founded as a link-sharing site that sought to become a reliable news aggregate of various sources and topics across the world, the site has also become a place for protected, anonymous communication of ideas that some might find hard to express in mainstream venues as well as degrading comments and images that some complain have attacked or exploited women and minorities.  

While companies like Facebook have cracked down on harassment and content that violates its terms of use, Reddit has made a name for itself as a freer platform.

“We stand for free speech. This means we are not going to ban distasteful subreddits,” former CEO Yishan Wong wrote in a 2011 memo as the issue of censorship on the platform first began to arise. “We will not ban legal content even if we find it odious or if we personally condemn it. Not because that's the law in the United States – because as many people have pointed out, privately-owned forums are under no obligation to uphold it – but because we believe in that ideal independently, and that's what we want to promote on our platform.”

But in 2015, Huffman sought to clarify, and possibly curtail, exactly what that position meant after the site unveiled an anti-harassment policy.

"Neither [co-founder Alexis Ohanian] nor I created Reddit to be a bastion of free speech, but rather as a place where open and honest discussion can happen," he said in a 2015 Q&A regarding the site’s content policies.

Most of the comments and accounts involved in last week’s controversy came from the r/The_Donald group, which has posed issues for administrators for the past few months. By continuously posting fake news, promoting conspiracy theories, and popularizing pro-Trump memes across the platform, users managed to bombard the site’s front page with its content, prompting Reddit to alter an algorithm they had hoped would limit the group’s reach. That move resulted in the barrage of comments and attacks aimed at Huffman.

Huffman says the idea to swap his name in the comments with those of other users was a joke, but one in bad taste. He says he’d hoped that changing the names for just a few hours would allow others to see how abrasive comments can negatively impact users’ experience on the site.

But others say that move crossed an ethical line for the site’s administrators, and criticism of Huffman mirrors that levied against Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Last spring, several former Facebook employees came forward and revealed that the site had suppressed some conservative news stories from appearing in users’ feeds and injected others in their place.

That tactic, experts say, makes Facebook an active player rather than passive platform when it comes to disseminating news. Some have wondered what impact that influence could have on the public, and others have blamed Trump’s unexpected and unprecedented election victory on the spread of false news across the platform.

When it comes to Reddit, others worry that Huffman’s actions could set a precedent for inaccurate or manipulated content. UnimatrixZeroOne, a Reddit moderator, expressed those concerns when releasing images of Slack conversations Thursday from Reddit moderators, administrators, and Huffman that detailed the altered posts.

“If he did this just because he thought it was funny, then what stops him from doing it for a more ‘important’ reason?'” UnmiatrixZeroOne wrote. “What he did completely destroys the credibility of reddit.”

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