Reddit bans groups over harassment: Is it censorship?

Just months after saying that it would not ban groups posting questionable content, social media site Reddit did just that Wednesday.

Eric Risberg/AP/File
Ellen Pao leaves the Civic Center Courthouse during a lunch break in her trial in San Francisco, Feb. 24. Ms. Pao, who is serving as the interim chief executive officer for the social media site Reddit, has been the subject of personal attacks on the site after she ushered in a new ban on groups promoting harassment.

Overt racism, fat shaming, and homophobia will no longer be tolerated on Reddit.

On Wednesday, the online forum announced that it has banned five of its online groups, also known as subreddits, which are dedicated to ridiculing gays, the obese, and blacks, among others. The move is the website’s first attempt to crack down on abuse on its pages.

While antiharassment advocates cheered the decision, Internet freedom supporters were quick to criticize. “Reddit increases censorship,” read one post on the Reddit group r/freespeech.

As Reddit aims to become more mainstream, the company will have to master the delicate balancing act between curbing online abuse and catering to a user base that craves absolute freedom. The company’s current predicament is a typical phase in the evolution of many online sites, experts say.

The crackdown “is actually pretty indicative of the state of ‘free speech’ on the Web,” wrote digital culture critic Caitlin Dewey for The Washington Post. “A number of sites that started out as absolutists have realized – particularly as they grow more mainstream – that they also have other corporate and moral responsibilities. If you restrict absolutely nothing, you get child porn. If you define ‘abuse’ too broadly, you watch users leave in droves.”

Much of Reddit’s popularity was based on the company’s reputation for allowing anything to be posted on its pages with minimum oversight from moderators.

“We will not ban questionable subreddits,” Reddit’s former CEO, Yishan Wong, wrote just a few months ago. “You choose what to post. You choose what to read. You choose what kind of subreddit to create.”

But the reality of the marketplace made the current interim CEO, Ellen Pao, backpedal on this decision. A company survey revealed that abusive posts and content had caused some users to leave the site, while other users responded that they would not recommend Reddit to their friends.

In response, Ms. Pao instituted a formal ban on “attacks and harassment of individuals” in mid-May. The five subreddits banned Wednesday were the first to be closed due to a high volume of user complaints.

Many of the site’s users are leaving for Voat, a Swiss site that mimics Reddit in both purpose and appearance, Forbes reported.

“Welcome to all new users from the last round of censorship!” read a new thread on Voat’s page.

But Reddit’s team insists the site's new policy and its commitment to free speech online are not mutually exclusive.

“Our goal is to enable as many people as possible to have authentic conversations and share ideas and content on an open platform. We want as little involvement as possible in managing these interactions but will be involved when needed to protect privacy and free expression, and to prevent harassment,” wrote Pao in a post on Reddit. “It is not easy to balance these values, especially as the Internet evolves. We are learning and hopefully improving as we move forward.”

Some free speech advocates take issue with what they see as an arbitrary rubric for deciding which threads to ban and which to allow.

“The site’s worst trolls are notorious for making parts of Reddit an utter cesspool of vitriol. Yet, though Reddit does its best to allow free speech, there is clearly a line that needs to be drawn,” wrote Jon Russel for Tech Crunch. “The problem – in my eyes, at least – appears to be a selective enforcement of this line: some vulgar subreddits are shuttered while others live on. That makes bans seem arbitrary in nature, and thus provokes this kind of reaction.”

Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian did try to define when a post crosses the line into unacceptable harassment.

“When we are using the word ‘harass,’ we’re not talking about being annoying,” he wrote. “We’re talking about men and women whose lives are being affected and worry for their safety every day, because people from a certain community on reddit have decided to actually threaten them, online and off, every day.”

Meanwhile, some have pointed out that the move is not dissimilar from the attempts of other online platforms to limit the content on their sites.

“Many of the world's largest social networks, including Facebook and Twitter, have responded to problems on their own networks by introducing new policies,” wrote Terry Collins for CNET.

Twitter also announced Wednesday that it is going to strengthen its users' ability to block unwanted interactions with other users.

The most popular of the five closed subreddits included derogatory pictures and comments about overweight people. The thread had around 150,000 subscribers.

Founded in 2005, Reddit is one of the most visited sites online and has often been called "the front page of the Internet." About 172 million people use Reddit each month.

Monitor staff writer Sarah Caspari contributed reporting to this story.

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