There is this draft of an essay I’ve been trying to write for a few weeks about how people don’t understand what free speech is. It isn’t something afforded to users of private websites. Private websites have choices in what they host beyond the legalities of their locality.
When a user is banned from a private site for any reason their free speech rights haven’t been trampled because it isn’t their government doing the banning. When content is deleted from a website because a government tells them to, then their free speech rights have been violated. That’s the extent of it.
Whenever any person, business, or project runs a website where users can submit comments or pictures or any kind of content there is a responsibility to moderate that content and remove anything that is at a minimum illegal. Most sites go the extra step of trying to encourage healthy discussion by attempting to remove trolls and other forms of harassment and objectionable content.
In order to do that, sites have policies or rules that members must adhere to. It makes it much easier if instead of a community manager saying “this isn’t allowed” and banning a user, the site has a set of rules to point to and enforce. Good community managers want these policies and rules to be a tool of last resort. Usually the first level of escalation should be a private conversation with someone if their content isn’t completely out of line or spam.
Here we are today in August of 2015 and Reddit has been operating with minimal policies in place for a little over a decade.
This is a site where users choose what communities to join and read by subscribing to each subreddit community that they want to read and participate in. Subscribing and unsubscribing also changes what appears when that user visits the Reddit.com front page. Normally those communities are about interesting or fun topics like interviews with celebrities or useful subjects like cats and video games. Sometimes reddit even hosts surprisingly reasonable debates on subjects that people think are impossible to discuss like gun control, abortion, or even who the best Star Trek captain is. Reddit is what you make of it as a user.
Reddit isn’t just some site hosted by someone who loves these things, it is a business in San Francisco with over 70 employees.
Unfortunately Reddit is also what the people running the site make it, and for years Reddit has hosted hatespeech alongside the cute cat pictures and other interesting content. The most recent and popular subreddit community for racists was called Coontown. It was exactly what you would expect, diatribes about how terrible anyone is who isn’t white alongside terrible images and links to other racist materials. There was no reasonable discussion, just the same stupid old racism enabled by today’s most popular community site, Reddit.
When I found out about this I couldn’t believe it. How could anyone at Reddit know about this and continue to host the racists at their cost and without feeling maybe a little strange about doing so? It’s their choice. I couldn’t personally continue working somewhere that did that, and I had removed the link to the ioquake3 reddit community from ioquake3.org.
Today Reddit finally banned that Coontown subreddit along with a few others and updated their policies.
I was so relieved! I could delete the draft article about how shitty reddit is, and everything would be great from here on out. I thought that I could go back to reading reddit and linking to them from my other sites. Until I read more on the thread on Reddit about why they deleted it:
Just in case that text in the image isn’t readable for you, here is the reasoning behind the decision for Reddit to ban Coontown:
We didn’t ban them for being racist. We banned them because we have to spend a disproportionate amount of time dealing with them. If we want to improve Reddit, we need more people, but CT’s existence and popularity has also made recruiting here more difficult.
That is the comment from one of the original Reddit founders, the returning CEO, Steve Huffman.
This is why nothing has been done for over a decade about the racists on Reddit. This is why the other objectionable sites on reddit are being placed behind a bogus click-through quarantine before you can read them. The spreadsheet finally ticked over and the cost to deal with these particular racists became greater than the continued benefit of hosting the racists. Not because the people running Reddit had any problem with racists, not because they support any kind of bogus form of free speech, they had a problem with the continued cost of doing business with the racists and shut off the thing that was losing them money.
If the racists that come to Reddit for their community operations can find a way of doing so without costing Reddit more than Reddit earns from hosting the racists, they’ll be welcomed. Unbelievable.