The community of “involuntarily celibate” men on Reddit’s r/incels subreddit has long been one of the internet’s darkest underbellies: teeming with violent misogyny, it’s a space where its members dramatically perform victimization at the hands of the women who’ve rejected them, members who view Santa Barbara shooter Elliot Rodger, a self-identified incel himself, as a hero.
But not anymore. Last week, as part of its recently announced recalibrated moderation policies, Reddit banned r/incels for violent content. The move comes in the wake of the violent white supremacist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, earlier this year, which resulted in a previous ban of at least one community. Reddit has banned alt-right communities before; after the new rules took effect, however, administrators promptly banned more of them than ever before.
Many of these subreddits, including r/incels, have served as targets for alt-right recruitment. And there are indications that such strict Reddit bans actually work to curtail violence and harassment on the internet.
But not everyone is cheering Reddit’s new administrator crackdown. In fact, many Reddit users are extremely skeptical that the newly tightened policies will bring much real change to the site.
Why? For one thing, many users seem to feel as though the site has been here before. For another, in a crucial indicator of how far Reddit isn’t willing to go to disturb its uneasy equilibrium, it continues to accommodate the most controversial subreddit of all: The_Donald.
Reddit has tried stricter moderation policies before, with inconclusive results
Reddit’s newly updated content policy contains stricter and more specific language about inciting violence — specifically against “any content that encourages, glorifies, incites, or calls for violence or physical harm against an individual or a group of people; likewise, we will also take action against content that glorifies or encourages the abuse of animals.” Notably, the new policy applies to all content, including usernames and meme images.
The most upvoted thread on the announcement post about the policy, however, speaks to the level of frustration on the site. In the comment, users Grickit and ImNotJesus sum up what many Reddit users perceive is happening with such announcements.
“This cycle is so tiring,” Grickit writes:
1) reddit admins totally ignore all reports of horrible shit going on and ramping up
3) reddit makes national headlines
4) reddit finally adds some lukewarm rule clarification
You’ll enforce it for maybe a month or so. Then when the news has died down, we’ll be back to step one.
Below Grickit’s comment, ImNotJesus adds, “In case anyone doesn’t believe that this is the cycle, I made this exact same comment in 2014.” That comment refers to similar observations the user made that year, after Reddit banned r/TheFappening, the subreddit responsible for the site’s infamous leak of celebrity nude photos. At the time, Reddit administrators seemed open to the idea of adult nudes — including revenge porn, which many of the leaks clearly were — being posted on the site. They claimed it was the presence of nude photos depicting minors and an onslaught of Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown notices, not a wish to censor the site, that ultimately resulted in the banning of r/TheFappening.
Reddit has often found itself at odds with its user base in its fight to curtail toxicity on its forums while maintaining its commitment to openness and free speech. The banning of r/TheFappening kicked off a period of unrest marked by the persistent harassment of interim CEO Ellen Pao by Reddit users after Pao tried to enable stricter policies against sitewide harassment. Pao ultimately resigned in 2015 after users staged a massive sitewide protest, partly against what they saw as her “politically correct” banning of subreddits devoted to fat shaming.
Since then, Reddit’s rules have expanded — revenge porn is now explicitly prohibited, for example — and its content policy has grown more specific. And the banning of toxic subreddits has proven surprisingly effective in combating the site’s ugliest elements.
It helps that the rapidly changing political and cultural climates have shifted the priorities of many members of Reddit. After all, while some Reddit users may be in favor of fat shaming, most of them are firmly anti-Nazi, which is why the unfolding battle that has played out on the site since Pao’s resignation has not been about too much political correctness, but too little — especially when it comes to the alt-right and one subreddit in particular.
The issue isn’t creating stricter policies — it’s implementing them.
The comments from the Reddit users mentioned above neatly highlight not just the cyclical nature of Reddit’s policy changes but also the true problem with them: It’s not the policies themselves, but the inconsistency with which they’re enforced, that leads to trouble.
This is a theme we’ve seen again and again with various internet communities, from YouTube and Tumblr’s repeated conflation of queer content with sexually explicit content to Twitter’s ongoing failure to combat hate speech and abuse. The best and strongest content policies can essentially be rendered useless if they aren’t enforced in a consistent and responsible way.
In Reddit’s case, this inconsistency is reflected in the site’s ongoing accommodation of what’s arguably the single most damaging community on the site: r/The_Donald, which became the major hub of Donald Trump’s alt-right supporters in the lead-up to the 2016 election.
The_Donald has become notorious for its incitements to violence, its blatant white supremacist rhetoric, and its use as a lure for the alt-right into more explicit forms of right-wing extremism. Trump’s notorious anti-CNN tweet, which seemed to advocate violence against journalists and arguably violated Twitter’s own content policy, originated from a post on The_Donald. Prior to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, The_Donald hosted a stickied post encouraging members to attend the rally and march alongside neo-Nazi and “ethnostate” groups, because, “In this case, the pursuit of preserving without shame white culture, our goals happen to align.” Most recently, a member of The_Donald, an alt-right blogger who formerly worked for Milo Yiannopoulos, murdered his own father after his father accused him of being a Nazi.
As Polygon recently pointed out, Reddit’s new stricter content policies won’t do much, if anything, to halt the violence and hate speech in sub-forums like The_Donald and r/KotakuinAction, a notorious Gamergate hub that also fuels alt-right rhetoric — the reason being that, well, Reddit administrators don’t appear to see them as serious problems, despite routinely being handed evidence to the contrary.
Reddit administrators are trying to accommodate The_Donald. It isn’t returning the favor.
In a recent Q&A session with Reddit’s co-founder Steve Huffman (better known on Reddit as the user spez), one exasperated user linked to 45 different examples of comments on The_Donald that clearly violated Reddit’s rules against violent content. The comments include refrains like “kill them all,” “kill all SJWs,” and “kill the unnecessary ones,” plus plenty of targeted racism and xenophobia.
Huffman responded to this comment, and basically said that The_Donald could stay because the mods were agreeable to addressing abuse:
Generally the mods of the_donald have been cooperative when we approach them with systematic abuses. Typically we ban entire communities only when the mods are uncooperative or the entire premise of the community is in violation of our policies. In the past we have removed mods of the_donald that refuse to work with us.
But if anything, moderators of The_Donald have been consistently uncooperative in dealing with Reddit admins. Past mods have been accused of using hundreds of sockpuppet accounts to upvote posts and boost moderating decisions in violation of Reddit’s rules. The moderators were also well-known for gaming the site’s ranking system by pinning posts in order to prevent them from getting downvoted, thus ensuring that The_Donald posts wound up being constantly promoted to the top of Reddit’s front page — again in violation of Reddit’s rules.
To stop them, Reddit had to completely overhaul its ranking system earlier this year in order to keep posts from The_Donald from spamming the site’s front page. The moderators also subtly encouraged their users to brigade Reddit’s r/Politics subreddit — a huge Reddit taboo — to the extent that Reddit administrators banned them from being able to link to r/Politics at all. Administrators also removed the top three moderators at The_Donald, reportedly because they refused to take actions against doxxing, harassment, and brigading; in response, the remaining mods briefly shut down the entire forum in protest.
This pattern suggests that Reddit has done far more to accommodate The_Donald than The_Donald has done to accommodate Reddit’s community standards and good-faith guidelines.
The mods of The_Donald have also been consistently unwilling to take steps to deal with toxicity on their forum — and they arguably encourage it. Last year the moderators pinned a giant Islamophobic post to the forum’s front page and explicitly invited white supremacist users into the forum, announcing that they would not be enforcing its “no racism” rule “with regards to the middle east.” Transphobia across the forum has been well-documented, and at any given time one can find a litany of hate speech and racist, misogynist rhetoric on posts there. As of this writing, The_Donald currently features a vaguely threatening transphobic post, a post with comments favoring Nazis over the current political left wing, and several helpings of straight up racism, all on its front page, all apparently unchecked by moderators.
The_Donald’s moderators have themselves been called out for a string of alleged bigoted remarks, and have kept the forum mired in drama in the process. Last year the forum lost five of its moderators in the span of a week, when one moderator, who’d been accused, along with another moderator, of making bigoted remarks, suddenly deleted his account, demodded three people, and left a new mod in charge. That mod then deleted his own account just days later, after Redditors noticed he had a history of bigotry and misogyny. At the time, the user calling out his behavior described that mod as “all the bigotry of the subreddit compressed into a single person.”
Clearly The_Donald’s mods have a history of being something less than “cooperative” in addressing abusive behavior on the forum, but the rest of Huffman’s response highlights an even knottier aspect of The_Donald’s relationship to the rest of the site. Huffman went on to argue that The_Donald had the right to expect the longstanding support of free speech around which Reddit has built its community:
Finally, the_donald is a small part of a large problem we face in this country — that a large part of the population feels unheard, and the last thing we’re going to do is take their voice away.
It’s understandable that Huffman would want to try to work with The_Donald rather than banning it altogether, given the site’s commitment to free speech. But The_Donald has habitually seemed uninterested in integrating into the rest of the community: Moderators routinely suppress opposing views, “ban[ning] hundreds of people a week who are either concern trolls, berniebots, republican shills, spammers, sjws and so on.” Between its hostility to outsiders, perpetual rule breaking, perpetual drama, and perpetual hate speech, The_Donald has become, statistically speaking, the most unpopular community on Reddit.
All in all, The_Donald seems to have done far more to disrupt Reddit as a whole than it has to enhance it. In this case, Reddit’s commitment to free speech has meant allowing a deeply toxic community to actively undermine the general spirit and tone of the site.
Reddit’s own rules, as stated in its user agreement, are “intended to keep people safe, protect kids, keep Reddit running, and to encourage personal responsibility for what you do on Reddit.” It’s hard to see how the rhetoric and tactics of The_Donald are contributing to an atmosphere that’s intended to keep anyone safe. But this seems to be the rhetoric that Reddit administrators have chosen to uphold — at least for now. Whether this approach can sustain Reddit’s community into the future remains to be seen.
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