How Unconditional Free Speech Is Ruining Reddit

Online discussion forum community Reddit is in trouble. Of course, they haven’t been without controversy during their nine year reign, but now, with the departure of interim CEO, Elle Pao, things are worse than ever.

Pao resigned on July 10th, 2015 after a petition collected over 200,000 signatures calling for her dismissal. During her months as CEO she banned five popular subreddits, including /r/fatpeoplehate, citing an anti-harassment policy. Although Reddit has always been open with their policy to allow free speech in all its forms, they’ve tried their best to make sure illegal content was removed as soon as possible.

Due to the outspoken nature (and added bonus of being able to remain anonymous) of the Reddit community, any move that even slightly threatens free speech is met with extreme outrage. Because of that, Reddit is always reluctant to ban even the most hateful and offensive of subreddits. Volunteer moderators are in place to try to remove any illegal content, but as long as it’s not breaking any laws, redditors are basically allowed to say anything they want. Of course, they don’t always follow those rules.

A list of controversial subreddits that have been banned in the past include /r/jailbait, which was full of provocative photos of teenagers, /r/creepshots, where users posted sexualized photos of women without their consent, and /r/TheFappening, a thread that posted links to nude photos of celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence and Kate Upton that were leaked in 2014. At the height of /r/jailbait’s popularity and subsequent controversy, which included a segment on CNN, Reddit’s general manager, Erik Martin, defended the subreddit saying that such controversial pages were a consequence of allowing free speech on the site.

Former CEO Yishan Wong also stated that “We stand for free speech. This means we are not going to ban distasteful subreddits. We will not ban legal content even if we find it odious or if we personally condemn it.” But Ellen Pao had other ideas. She chose to take the risk and ban five subreddits, which inevitably led to hundreds of thousands of the site’s loyal users turning against her.

But now Wong, and former Chief Engineer, Bethanye Blount, have both come out to say that Pao was most likely set up to fail. Basically, Reddit has known for awhile that they need to crack down on controversial subreddits, but they needed a scapegoat to shoulder the burden of the inevitable backlash from users who just want their “right to free speech”.

In order for Reddit to make money they need to attract advertisers, and find a way to monetize their most popular threads, like the AMA. The Ask Me Anything subreddit has attracted huge stars like Chris Pratt, Peter Dinklage, and Woody Harrelson, and even featured Barak Obama when he was running for President. The community manager of the AMAs was Victoria Taylor, but she was fired on July 2, 2015, much to redditor outrage. Ellen Pao took all the heat for this decision, but according to Yishan Wong, it was site founder, Alexis Ohanian who made the decision, not Pao.

Either way, Reddit was able to appease the masses by getting rid of Pao, and the controversy has given them a legitimate reason to take a closer look at the content they allow on their site. According to Wong, the redditors who demanded Pao’s resignation are the ones that are going to end up banned after everything is said and done. Reddit is at a crossroads. Will they continue to allow unconditional free speech, or is it time to clean up their image at the expense of internet trolls everywhere?

Co-founder, and current CEO Steve Huffman spoke directly to Reddit users on Wednesday, acknowledging that while most of Reddit’s content comes from “wonderful, creative, funny, smart, and silly communities, there is also a dark side, communities whose purpose is reprehensible, and we don’t have any obligation to support them. And we also believe that some communities currently on the platform should not be here at all.” He will be hosting an AMA on Thursday, July 16th, at 1pm to address questions from users on where they plan to go from here.

The caveat to having a website as big as Reddit and giving its users free reign over the content is that not everyone is going to have positive intentions. Reddits attempt to give their community the benefit of the doubt, and expect them to use their “freedom of speech” responsibly has led to a sense of entitlement among its users. So what if Reddit started out as a place where you could say anything? There’s no reason why people should be discriminated against and harassed just because you think you deserve the right to be an asshole. 

Companies like Reddit have no choice to evolve, and if they want to make money, they’re going to have to choose between the users who want to have honest discussions, but are capable of being respectful of each other, and the users who hide behind a computer just so they can type every hateful thing that comes to mind without fear of consequence.

There are lots of positive things about Reddit, but right now those things are being drowned out by the negative. Maybe Reddit won’t be the same if the trolls, white supremacists, homophobes, misogynists, and all around scumbags leave. But hey, maybe that’s a good thing.

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