Reddit and Free Speech

The online community Reddit has been making headlines lately with their evolving policies on free speech. While these developments have been intriguing for those familiar with the site, the uninitiated may find their significance harder to interpret. This brief guide is for anyone who would like to understand what reddit is, and how it may impact free speech standards online.

What is Reddit?
Reddit is one of the most popular sites on the Internet, ranked as the 31st most visited site in the world and
the 13th most frequented site in Canada. It is an online message board where users share links to news, videos, gifs, memes and other media with a community that can then comment on and discuss this content. Content posts are organized by areas of interest, known as subreddits, managed by volunteers who moderate both posts and comments. What differentiates Reddit from other information sharing networks is that users (also known as Redditors) can vote to raise or lower a posts’ prominence. Positive votes are called “upvotes,” while negatives votes are, you guessed it, “downvotes.” The most upvoted posts appear on the front page of the site. This means that Reddit’s content is user-curated, a striking departure from news aggregators that sort content by computational algorithms.

 Definition  Guide
Redditor Someone that uses Reddit
Subreddit A sub-community focusing on a particular topic
Upvote A positive rating on Reddit
Downvote A negative rating on Reddit
AMA A conversation where users are invited by posters to “Ask Me Anything”

What does Reddit have to do with free speech?

Reddit is commonly understood as a site where people are free to engage as they wish. Reddit staff have even referred to the community as a “free speech site.”

After a number of illegally obtained nude celebrity pictures were posted to the site in November 2014, then CEO Yishan Wong banned the subreddit that hosted them, but maintained Reddit’s commitment to free speech:

“We uphold the ideal of free speech on Reddit as much as possible not because we are legally bound to, but because we believe that you – the user – has the right to choose between right and wrong, good and evil, and that it is your responsibility to do so.”

What’s going on with Reddit now?

Given this initial stance on free speech, the introduction of an anti-harassment policy in May 2015 was a surprise to many users. The policy was based on a survey of over 15,000 Redditors that found that negative interactions with other users made them uncomfortable posting to the site, and decreased their willingness to recommend it to others. With this new policy, Redditors who feel they are being harassed can report the offending message, post, comment, and user to Reddit staff.

The following month, Reddit banned 5 subreddits that were in violation of the site’s anti-harassment policy. Although the move was intended to prohibit malicious behaviour  targeted at individuals, as opposed to offensive ideas, many Redditors began to question the site’s commitment to free speech and transparency. They argued that the site lacked justification in shuttering subreddits like “fatpeoplehate” where users expressed hatred toward the obese, when other deeply misogynist, racist, and otherwise offensive subreddits incited targeted attacks on individuals in greater numbers.

On July 16, 2015, the new CEO of Reddit, Steve Huffman, conducted an AMA (an open discussion where users are invited to “Ask Me Anything”) to clarify the anti-harassment policy and introduce a content policy that prohibits the following:

  • Spam
  • Anything illegal (Discussing illegal activities, such as drug use, is not illegal)
  • Publication of someone’s private and confidential information
  • Anything that incites harm or violence against an individual or group of people
  • Anything that harasses, bullies, or abuses an individual or group of people
  • Sexually suggestive content featuring minors

Although Huffman stressed that only subreddits that target or harass users will be banned (not those featuring unpopular ideologies), the introduction of a content policy represents a shift from the idea of banning behaviour rather than banning ideas. He argued that he and co-founder Alexis Ohanian (Reddit’s current executive chairman) did not create the site to be a “bastion of free speech” but rather as a place for open discussion.

The site has subsequently released an update to the content policy introducing a new concept called quarantining, which would make content that is “considered extremely offensive to the average Redditor” available only to users that opt-in. Reddit went further to ban a number of communities that feature racist and sexually offensive content on the basis that they exist only to annoy others and make the site worse for users.

Why does any of this matter to me?

Reddit is the first sizable, online community based on user-generated-content to publicly grapple with issues of freedom of expression. The path Reddit takes will set a precedent for other online communities and shape our standards for acceptable speech online.

What do you think of the changes taking place on Reddit? Is absolute free speech (barring harassment or threats) an important part of expressing yourself online? Can a site with a community as large as Reddit’s effectively police user contributions? More importantly, should it?