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"Sushileaks" scandal grips Reddit in debate over moderator powers

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Reddit has its own WikiLeaks.

And like the diplomatic cables that Julian Assange’s crew released to the world, the social news site’s information vigilantes have revealed some disturbing things about the way the world works.

Namely, that a small group of volunteer moderators have close ties to Reddit’s paid staff, causing some to worry that those moderators hold unfair influence in a community that takes pride in an egalitarian ethos.

Over the past week, redditors have released private chat logs that forced one influential redditor to publicly confess that he’s taken control of of multiple subreddits under at least three different identities and embroiled Reddit general manager Erik Martin in an ongoing dispute over Reddit’s power structure.

The most recent leak Tuesday night included the transcript of an online conversation between Martin and top moderator Andrew Smith (andrewsmith1986 on Reddit).  

While you’d expect Reddit staffers to keep in close touch with moderators, the chatter shown in the logs surprised some redditors who expected staffers to be less “chummy,” as one critic put it.

Last week, Reddit banned the posting of suggestive or sexual images of minors, ending a long-running controversy over sections like r/jailbait. In the chat, Martin revealed that he had been planning to make that move for months. He also played down suggestions that his hand was forced by critics within Reddit (specifically by the Reddit-bashers at r/shitredditsays) or without (the forum members of humor site Something Awful).

Martin also expressed worry over the fact that "everything we say recently winds up being public"—suggesting the staff has grown concerned over this spate of chat log leaks.

The redditor who obtained the logs goes by sushisushisushi. He’s posted his finds to a section of the site called r/subredditdrama, where they’ve been given the moniker "Sushileaks."

It all began on Sunday when redditor drunkendonuts dropped the first bombshell: a private chat log involving numerous moderators of some of Reddit’s top subreddits and one Reddit staffer.

The chat logs revealed IP addresses—a person’s unique identifier online—and when two users logged in under the same IP address, it was clear something was fishy.

That user was karmanaut. His other identity, revealed by the IP address, is ProbablyHittingOnYou. Both accounts rank near the top of reddit’s comment karma standings.  

For a time, both accounts also moderated Reddit's live interview section, r/IAmA, one of the most valuable pieces of property on Reddit, largely because it's a popular stop for celebrities on promotional tours. (In previous comments, karmanaut also admitted to holding a third account, bechus, under which he moderates the r/bestof subreddit; his accounts have also held conversations with one another.)

The fact that one person held two moderator positions at such an important section suggested to some an improper concentration of power, as subreddit policies are often decided with moderator votes.

Users may hold as many accounts as they wish, according to the rules set out in Reddit’s user agreement and do not have to reveal their real identity, but many redditors favor transparency about top moderators.

Debate over this revelation spread throughout Reddit. The fact that a Reddit staff member was involved in the private chat also cause some to question the ethics of such a cozy relationship and worry about an “elite class” of Reddit users who hold unfair access.

For his part, karmanaut said he used multiple accounts because his high profile as a top commenter attracted a lot of negative reaction. As for why he added his second account to r/IAmA, he said, “I added it so that I could be a better moderator and check the spam filter and whatnot without switching accounts.”

He’s since removed ProbablyHittingOnYou as a moderator of r/IAmA; his other identity, karmanaut, remains that subreddit’s top moderator.

Reddit’s sections are mostly user-run and controlled. The most highly trafficked ones see upwards of 600,000 unique visitors a day, making them valuable Internet properties on their own right. (Tech blogger Nick O’Neill recently claimed that similar traffic for a single story ”can literally make a writer's career.”)

Moderators are not all-powerful, but they can delete posts, and the top moderator can close down a subreddit. According to one estimate, a small group of moderators control 85 percent of the site’s most trafficked subreddits. That’s an awful lot of influence for a group of unpaid volunteers to hold over a site that boasts more than 35 million unique visitors a month.

Still, it should hardly surprise anyone that the group holds discussions in private. Reddit can be a noisy place sometimes.

The leaks themselves originated as either chats on private IRC channels or instant messaging software. Transcripts were then copied to Pastebin, a document-hosting site, as text files. Pastebin files are public and require either knowledge of the URL or a search to be found; sushuisushisushi said he discovered them through search.

The leaks, therefore, could be entirely accidental, the result of a careless chatter relying on Pastebin as an archival tool—but it's also possible someone with access to the private logs intentionally posted them.

In the end, the biggest consequence of the Sushileaks affair may be an erosion of trust between Reddit staff and the site’s top moderators.

As redditor syncretic observed: "The unfortunate thing is that this leak will likely lead to less dialogue, not more, because the admins will feel like everything they say in confidence is going to be publicized and taken out of context like in some tabloid rag."

Some have claimed that the presence of organizations like WikiLeaks have only made governments more secretive. Will Sushileaks do the same to Reddit?

For his part, sushisushisushi doesn't put much weight in those comparisons:

Reddit … is just a company … Its main marketing gimmick and the principal source of its brand loyalty is that it is by the users, for the users, and of the users. It takes public positions in the defense of free speech and against the censorship of the Internet. Its entire profit-model is inextricably linked to the freedom of information.

This leak demonstrates two things for me, one good, one bad:

The good: Reddit solicits the advice of and attempts [to] keep abreast a select group of users

The bad: Reddit solicits the advice of and attempts [to] keep abreast a select group of users

Image by John Allen