Meet the Reddit users fighting against harassment censorship

In 2012, former Reddit CEO Yishan Wong declared, “We stand for free speech.”

“We will not ban legal content even if we find it odious, or if we personally condemn it,” Wong wrote in a leaked internal email to moderators. He was responding to a Gawker exposé on Michael Brutsch (aka violentacrez), a prolific user who regularly posted sexualized images of children and other controversial content. “Not because that’s the law in the United States,” Wong continued, “… but because we believe in that ideal independently, and that’s what we want to promote on our platform.”

Wong, by committing to free speech, stood in line with the ideals upon which Reddit was founded 10 years ago. Today, he has been replaced.

Interim CEO Ellen Pao, whose high-profile dismissal of a universally adored employee sparked an all-out revolt by the site’s volunteer moderators last week, is seven months into a tenure that has seen multiple uprisings as she attempts to transform the “Front Page of the Internet” into a place where anyone feels welcome at the expense of inhospitable speech.

Censorship for free speech

The most fundamental change to Reddit—one that will endure far longer than the Reddit Revolt of 2015, for which Reddit administrators apologized on Monday—is an overhaul the site’s official harassment rules. 

“The wrong mods can control what millions of people see every day on this site and how they have to behave and post. It’s a recipe for total bias, censorship, and abuse.”

“Instead of promoting free expression of ideas, we are seeing our open policies stifling free expression; people avoid participating for fear of their personal and family safety,” Reddit administrators wrote in a May 14 blog post. “Last month, we conducted a survey of over 15,000 redditors—these are people who are part of the reddit community—that showed negative responses to comments have made people uncomfortable contributing or even recommending reddit to others. The number one reason redditors do not recommend the site—even though they use it themselves—is because they want to avoid exposing friends to hate and offensive content.”

These findings led to Reddit’s new anti-harassment policy, which the company hopes will promote greater discussion by eliminating speech that intimidates some users into staying quiet. The policy reads: “Systematic and/or continued actions to torment or demean someone in a way that would make a reasonable person (1) conclude that reddit is not a safe platform to express their ideas or participate in the conversation, or (2) fear for their safety or the safety of those around them.”

Once used to ban users for posting personal information on the site and breaking other site-wide rules, the policy, critics say, has become convoluted and applied unequally across the site to only punish the speech that some—critics point to Pao, Reddit’s administrators, and some powerful volunteer moderators—find distasteful.

In June, this policy led Reddit administrators to ban a subreddit called r/fatpeoplehate—a community that did exactly what you would expect from the name. Dank with blanket vitriol, the Fat People Hate community came together to ridicule the overweight, to sneer at photographs and tweets of the inhabitants of what they called “Ham Planet.”

Fat People Hate ranked, at the time of its removal, in the month’s top 10 most-active subreddits. A voracious group of fat-haters, eager to upvote the most vicious content, regularly voted their posts to page one of r/all, the high-profile list of highest-ranking content across Reddit’s more than 835,000 communities.

As distasteful as Fat People Hate was to many, its removal was viewed by some users as so detrimental to the site’s once-strict free-speech principles that it snipped the righteous soul from Reddit’s battery-powered heart.

While some users have allegedly begun to flee to Reddit’s more freewheeling competitors, such as Voat and Hubski, many alternatives have found themselves woefully ill-equipped to deal with an influx of virtual immigrants. But there are other users, those who see themselves as stewards of free speech and of Reddit’s soul, who propose to stay and fight.

An upvote battle

The shift in Reddit’s policy toward free speech may have changed under Pao, but the underlying theory toward the new rules can be traced back to Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian, who returned to Reddit as chairman last November, when Wong resigned.

Responding to the firing of a developer who was overheard making a “sexist” joke at the technology convention PyCon in 2013, Ohanian pleaded for “otherwise reasonable-seeming” people to stop disparaging others online. 

“These amazing open platforms for speech work because an Internet connection is all we need to share an idea with the connected world,” Ohanian wrote on his personal blog. “What makes this freedom so awesome is not simply that we have it, but how we exercise it. … This isn’t ‘political correctness,’ this is you having the courage to use your words to create an environment that promotes an open exchange of ideas—not alienate people and certainly not terrorize them.”

In response to Reddit’s new anti-harassment policy, the media largely cheered the ban on certain kinds of speech. Tech Crunch labeled those who objected to the bans as “trolls.” Gizmodo mocked those who decried censorship. The Verge, which previously featured a video series hosted by Ohanian, ran an editorial stating that, if this was what killed Reddit, then “it deserved to die.”

“[The critics of Reddit’s censorship are a] bunch of people who are mad that a private company isn’t willing to tolerate vicious mockery and other toxic behavior in its living room,” wrote Verge columnist T.C. Sottek. “There is no grand censorship happening here, despite what these trolls want you (and each other) to believe.”

Given the current landscape against anything-goes speech on Reddit, its defenders now face a near impossible task: They need to convince the rest of the world to ignore the often unpalatable content they deal in while listening to their argument—that free speech matters, even in a company-run community like Reddit. And they’re doing it right on Reddit itself.

Subreddit cancer

The incident that apparently led to Fat People Hate’s removal came on June 10. Community moderators posted photos of Imgur staff members to the sidebar with the caption: “Imgur employees. I am not kidding. Even their dog is fat.” Every subreddit has its own rules, and this specimen of trolling lumbered right down the center of the Fat People Hate aisle.

“Instead of promoting free expression of ideas, we are seeing our open policies stifling free expression; people avoid participating for fear of their personal and family safety.”

Reddit staff allegedly deemed the Imgur staff photo “harassment” and said it impacted the safety of the individuals in the photographs. Fat People Hate moderators, on the other hand, smelled nepotism. Imgur, the photo-host of choice on Reddit, was originally created as a “gift” to the Reddit community, and Reddit has invested an undisclosed amount into the photo site in recent years. Despite Reddit’s promise that they were “banning actions, not ideas,” Fat People Hate moderators felt that this was about business interests rather than protection of users.

Almost immediately after the initial ban, Fat People Hate clones sprouted, and Reddit admins shut them down almost as quickly, seemingly for no reason aside from their names. According to Reddit posts, key Fat People Hate moderators have been shadowbanned, meaning they can still post links and comment but no one can see their submissions. Some have allegedly had their IP addresses banned entirely in a bid to keep them off the site. “Sympathy” subreddits have also disappeared from Reddit, as have multiple users who spoke out against anti-harassment censorship.

Critics of this type of censorship have been labeled “man-children” and conspiracy nuts, too childish to accept the reality that, as a private business, Reddit can do with its site as it pleases. The critics see their protests as an act of defiance in the face of corporate hypocrisy.

Most of the people trying to actively resist the move into Reddit’s next phase have congregated in r/subredditcancer (SRC), a forum that highlights both moderator abuse and what users see as Reddit staff hypocrisy. 

The Subreddit Cancer community contends that the site is being eaten away from the inside by powerful moderators who impose their values on vast swaths of Reddit. This is the titular cancer, the community’s members say, that leads to such arbitrary bans. Recently, an r/Planetside player was permanently banned for using the word “trap” allegedly because a moderator believed it to be transphobic, even though there is a gun in the game called the Trap M1. The same moderator who issued the ban then demanded a 500-word essay in exchange for a reversal of the decision.

(Disclosure: Reddit administrators banned me earlier this year for breaking site rules.)

It is for incidents like the Planetside ban, and many others, that the mods of SRC say they operate as something of a Reddit resistance. They routinely evade bans and reinstate moderator privileges for each other. Finding themselves with an influx of users following the removal of Fat People Hate—not to mention this weekend’s Reddit Revolt—they are as keen as ever to highlight what they see as the core problems powerful enough to rot Reddit into a forgotten wasteland.

“A big part of the problem is a small community of users that are using their increasing influence to effectively censor Reddit,” explains Dr_Anus_MD, a mod of SRC. “It’s not ‘The Front Page of the Internet’ if Reddit is going to take steps to impede the flow of information and discussion. That’s key.”

The heart of the problem, Dr_Anus_MD says, is the way Reddit is built. Anyone can create a subreddit, each of which can have its own rules on top of the sitewide terms and conditions of Reddit. With approval of other moderators, users can become moderators of multiple subreddits, potentially giving these people immense power over their communities and close ties with administrators (the people who are actually paid to run Reddit).

“When the administration knowingy allows moderators of hundreds of subs, many of which can be extremely biased, to also bring that bias into default subs and subs with well over millions of people, all the information and conversation is destined to get strangled,” he says.

“Too many people believe it’s their job to clean up the Internet, Mods and admins alike,” says another Subreddit Cancer mod, T_dumbsford. “There’s too many people who have a modicum of power and use that to push personal/political ideologies. There are appropriate places for certain things, and I understand and even support the idea of safe spaces in certain instances. I do find it distasteful when people attempt to extend that to spaces where it’s not applicable.”

Power moderators and a lean to the left

There is a growing belief among the SRC crew that Reddit admins and moderators of popular subreddits share what the SRC mods see as a common set of political ideologies: extremely liberal, radically feminist, and white apologist. These beliefs are not problematic in and of themselves, the SRC mods say, but become so when anything that deviates from these ideologies results in whole sections of Reddit disappearing.

The SRC mods see examples of this bias primarily in the subreddit r/ShitRedditSays (SRS), a community dedicated to weeding out and highlighting upvoted Reddit comments that are, in the opinion of SRS fans and moderators, “bigoted, creepy, misogynistic, transphobic, racist, homophobic, or just reeking of unexamined, toxic privilege.” They have allegedly threatened to out the identities of users and moderators of subreddits they find distasteful, and some say SRS community members even contacted certain users’ employers, all in the name of cleaning the site of what they dub “shitlords.” 

“A big part of the problem is a small community of users that are using their increasing influence to effectively censor Reddit.”

The moderators at Subreddit Cancer claim that this type of crusading is no longer localized to SRS, which wears it like a badge of honor, and has expanded to communities that included tens of thousands or even millions of users thanks to biased moderators.

“The wrong mods can control what millions of people see every day on this site and how they have to behave and post,” says SRC mod bongowongolongo. “It’s a recipe for total bias, censorship, and abuse.”

“People are welcome to create as many safe spaces and rules for their subs as they want” says SRC mod T_dumbsford. “That’s the beauty of Reddit. But to use your power as a moderator to enforce a personal viewpoint site wide isn’t a moderators job.”

What’s at stake

Reddit’s front page is a powerful piece of Internet real estate, viewed by some 2 million people every day. The front page can highlight scandals or innovative ideas. It can end careers or save people from financial ruin. It can influence political policies or expose private lives. A platform this powerful needs some level of moderation; no one disagrees with that. What the SRC community wants is for the rules to be applied universally, without political ideology mudding the waters at at time when speech on the wider Internet is become an increasingly murky place to swim.

“Why it’s important is likely because most of us are old enough to realize we’re seeing the decline of the Internet,” Dr_Anus_MD says. “Everything is harassment. Everything is bullying. Disagreement is forbidden. We, as users of the Internet, have more tools than ever to ignore or bypass things we don’t want to see or read, but it’s becoming increasingly common for the eternally offended and over-sensitive to demand that everything is sanitized for them, and only in the specific way they see fit. SRC is the voice of people tired of it all.”

“That’s the problem with Reddit now. It’s trying to be ‘a safe space that also champions free speech.’ You can’t have both.”

“That’s the problem with Reddit now,” SRC mod 28DansLater adds. “It’s trying to be ‘a safe space that also champions free speech.’ You can’t have both.”

Subreddit Cancer has received some mockery and been treated with disdain by some of the more prominent moderators on the site. However, according to SRC mod GamerGateFan—whose username references the GamerGate movement—the community is committed to bringing attention to what they see as dangerous hypocrisy within Reddit’s implementation of rules.

“Awareness has to be the primary goal,” he says. Most redditors can’t keep up with the site’s internal politics, and few make the effort unless they “get banned, raided, and shamed,” he adds. “For every one who knows Reddit is undergoing changes, there are hundreds to perhaps thousands who do not.

“Reddit offered the promise of a platform where people could speak freely what they thought; people in returned offered their minds and time to contributing content for the platform as well as recommending it to their friends,” he continues. “I believe Reddit [administrators] are now violating that contract.”

The mods of SRC they see themselves entrenched in a battle to preserve the integrity of one of the Internet’s largest remaining areas of free speech. They do not want to leave the site behind, as an increasing number of users have allegedly done, and they’re struggling to find a better alternative. 

“Online media won’t help us. They’re pushing for the safe space Reddit. What’s left? Tumblr? Are the admins really going to pay attention to us if we’re ranting on Tumblr? We need to do it here,” says 28DansLater.

“We have nowhere else to go,” says bongowongolongo. “If there was a site just like Reddit that had lots of activity, then I would leave Reddit. But there isn’t a site like this.”

Illustration by Jason Reed