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On Valentine’s Day 2013, redditor douglasmacarthur put together a last-minute surprise for the most important people in his life.
With about two and a half hours to spare before the stroke of midnight, douglasmacarthur asked the community to suggest additions to a tentative list he and his moderator counterparts were compiling: domains to ban on r/news, a default subreddit with more than 1.1 million subscribers.
Douglasmacarthur’s suggestions included popular organizations like the Huffington Post, Salon, and specifically RT.com, a Russian news network formerly known as Russia Today.
“When I inherited responsibility for this subreddit I decided I would try to turn it into the first large news-related subreddit largely free of the alarmism, bias, editorialization, etc. that takes place in all of the others, and the most active/vocal among the community largely support this mission,” douglasmacarthur wrote. “Those who don’t still have plenty of other options.”
Douglasmacarthur’s post quickly collected comments from redditors calling the list an act of censorship. He was also compared to Sen. Joseph McCarthy who became infamous for exploiting Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union in order to weed out communists in the U.S.
“While Russia Today isn’t always reliable sometimes they still cover stories far better than any of the mainstream media sources,” redditor icareboutnews commented. “If you do this you will ruin this subreddit for me and many other people.”
Douglasmacarthur responded to many of his critics directly in the thread and stated that he would consider “canceling this or significantly scaling it back given your feedback.”
“I am sorry I approached this this way and let it get somewhat sour,” he added. Shortly after, he went offline, and the thread petered out. Sometime over the next six months, the thread was deleted.
But on Thursday, without warning, douglasmacarthur banned RT.com from r/news for vote manipulation and spamming.
“One example is plain domain frequency,” dougalsmacarthur stated in his thread. “The rule-of-thumb is 10 percent. If you submit a lot, and the proportion coming from a certain domain is way higher than that, you’re probably a spammer. If there’s a lot of users doing that a lot for one domain, you should investigate further to see if it’s people working for that domain.”
The move sent off shockwaves across Reddit. The community called for douglasmacarthur to be removed from his position and falsely accused him of stealing $8,000 in funds raised for a Restore the Fourth protest against NSA surveillance.
“The two front-page articles that have made up RT’s response have amounted to posting screenshots of Internet comments flaming me or gossiping about me—much of it on topics completely irrelevant to this—as well as linking directly to my profile, which has led to threats and harassment,” Douglasmacarthur said.
On Sunday RT.com fired back against the ban. The news organization published a screengrab of a conversation between r/news moderator BipolarBear0 and Restore the Fourth cofounder Michael Reed. The mod stated RT.com had been shut out “simply because it’s Kremlin.”
“I did not ban them ‘simply because it’s Kremlin,'” douglasmacarthur said in an interview with the Daily Dot. “Those aren’t my words nor was I even present for the IRC [Internet Relay Chat] conversation that quote was supposedly taken from. The mod that supposedly said that was not part of the decision to ban RT.”
Douglasmacarthur made the decision with only one other r/news moderator, who was in charge of spam. He said this moderator, whom he declined to identify, had been performing spam investigations for more than a year across other subreddits as well.
“If it had just been his decision, they probably would have been banned sooner,” Douglasmacarthur added.
Despite the community blowback douglasmacarthur continues to receive for his decision, he has found two allies in moderators ManWithoutModem and Nickwashere09, who were involved in getting Quickmeme and Meme Generator banned from Reddit.
Both sites were blocked after redditors discovered they used bots to exploit Reddit for financial gain. And in the case of Quickmeme, a cofounder of the company was also accused of infiltrating r/AdviceAnimals, home to all things meme-related, as a moderator so he could post links to his site.
Voting bots use fake Reddit accounts that upvote or downvote posts automatically. The more upvotes, the more visible a post becomes on the site and the more likely it will hit the front page. A spot on the front page usually results in a massive spike in visitor traffic and an increase in advertiser dollars. In August alone, Reddit collected 73 million unique visitors (up from 67 million in July). And there to make sure the community isn’t taken advantage of are the volunteer moderators.
“I believe the ban is justified and I believe the ban would be justified even if they weren’t spamming, because RT is a terrible news source that just posts sensationalist, anti-American propaganda,” ManWithoutModem told the Daily Dot. “Many redditors think they are saving the world by being vigilantes, but that just isn’t the truth. They cause real-world damage with doxing, death threats, etc, in these witch hunts, whether directed towards a moderator or anyone else.”
RT.com was launched on December 10, 2005, as Russia Today, a nonprofit organization funded by the country’s federal budget. It was created by President Vladimir Putin’s former media minister Mikhail Lesin and spokesperson Aleksei Gromov to fight against Western media which, they claim, is “excessively influenced by anti-Kremlin oligarchs,” Foreign Policy reported nine days before its launch.
“Whether the Western media bias is real or not, the Russian government certainly thinks it is, and it has launched a PR campaign to improve its image in the eyes of the world,” Foreign Policy added. “With a staff of 300 journalists, including around 70 imported from abroad, the channel will offer global news from a Russian perspective. In addition, Novosti [Russia’s state news agency] has hired some notably Kremlin-friendly foreign journalists to work for its own newswire service.”
Russia Today shortened its name to RT in 2009 to increase its appeal after “many colleagues, also from foreign media, told us that it was diminishing our potential audience,” editor Margarita Simonyan told Russia Beyond the Headlines.
While its name is much smaller, RT has become a bloated cash cow Putin won’t stop feeding.
In 2005 the Kremlin launched the non-profit with 700 million roubles (around 23 million dollars), New Eastern Europe reported. In 2013, RT called for 11.21 billion rubles ($336 million).
RT now has more than 2,000 journalists on staff who cover everything from Bitcoin to the ongoing saga of NSA whisteblower Edward Snowden. Yet while its comprehensive coverage of Snowden, who is now residing somewhere in Russia, has largely been praised, it’s the sensational stories found under its USA section that ultimately got it banned:
- “White House visitor logs not subject to public information requests, court rules“
- “Nearly 20 percent of US scientists considering work abroad due to poor funding“
- “Open-sea US Navy testing will kill hundreds of dolphins and whales“
“I trust Doug’s decision on banning RT not only because he knows what he’s doing, but because I and many others had been pushing for a ban on RT and many other biased sources since he seized power earlier this year,” he said. “/r/News was to be a respite from the garbage that had cluttered /r/politics. It was to be unbiased and to have quality content. RT headlines are written to be provocative at the expense of quality content. They prey on anti-American motives to gain pageviews.”
So has any of the vitriol changed douglasmacarthur’s mind regarding RT.com? Nah.
“This apparent attempt to smear and intimidate me has not discouraged me from keeping the ban in place,” he said.
Illustration via WalterMatthau/Reddit
Fernando Alfonso III served as an early Reddit and 4chan reporter and the Daily Dot’s first art director until 2016. He’s gone on to report at Lexington’s Herald-Leader and at the Houston Chronicle.