The biggest crisis in Reddit’s short history was not an unlucky accident. It was an inside job.
The instigators called it Pedogeddon, a months-long information campaign meant to paint Reddit, a social news site visited by some 35 million people a month, as a den of child pornography—and free-speech-loving redditors as complicit pawns in its spread.
For years, the site’s darker corners had played host to user-made forums that were little more than glamorized image boards for swapping photographs of teenage girls. The photographs straddled a thin legal line between tastelessness and child pornography, testing Reddit’s ethical boundaries.
Reddit shut down the most notorious forum, r/jailbait, in October of last year after it was allegedly used as a springboard for swapping child pornography. The move followed months of intense media scrutiny from the likes of CNN and Gawker.
In February, the site jettisoned all remaining jailbait-style subreddits for good. But big media didn’t lead the fight against r/jailbait. They were led.
Who had it out for Reddit? Disgruntled Diggers? Mischievous 4channers? Bored YouTubers?
No: Pedogeddon, the anti-Reddit campaign, was largely an inside job, organized by a zealous collective of the site’s harshest, angriest in-house critics. Called r/ShitRedditSays—SRS for short—it’s the most hated place on Reddit.
Are its creators out to destroy the social news site?
The opposite of Reddit
Among Reddit’s more than 100,000 communities, SRS is an anomaly. Officially, it’s a place to mock casual misogyny and other forms of hate speech on the site. Since launching in Sep. 2010, it’s ballooned to nearly 14,000 readers.
It’s also spun off a network of 30 subreddits members call the “Shevil Fempire”—a nod to its members’ feminist leanings. (Reddit’s “men’s rights” groups are a frequent target of their ire.)
Feminism isn’t the only cause SRS upholds. The group is a Newtonian response to the Internet’s nasty side, an opposite and equal reaction to the sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia that bubbles up from the Web’s pseudonymous sublayers.
Opponents accuse it of being a massive, sophisticated troll brigade that takes giddy pleasure in firebombing other communities and then watching them burn. (Trolling is a broad term used online to describe pretty much any behavior intended to provoke a reaction.)
The jailbait bans were good, say SRS critics who have spoken to the Daily Dot, but SRS’s overall effect is insidious and harmful, they claim.
The community’s abrasive tactics and wholesale smears of Reddit—as opposed to specific subreddits like r/MensRights or r/jailbait—have fueled an ongoing controversy.
But the existence of SRS also highlights Reddit’s runaway growth and ever-expanding societal influence.
Reddit’s cultural landscape is so big, it’s spawned a counterculture.
Crush the redditors
“CRUSH THE REDDITORS WITH YOUR DILDZ,” read a faux propaganda poster formerly posted on SRS’s eponymous main forum, r/ShitRedditSays.
“Dildz,” or dildos, are the kind of weapon that people who hate men who hate women imagine misogynists imagine feminists wielding. Yes, the satirical cultural critique runs to Inception levels on SRS.
That over-the-top rhetoric is typical for SRSers. That’s why some call the group Reddit’s thought police.
The tone is played up ad nauseam at r/ShitRedditSays. There members track and discuss the worst of Reddit: the racist, the homophobic, the transphobic, and the just generally nasty.
There’s an ideological bent to the mockery: These are progressives spitting verbal hellfire at their retrograde foes.
“Most of Reddit prides itself on its intellectualism yet not only tolerates, but endorses bigotry and the exploitation of children,” an SRS moderator writing under the pseudonym Grace Jones told the Daily Dot.
Here are some comments selected for skewering at SRS:
That baby is just a year old and it’s already collecting unemployment, disability and child support for it’s baby.” [beneath a picture of a black baby]
Those are unmitigatedly awful sentiments. And they’re real comments that came out of a redditor’s head and somehow didn’t get censored on the way to their keyboard. But is Reddit as a whole as bad as those comments?
The running joke on Reddit is that every redditor is a young white male. The site’s own demographic studies show that’s mostly accurate. While Reddit prides itself on a liberal-leaning mainstream, minority voices are often washed in a flood of upvotes supporting the average.
Reddit is a particularly unfriendly place for women. Commenters frequently call women attention whores, karma whores (karma is Reddit’s internal points system), or some other variant of whore simply for posting a photograph of themselves. Men are rarely given the same treatment.
When a 15 year-old girl posted a photograph to r/atheism in December of last year, she was met with offers of statutory rape. When a sexual assault victim shared her story last September, she was nearly run off the site. Redditors accused her of lying and faking her wounds with makeup. She was brave enough to stick around and prove it wasn’t a lie. The wounds didn’t wash off, she later proved in a video.
Those are just a few examples of the hostile environment that often greets women. Jena Donlin, Reddit’s senior manager of business operations, recently told the Daily Dot that she recommends women avoid one section, r/gaming, entirely—it’s just too hostile. (She suggested r/GirlGamers instead.) And it’s just as bad, if not worse, for minorities.
Still, SRS thrives on an abrasive reductionism: If you see Reddit through the SRS filter, you never read about all the good things redditors do. And there are a lot.
Reddit boasts a dozen or so communities devoted solely to charitable deeds, gift exchanges, suicide prevention, and any other number of decent things. It hosts a 76,000-member women’s forum, a feminism forum, and multiple lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender forums.
Crtics say SRS’s anti-Reddit fervor is powered by users who either misunderstand comments or deliberately take them out of context for sensational effect. As for the truly terrible verbal spew, that simply represents Reddit’s lowest common denominator, they say.
Reddit, like Twitter, has millions of users. You could just as easily cherry-pick all the shit that Twitter says. Does one Twitterer’s gutter speech represent everyone on the site?
SRS is dipping its rhetorical paintbrush into Reddit’s sewage and painting the entire website murky brown.
Take Pedogeddon, the propaganda bomb, for instance. SRS pretty much accused every user of the site of complicity with child pornographers.
Critics like the 700 or so subscribers of r/antisrs say SRS resorts to the same kind of ad hominem attacks it claims to abhor. They are particularly outraged by the frequent, haphazard use of words like “pedophile.”
“SRS has warped the noble pursuit of equality for the marginalized, and become completely misanthropic, vile, and most importantly aggressive toward freedom of expression,” reads a message at the r/antisrs forum. “Only defenders of the structurally marginalized are deemed worthy of thoughts and only if they fall in line with [SRS’s] dogma.”
That irony—that a place that champions open-minded approaches to minority issues should lock itself off in a close-minded echo chamber—is not lost on SRS members themselves. This recent exchange on Reddit best encapsulates the debate:
“They call everyone who disagrees with them pedophiles, misogynists, homophobes, [transphobes], etc.” redditor Teknodruid wrote in a discussion earlier this year. “They think they are the ones that set the standards for what is and is not acceptable and then [judge] everyone else by their twisted view of their own making,”
That brought this reply from SgtWobbles: “That’s the Woosh moment that SRS has with so many people. But what you’re missing is that this is precisely how oppression of minority groups via misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, etc. takes place. The point of SRS is not to engender discussion, but rather to simply turn the table around 180 degrees. “
The abused become the abusers.
How do you fight a war on Reddit? With votes.
The site’s design makes it easy to bury opinions you don’t like: Organize likeminded supporters, target a user or a community on Reddit you dislike, and click down, down, down.
So-called “downvote brigades” violate Reddit etiquette. If r/liberal users go around downvoting threads they disagree with in r/conservative, for instance, the latter loses its value as a community. Downvotes are meant to bury comments that are uninteresting or off-topic, not viewpoints one disagrees with.
Officially, SRS discourages messing with the voting system (“Reddit is a museum of poop,” the SRS sidebar reads. “Don’t touch the poop.”) The whole idea of SRS, moderators say, is to highlight popular Reddit posts. If you downvote the “poop,” how can you can highlight?
“As moderators, we constantly emphasize that downvoting what is highlighted in SRS goes against the very idea of SRS content,” an SRS moderator writing under the pseudonym Kate Bush told the Daily Dot.
Critics say upvoting, rather than downvoting, actually does the most damage. The men’s rights advocates at r/MensRights, for example, claim that SRS covertly floods the subreddit with deceptively offensive posts, then upvote them en-masse to paint the subreddit as a hate-filled hub for mysognists. (If that’s SRS’s goal, they succeeded: r/MensRights was recently labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center).
“Posts with what SRS views as offensive material tend to be upvoted more than they would otherwise, while comment replies to it are downvoted,” wrote ignatiusloyola, a moderator of r/MensRights “This reinforces the idea they are trying to spread, that the offensive material is being supported by a wider audience.”
SRS members have released two internal studies in an attempt to prove the subreddit isn’t a downvote brigade. From my own observation over the past couple of weeks, a link from SRS only rarely correlated with a sudden swing of downvotes or upvotes. Ultimately, debating downvotes is a futile effort: Reddit has no public tools for tracking where they come from.
“The problem with addressing this issue is that it is impossible to blame ‘SRS’ directly,” ignatiusloyala wrote. “What is SRS anyways? Does every person who happens to post there also represent the entire group? What is undeniable, however, is that the subreddit does draw attention to posts that may have otherwise gone unnoticed or less noticed.”
Vote totals are just a red herring, anyway, according to culturalelitist.
As a moderator of r/subredditdrama, a community that takes popcorn-chewing delight in chronicling internal battles on Reddit, he’s had plenty of chances to observe what he considers SRS’s insidious influence.
He points to r/lgbt, a nearly 40,000 strong community torn apart by a dispute between users and moderators—moderators who were, he noted, egged on by SRS.
“The real problem with SRS is their ability to derail any conversation on Reddit and make it about them,” culturalelitist wrote, “which hurts discussion in any subreddit they come in contact with.”
Most recently, SRS allegedly harassed an r/MensRights poster who claimed he was suicidal. That poster has since disappeared from the site. The whole affair is shrouded in a confusing veil of pseudonymity, made even worse by counteraccusations that the nasty comments were left by people out to make SRS look bad. The stuff would make a spy novelist proud.
For their part, SRS moderators ban users whom they discover sending harassing messages. I reached out to more than a half-dozen people whose comments had been targeted by SRS: Some said they had never even heard of SRS, most didn’t know their comment had been selected for mockery, and none reported unwelcome messages.
Like antiestablishment movements in the real world, SRS is often framed as a kind of domestic insurgency egged on by some mysterious foreign power. In this case, the foreign bogeymen are the inhabitants of the forums at humor site Something Awful (SA).
In July of last year, Something Awful forum member Celot launched a thread asking fellow “goons” (forum regulars) to find the worst comments on Reddit. It was kind of like a proto-SRS.
Soon enough the SA “goons,” as the site’s members call themselves, stumbled upon r/ShitRedditSays. Its creator, reddit_sux, had used it to compare Reddit comments with those left on a neo-Nazi Web forum (there was often little difference between the carefully selected comments). About a year ago, reddit_sux left Reddit. Soon goons and disenchanted Reddit regulars had taken over the place, turning it into the bubbling cauldron of Reddit hate it is today.
The SA forums have long taken pleasure in skewering the denizens of unassuming Internet forums. The fact that SA continues to hold close ties to SRS—including during the Pedogeddon campaign—has led to conspiratorial whisperings that SRS wants to do more than just disrupt Reddit.
Paranoia reached new heights after Reddit banned jailbait-style subreddits in January, with some redditors even claiming SA goons had planted child pornography on Reddit, and that they planned to bring down the site with “manufactured perverseness.”
As with most conspiracy theories, this one takes a kernel of truth and blows it up to absurdity.
Big media will pounce on allegations of widespread child pornography. But Anderson Cooper isn’t likely to swoop down from his shiny CNN offices to attack bad comments on the Internet. (Have you read comments on CNN.com recently?)
There’s no evidence SRS ever planted child pornography on Reddit or planned to take down the website as a whole or (both accusations are a source of great amusement for SRS users). It’s true that many SRS users likely have SA accounts, but borders on the Internet are fluid. If someone reads and posts on Reddit, aren’t they by definition redditors—even if they hate the site?
And while the original SRS pilgrims may have been goons, the subreddit now boasts nearly 14,000 members, the vast majority of whom were likely never SA users. (Something Awful requires a $10 membership fee to join.)
SRS certainly doesn’t inspire fear in the Reddit staff.
Erik Martin, Reddit’s general manager, told the Daily Dot there are no plans to ban the subreddit. “As long as they as individual users are not breaking any rules they have nothing to worry about,” he wrote in an email.
Subreddits and groups that are critical of each other or even of Reddit itself can certainly cause problems for users and moderators, and we are working on better options for subreddit interaction. I think it’s a healthy sign that the Reddit platform is open enough to allow all ranges of communities to thrive, even critical ones.
SRSers themselves don’t plan on going anywhere. Outside of the main forum, the so-called Fempire boasts about 30 other communities where members discuss topics as broad-ranging as gaming, food, and cute stuff (this is the Internet, after all).
“I firmly believe Reddit on the whole is not redeemable and I have no desire or intention to fix it,” a moderator who spoke under the pseudonym Paul Simon told the Daily Dot. “The voting mechanism tends to bring out the worst in the majority demographic of Reddit and makes a community with a very firmly entrenched set of bigoted ideals.”
I’m not here for Reddit, I’m here for SRS. It’s very fun to mock terrible comments people find, but SRS has other purposes. It’s a community where minority viewpoints are respected, and where we can share content and discuss things in our other forums.
The thing is, if you’re a minority person or an ally that likes pop culture, or nerd culture, or technology without racism, sexism, homophobia, and other awful things popping up all the time, there isn’t really anywhere substantial you can go on the Internet that is friendly to that. Even if a SRS user did leave, where would [these people] go?
SRS is a consequence of absolute free speech in a community with a population of millions.
Hate it. Ban it. It doesn’t matter. SRS will never leave. There’s a reason sophisticated shock jocks become so popular: the angrier their enemies, the more fervent their fans.
“Redditors should absolutely just ignore them,” culturalelitist wrote. “But redditors as a whole are pretty bad about feeding trolls”—in other words, giving the politically correct shock jocks at SRS just what they want: outrage.
He continued: “[SRS] know how to get under people’s skin and stay there. Hell, I know a great deal about SRS’s history and tactics, which puts me ahead of the game compared to many redditors, yet they still make my blood boil with the things they say from time to time.”
The bots among us
Last year a pack of automatic bot commenters popped up on the site. Whenever SRS highlighted a comment to mock, one of the bots would appear and post a message, such as the following:
THIS IS A PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT
You’ve been a victim of the SRS trolls, who’ve nominated themselves as the moral and thought police of reddit, linked you to ShitRedditSays and are looking down at you from their very high horse. The thin-skinned, self-important members have deemed your comment offensive, you should feel special! Walk tall with your head held high on this day. Remember, don’t feed the trolls when (not if) they crawl out of their hole.
THIS HAS BEEN A PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT.
Around the same time SRS reported a big spike in subscribers. The moderators embraced their robot stalkers: “SRS AFFILIATED PROMOTIONAL BOTNET,” read a new box on the subreddit’s sidebar, under which it listed all the anti-SRS bots.
“Don’t feed the trolls,” the bot warned, as it became a tasty dish itself.