If there’s anything more upsetting than a bunch of anonymous amateurs trying to dictate to the media how to write the news, it’s journalists parroting misinformation.
Reddit, so the story goes, just banned some of the biggest online news publishers from its hugely influential r/politics forum. To journalists, the only thing more outrageous than the bans were the vague and subjective criteria of the Reddit moderators.
The blacklist includes sites whose reporting has brought down presidential nominees (Mother Jones) and won Pulitzers (the Huffington Post). But the mods had decided that those sites, among others, were also “sensationalist” and “blogspam,” and therefore had no place on r/politics.
“Reddit (Basically) Just Banned Half the Internet,” read a hair-raising headline from news site Vocativ. The story capped off about a month of outrage from journalists on Twitter, convinced Reddit itself had judged the quality of their content and found it wanting.
“It’s like if Google was being run by by a bunch of vindictive, vicious children who choose to cut everybody off,” one publisher told Vocativ. “That’s how much power they have.” The publisher preferred to remain anonymous “because he feared incurring more wrath from Reddit moderators,” Vocativ explained. Yikes.
But please, simmer down, news media. Reddit hasn’t banned you. There is no censorship regime sitting at the top of one of the top 100 websites in the world. The outraged response on Twitter and on Vocativ seems to arise from a fundamental misunderstanding of both how Reddit itself works and how influential r/politics really is.
Let’s clear a few things up.
Reddit, Inc. hasn’t banned these domains
From the beginning, Reddit has been a mostly user-run site. The paid staff plays a very limited role in directing content or managing the site’s thousands of forums, also known as subreddits. Users create the subreddits—and they run them.
You can think of subreddits as little Reddit kingdoms. When you create one, it’s entirely yours to manage as you see fit. You can invite others to join you as “mods,” or users with administrative power over the subreddit. They can ban users, delete posts and comments, and even, yes ban domains. But that power does not extend beyond the walls of their subreddit. Different moderators have different approaches. Some subreddits are ruled with an iron fist; others are free-for-alls.
Now r/politics may be a very large part of Reddit, but it’s still entirely run by these volunteers. They have absolutely no formal relationship with Reddit, Inc. The r/politics ban list, in other words, was never touched or approved by Reddit itself.
Reddit, the company, will occasionally ban an entire domain. But never because of “sensationalism” or “low-quality” journalism. For Reddit to drop the banhammer on your head, you’ve got to first abuse its system. That means either spamming the site relentlessly and/or organizing cliques to upvote links and push them to the front page with artificial lift. The site has banned big name publishers like the Atlantic and Businessweek for just these offenses.
But those bans are temporary. Reddit will work with offenders to make sure they don’t mess up again. It wants to stop people from fundamentally undermining the site, not dictate their content.
R/politics does not have 3 million readers
In every discussion of the ban, this number gets tossed around like it actually means something. “With over three million members, the Reddit Politics forum has significant audience share,” a contributor at the Daily Kos wrote.
The subscriber number is right there on the r/politics sidebar, right? So how could it be wrong?
At one time, r/politics was a default subreddit. That meant every new Reddit user subscribed to it automatically. Create a Reddit account and boom, you’re subscribed to r/politics. If you have 50 Reddit accounts that you made once and never used again, they’ll show up as an r/politics subscriber. Same goes for the thousands of spam accounts made over the years.
Reddit General Manager Erik Martin once told me the site doesn’t even keep track of total subscriber numbers because the statistic is so meaningless.
R/politics does not drive a lot of traffic
Traffic equals advertising money, and if publishers suddenly lose Reddit referral traffic, they lose a chunk of revenue, too. But ever since r/politics was removed as a default subreddit, it’s referral traffic has plummeted. How do we know? Because that’s how Reddit works. Once r/politics was dumped from the default lists, not only were new users no longer subscribed to it automatically, but its posts would no longer show up on the default Reddit homepage.
We also know from experience. Our story on Congressman Rush Holt’s bill to strip the National Security Agency of certain spy powers landed on r/politics in September and quickly rose to become one of its top stories of the month. The traffic registered as a little bit more than a blip: 18,000 visitors over a day came from Reddit. In comparison, a top post on a default subreddit like r/technology can bring as many as 600,000 unique visitors.
Check out how successful both the Huffington Post and Vice have been on Reddit over the past week, despite getting banned from r/politcs:
The r/politics moderators probably see the media’s response to their bans as “sensationalistic.” This time, they’d be right.
Illustration by Jason Reed