Reddit is finally cracking down on its most abusive members after its CEO was targeted

Steve Huffman
Steve Huffman, CEO of Reddit. Reddit

Reddit has promised reforms to crack down on its most abusive members in the wake of attacks on its CEO.

Chief exec Steve Huffman announced on the community and social news site that the company has “identified hundreds of the most toxic users and are taking action against them, ranging from warnings to timeouts to permanent bans.”

It’s a move that comes after Huffman was caught editing comments by users insulting him on r/The_Donald, a community (or “subreddit”) that is dedicated to promoting Donald Trump, and has been the centre of intense controversy in recent months.

r/The_Donald’s members have aggressively gamed Reddit’s algorithms to see pro-Trump content rise to the top of the site, and have sometimes engaged in abusive behaviour against the volunteer moderators and members of other communities on the site — causing significant disruption.

Gizmodo has a very good account — based on interviews with multiple moderators — of how the controversy over the subreddit is “tearing” the site apart. “I know there’s always been a ‘dark side’ to reddit. But the dark side used to be confined to the corners,” one moderator told Gizmodo’s Bryan Menegus. “It was manageable. What The_Donald has become, and what it’s doing to the site isn’t.”

Huffman had edited messages sent by members reading “f–k u u/spez” (“spez” is Huffman’s username on Reddit) and similar, swapping out his username for those of r/The_Donald moderators. Reddit staff, as a rule, do not modify comments unless they contain illegal content — so it immediately provoked outrage.

“As much as we try to maintain a good relationship with you all, it does get old getting called a pedophile constantly,” Huffman said to defend himself. “As the CEO, I shouldn’t play such games, and it’s all fixed now. Our community team is pretty pissed at me, so I most assuredly won’t do this again.”

It came after Reddit banned the subreddit r/PizzaGate, which was dedicated to a wild conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton’s inner circle is involved in a secretive paedophile ring.

The changes that Huffman has announced are a marked departure from Reddit’s historic approach to moderation and community management. Traditionally, it has given the volunteer moderators of each self-run subreddit total discretion to set rules and manage their users as they sit fit — only taking action against users who violate site-wide rules or break the law.

But Reddit is now taking a more hands-on approach in monitoring the tone of the site and disciplining users who are out of line — even if they don’t merit being kicked off the site entirely. They can now also warn users for bad behaviour, or give them “timeouts,” as well as permanent bans.

In the wake of his rogue edits, the exec said Reddit is also “updating our internal controls to prevent this sort of thing from happening in the future.”

While the battle around r/The_Donald is new, Huffman isn’t the first CEO to be targeted by members of the Reddit community. Ellen Pao, who left the company in 205, was subjected to a barrage of often-racist and sexist abuse as the company removed some of its most toxic subreddits — including the notorious, self-explanatory r/FatPeopleHate.

Pao, however never edited user comments, as a user pointed out to Huffman: “Despite all the hate she got she didn’t stoop this low.”

The exec responded: “It’s fair. Ellen wasn’t the first Reddit engineer, so she probably lacked the expertise to do it, and even if she did, she was smart enough to not.”

Pao then entered the conversation, curtly replying: “Yeah, there’s no comparison. I would have immediately fired anyone who did that.”

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