Reddit has ignited a firestorm of debate after the site banned five communities on Wednesday afternoon — including the popular “Fat People Hate” subreddit.
The subreddit, also known as r/fatpeoplehate, was devoted to text and photos that insulted fat people.
Reddit works as a link aggregator and discussion board, where anyone can create their own community, called a “subreddit.” r/AskScience, for example, is dedicated to asking questions about scientific matters.
These subreddits are policed by moderators appointed by the creator of the community, with Reddit employees taking an hands-off approach, typically only intervening when a subreddit blatantly breaks the law.
It’s illustrative of just how laissez-faire Reddit has traditionally been that many in the community were outraged when the site banned the subreddit r/Jailbait in 2011, a community for sharing pictures of girls who look (or are) under the age of consent. Similarly, when the intimate photos of dozens of female celebrities were leaked last year, a subreddit dedicated to sharing links to the images stayed live for an entire week and accrued a quarter of a billion page views before being shuttered. Then-CEO Yishan Wong wrote that the site “does not ban subreddits for being morally bad.”
But the times are a-changing. Wong is no longer CEO, having stepped down following an internal dispute over company relocation plans. In his place as interim CEO is Ellen Pao — a lawyer whose profile was raised earlier this year following a failed gender discrimination suit against her old employer, Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.
In May 2015, the company implemented a new harassment policy, aimed to stamp out “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.” The policy is now being put to use — and many people are furious.
On Wednesday night, Reddit closed five communities that it said “break our reddit rules based on their harassment of individuals.” These included r/HamPlanetHatred (an anti-fat person community), r/TransF*gs (anti-transgender), r/neof*g (criticising video game forum NeoGAF), r/ShitN****rsSay (racism), and — most notably — r/FatPeopleHate. (We have used asterisks to avoid offending readers.) While the other four all had fewer than 5,000 subscribers (relatively few, compared to the biggest Reddit communities), r/FatPeopleHate had more than 150,000 subscribers signed up to the community at the time of the ban.
The announcement post, co-signed by Ellen Pao, head of community Jessica Moreno, and Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian, says that their goal “is to enable as many people as possible to have authentic conversations and share ideas and content on an open platform.”
They continue: “We want as little involvement as possible in managing these interactions but will be involved when needed to protect privacy and free expression, and to prevent harassment.
“It is not easy to balance these values, especially as the Internet evolves. We are learning and hopefully improving as we move forward. We want to be open about our involvement: We will ban subreddits that allow their communities to use the subreddit as a platform to harass individuals when moderators don’t take action. We’re banning behaviour, not ideas.”
Here’s what it currently looks like to visit r/FatPeopleHate:
And for reference, here’s how it looked yesterday, via a version cached by Google:
The response from the community has been explosive, many of whom view it as a betrayal of Reddit’s free-speech roots. One of the top posts on the site’s homepage currently asks “What are some good alternatives to Reddit?” There’s also a heavily upvoted video criticising the ban, and then a photo of a sinking ship entitled “this looks very similar to reddit, RIGHT NOW!”
Pao has become a focal point of the virulent and often profane criticism. One comment on the announcement that reads “f**k you Ellen Pao Ellen Pao you SJW [Social Justice Warrior] piece of shit” has been upvoted by users more than 3,000 times. And at one point, 31 of the top 33 posts on the subreddit r/PunchableFaces were photos of Ellen Pao’s face.
Here’s what it currently looks like when you visit r/All, which automatically aggregates the most popular posts on Reddit at any given time:
The admins aren’t budging though. Ohanian denies that the move is a ploy to make Reddit more attractive to advertisers, telling a user that he “did not create a platform for communities to target + harass individuals. It’s really that simple.”
All the subreddits in question appear to have attacked and incited harassment of individuals. r/FatPeopleHate had photos of staff from imgur (an image-hosting service) on its sidebar at the time of the ban, with claims that “even their dog is fat.” And a discussion on r/OffMyChest says that r/TransF*gs was “banned specifically for harassing a 16-year-old trans girl (nonconsentually posting her photo just to mock her looks, all while throwing slurs at her etc). She saw it and became very suicidal and disgusted. Her mum, frightened for her safety, made a post about it in a trans community subreddit asking what to do.”
Right-wing news site Breitbart is reporting that some Reddit users are now decamping to Voat.co, a Reddit clone with no such anti-harassment restrictions. Voat’s own FatPeopleHate now has 1,300 subscribers, as well as nearly 4,000 users on the page simultaneously — indicative of a massive surge in popularity.