- Reddit CEO Steve Huffman said racism is not explicitly against the site’s rules.
- Huffman has taken a US-centric approach to free speech and wrongly suggests racist people are open to logical counter-arguments.
- Reddit is rife with racist communities that are uninterested in counter-arguments, and they often ban or expel anyone who disagrees with them.
- The structure of Reddit thus incubates racism by preventing racists from seeing anti-racist arguments.
- Policing speech online is hard, but Huffman needs to do better than this.
Reddit CEO Steve Huffman caused outrage on Wednesday when he said racism wasn’t against the site’s own rules. Later, he issued an updated comment but fundamentally stood by his earlier statement.
This is what he said in his updated comment, which you can read in full here alongside his earlier comment on Reddit where he posts under the username spez:
“To be perfectly clear, while racism itself isn’t against the rules, it’s not welcome here. I try to stay neutral on most political topics, but this isn’t one of them.
I believe the best defence against racism and other repugnant views, both on Reddit and in the world, is instead of trying to control what people can and cannot say through rules, is to repudiate these views in a free conversation, and empower our communities to do so on Reddit.
When it comes to enforcement, we separate behaviour from beliefs. We cannot control people’s beliefs, but we can police their behaviours. As it happens, communities dedicated racist beliefs end up banned for violating rules we do have around harassment, bullying, and violence.
There exist repugnant views in the world. As a result, these views may also exist on Reddit. I don’t want them to exist on Reddit any more than I want them to exist in the world, but I believe that presenting a sanitised view of humanity does us all a disservice. It’s up to all of us to reject these views.”
The gist is that Reddit wants to try and distinguish between real-world, tangible harassment, and ideas – an idea it has expressed before. This strangely permissive attitude to racism is US-centric, and will encourage the toxicity that already pervades some Reddit communities, known as subreddits, and other online platforms.
Free speech absolutists argue that sunlight is the best disinfectant for hate
Huffman, though he doesn’t quite phrase it this way, is referring to a common argument in favour of offensive speech which goes like this: you are never going to quash someone’s racist views by banning them or shutting them down, and it’s better to shine a light on these beliefs and argue against them.
A major flaw in this argument when applied to racism is the assumption that prejudice is logical. Someone who sets up a subreddit called r/CoonTown to post racist memes is not going to be open to arguments about black people’s humanity and dignity. Reddit banned that particular community, but a subsequent Q&A with its moderator is still live. The moderator explained: “I’m out to smash the Zionist kikes who want to keep Whites in a box and from gaining racial consciousness.” What sunlight will disinfect that?
Huffman’s views also don’t make sense in the context of Reddit, which is made up of interest-based communities called subreddits. If you’re interested in technology, you go to r/technology. If you’re a bitcoin enthusiast, you might spend most of your time in r/bitcoin. As Redditors responding to Huffman pointed out, these communities tend to become echo chambers.
Some Reddit users, arguing against Hoffman, pointed to r/TheDonald, a pro-Trump subreddit rife with alt-right memes and covert racism.
In one example, still live on Reddit, one user posted an image of the Dhaka floods in 2016 which, combined with animal sacrifices for Eid, resulted in red-coloured rivers flowing through the city. The user commented: “and you’re telling me muslims can integrate into our society? ayy lmao fuck off libcucks. REMOVE KEBAB.”
Another wrote: “This is what happens when you worship Satan and moon gods.” And another replied: “you forgot “goat fuckers” and “pedophiles!”
Complaining about extreme subreddits, here’s what user LeConnor wrote: “These communities, mainly the more dogmatic ones, are allowed to remain separated and turn into echo chambers. If you disagree, you’re banned. If you use the wrong sort of language, you’re banned. It happens in /r/TheDonald and /r/socialism. For the most part there isn’t a even a chance for debate to happen. If you go into one a sub that holds viewpoints that are opposed to yours and try to debate or discuss your own views you’ll get dogpiled by the mob. You have to go to a debate sub or metareddit if you want to avoid that.”
In other words, the structure of Reddit means that most racist subreddits are unlikely to become places where comments pointing out the logical holes in racism will get an airing.
Huffman has a scarily US-centric view of the world
Free speech absolutism is not common outside the US, where people are free to spout racism thanks to the First Amendment.
It’s much blurrier in Europe, where there are strict laws around hate speech and incitement to violence. In Germany, it has long been illegal to be a Nazi or to espouse Nazi views. More recently, Germany introduced NetzDG, a strict law which prohibits hate speech online and covers all the US web giants – presumably including Reddit.
In the UK, a man was jailed for posting a Facebook comment calling for British Muslims to be killed after the Manchester bombing in 2017. More than 2,500 people in London have been arrested over the years for posting offensive or threatening messages in social media.
Similar comments reportedly appear on r/TheDonald subreddit, apparently with no wider consequences for the community. Per comments by other Reddit users, their ideas are rarely challenged, though they are often criticised outside r/TheDonald.
Huffman might disagree with Europe’s stricter philosophy towards free speech, but it seems odd to disregard the international legal consequences entirely.
Policing speech is a major challenge for the tech giants and Huffman is choosing to duck responsibility
The proliferation of trolls online and the easy spread of hate speech is a major challenge for tech platforms.
Facebook and Google are under particular pressure to tackle radical speech that may incite terrorism, right-wing conspiracy theories being promoted on YouTube, and abusive content. It’s a tough challenge, and Mark Zuckerberg recently said he’s “fundamentally uncomfortable” sitting in California making decisions about who gets a voice and who doesn’t.
This is, in some ways, understandable, but Huffman is blind to the way Reddit communities can ferment hate thanks to the site’s structure. Huffman’s problem is that he wants bad speech to be countered by good speech, but the structure of Reddit prevents that from happening and – even worse – provides a haven for the spread of racist ideas.
The distinction between real-world harassment and “ideas” also looks naive, given research by the Southern Poverty Law Center showed in 2014 that the now-defunct website Stormfront was connected to several killings. There isn’t evidence to show that spouting off on Reddit leads to murder, but the SPLC research suggests it isn’t much of a leap from extremist ideas to violence.
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