Reddit is a social site where anonymity is a key benefit for its users. However, there are plenty of users who abuse their anonymity online, which makes it hard to discourage Reddit users away from the tendency to abuse the site. Last week Reddit staff banned five subreddits that were hotbeds of harassment; unfortunately, this strategy doesn’t look like it will be very effective.
According to an official admin post from Reddit:
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 behavior, not ideas. Today we are removing five subreddits that break our reddit rules based on their harassment of individuals. If a subreddit has been banned for harassment, you will see that in the ban notice.
These subreddits included fat-shaming subreddits like r/fatpeoplehate and r/hamplanethatred, and a racist subreddit r/shitniggerssay. The r/fatpeoplehate group was the largest of the banned subreddits, and had more than 150,000 subscribers. Other subreddits in this wave of administrative clean-up had less than 5,000 subscribers.
Reddit has been trying earnestly trying to tackle the harassment problem on its site. A survey of users conducted in May showed that Reddit users were reluctant to use, or recommend the site to friends because of the harassment problem. As a result, Reddit updated its user agreement and terms of service to reflect its new definition of harassment.
The purpose of the change was to make Reddit a friendlier place where more open communication could occur; banning the subreddits was likely a move to further that goal. However, it’s so easy to create subreddits that a new version of r/fatpeoplehate is already live, entitled r/fatcriticism. Currently the subreddit is much less popular than the original incarnation, but it’s possible the new iteration will grow.
Interestingly, the new subreddit has ‘laws of the land’ that specifically prohibit users from harassing one another:
HARASSMENT VIA P.M. OF SPECIFIC USERS IS NOT TOLERATED IN ANY WAY, SHAPE OR FORM. THIS IS WHAT GOT/r/fatpeoplehate BANNED. DON’T MESS IT UP AGAIN.
For the most part, Reddit has left its users alone to self regulate, which has occasionally worked to reduce hate speech and harassment. But Reddit’s users have a fiercely independent streak, and if staff hope to eliminate harassment by deleting subreddits, then they are doomed to fail, since new replacement subreddits can and will pop up to fill the void.
However, users realize that harassment leads to bans, so behaviors may be changing for the better. Trolling may be a result of anonymity, or a lack of punishment, or just a demographic issue we’re not considering. To manage it more effectively, sites need to be prepared to take unconventional approaches, and occasionally play the bad guy.