Reddit explicitly banned hate speech today, the culmination of a yearslong debate over the limits of acceptable speech on the self-proclaimed “front page of the internet.”
The change came as Reddit issued a new set of sitewide rules, to which each individual community—or subreddit—on the platform must abide.
The first new rule expands on the oft-used “remember the human” guideline in the site’s “reddiquette,” and lays out that everyone has a right to use the platform “free of harassment, bullying and threats of violence.”
Reddit previously barred content that “encourages or incites violence” or “threatens, harasses or bullies,” but had not explicitly banned hate speech and racism.
Another new rule specifically outlaws “spam and malicious attempts to interfere with other communities.”
In a media briefing Friday, Reddit co-founder and CEO Steve Huffman conceded that the site’s policies prevented users from “feeling safe and sharing their vulnerabilities.”
“I have to admit I have struggled with balancing my values as an American and around free speech and free expression with my values and the company’s values around common human decency,” Huffman told reporters. “Reddit’s mission is to bring community and belonging to everybody in the world.”
Reddit also banned /r/The_Donald, the controversial subreddit devoted to President Donald Trump which, for years, has been a hotspot for racism, misogyny and other hate speech.
The_Donald had consistently fostered and upvoted more rule-breaking content than average communities, and moderators “refused to meet our most basic expectations,” Huffman wrote in a post on the subreddit Announcements about the new policies.
The_Donald was one of about 2,000 subreddits banned in today’s purge, most of which were inactive. Only about 200 of those had more than 10 daily active users, according to a Reddit spokesperson.
Huffman said moderators of The_Donald effectively abandoned the community this year, linking to a new central hub outside of the site. In November 2017, he defended the moderators, saying they were generally “cooperative.”
The_Donald “is a small part of a large problem we face in this country—that a large part of the population feels unheard, and the last thing we’re going to do is take their voice away,” he said at the time.
ChapoTrapHouse, the Reddit hub for the popular leftist podcast of the same name, was also banned, in part over moderators’ unwillingness to clean it up. The spokesperson confirmed that Reddit would also take action against individual users today, but did not provide additional details.
The_Donald, with 790,000 users, and ChapoTrapHouse, with 160,000 members at the time of its removal, were “quarantined” last summer—meaning they were restricted and users had to opt in to view them—for comments threatening or encouraging violence.
Unlike most major social platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, Reddit relies on volunteer moderators to set and enforce rules on subreddits, many of which have individual prohibitions against hate speech. But each subreddit must adhere to a set of sitewide rules.
Like most major social media platforms, the site hasn’t always been a welcoming place for all users. In 2018, Huffman explicitly said that racist rhetoric did not break Reddit’s sitewide rules.
Reddit previously banned far-right subreddits including Incels, AltRight and AlternativeRight, as well as other extreme examples of hate speech and violence like WatchPeopleDie, FatPeopleHate and BeatingWomen. But pressure on Reddit intensified in recent weeks amid the nation’s social unrest, and earlier this month a coalition of more than 200 subreddits demanded the platform reexamine its policies.
The_Donald has been one of the most public points of controversy for Reddit in recent years and recently was criticized by former CEO Ellen Pao, who helmed Reddit for nearly a year, but resigned in 2015 after user uproar over firing the company’s talent director.
Pao criticized Huffman and The_Donald on Twitter over an open letter he sent to Reddit employees on June 1 in which he said it was time to “stand in solidarity with the Black members of our communities.”
“You don’t get to say BLM when Reddit nurtures and monetizes white supremacy and hate all day long,” Pao said in the quote-tweet.
Hate speech on The_Donald has also had real-world consequences. In August 2017, its moderators pinned a post encouraging users to join the Unite the Right white supremacist and Neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Va.—an event that turned deadly when a white supremacist drove a car into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer.
In August 2019, The_Donald was quarantined after users urged violent attacks against police officers and politicians in Oregon amid much-publicized walkouts over a climate change bill.
The subreddit also hosted Trump’s lone foray onto Reddit when the then-presidential candidate participated in a July 2016 Ask Me Anything.
Huffman said Reddit’s own revised policy and enforcement decisions were not due to any specific advertiser pressure, but brand safety is a constant cause for concern. He said he hadn’t talked to advertisers about the new policy changes.
Reddit only introduced programmatic advertising in 2016 and divisive language in advertising, including hate speech, is not allowed on the platform.
“Every conversation we’ve had with advertisers over the years always includes a conversation around brand safety,” Huffman said. “We have two user groups on Reddit—our users and our customer—and our job is to meet the needs of both.”
Racial tensions at Reddit and in the country led Huffman’s co-founder, Alexis Ohanian, to resign from his board seat on June 5 to make way for a Black candidate—an unprecedented move for such a high-profile founder in Silicon Valley.
Days later, Michael Seibel, founder of Justin.tv and a partner at Y Combinator, the influential Silicon Valley startup accelerator that funded Reddit in 2005, was named to the role.
Reddit’s decisions come as the Covid-19 pandemic and racial justice protests have reignited Silicon Valley’s unending debate over the editorial responsibility of social media companies.
Facebook and Twitter have been central to the most recent flare-up over their decisions to label Trump’s misinformation and hateful language.
Twitter has taken a more aggressive stance on labeling the content compared with Facebook, which has so far taken a more hands-off approach. In recent days, big-name brands committed to cease advertising on Facebook and its sister site, Instagram. Facing pressure, Facebook said it would label politicians’ posts that violate its rules.
Snapchat also took a stand against Trump in early June, saying it would no longer promote Trump on Discover, its hub for curated content and top posts from celebrities and influencers.