Steve Huffman

Reddit co-founder and CEO Steve Huffman is responding to accusations that he supports users’ ability to publish hate speech and racist comments. In a Reddit post Thursday, Huffman attempted to clarify comments he had made the previous day that left Redditors up in arms about Huffman’s stance on policing hate speech.

Following a post detailing the activity of Russian trolls on Reddit, Huffman had been asked by a Redditor whether hate speech was against Reddit’s rules. “I need clarification on something,” wrote user chlomyster. “Is obvious open racism, including slurs, against reddits rules or not?”

“It’s not,” Huffman responded. “On Reddit, the way in which we think about speech is to separate behavior from beliefs.”

Huffman went on to say that Reddit’s approach is to let subreddit moderators set their own rules when it comes to language, and that Reddit takes action when user action conflicts with content policies.

The answer didn’t jive with some in Reddit’s community, which downvoted (aka disliked) the post over 1,400 times. Users referenced racist, homophobic, and misogynistic statements made in subreddits across the site, with many focusing in on r/The_Donald. For a lot of users, the pro-Trump subreddit’s existence alone implies that fascist propaganda and hate speech is permitted, even encouraged on the site. As one of the most active communities on Reddit, it’s often been a safe haven for white supremacist viewpoints.

Reddit and Huffman clearly took notice of the downvote and outcry, because on Thursday Huffman came back in an attempt to clear up his comments in the original post. “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,” he said.

Elaborating in some part on the role of moderators and users in general are expected to play on Reddit when it comes to hate speech, Huffman said this: “I believe the best defense 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.”

Reddit has made an effort to increase its authoritative reach when it comes to curbing hate speech. In October, it updated its policies to band any content that calls for violence or physical harm against an individual or a group of people. Shortly thereafter, a slew of hate speech-strewn subreddits, like r/Nazi, r/EuropeanNationalism and r/far_right were banned.

“When it comes to enforcement, we separate behavior from beliefs,” Huffman said. “We cannot control people’s beliefs, but we can police their behaviors. As it happens, communities dedicated racist beliefs end up banned for violating rules we do have around harassment, bullying, and violence.”

When it comes to r/The_Donald, Reddit also considers that political speech has extra protections. Users may not like it — Huffman himself may not like it — but without inciting threats of violence, the Reddit approach appears to be to let it stay online. “There exist repugnant views in the world. As a result, these views may also exist on Reddit,” Huffman said. “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 sanitized view of humanity does us all a disservice. It’s up to all of us to reject these views.”

Huffman’s latest answer may provide more nuance, but it might not be good enough for Reddit’s user base. As other social media platforms are being held to task for their role in disseminating hate speech, Reddit will probably continue to chart a course that balances keeping users happy while preserving the site’s reputation as a bastion of free and open dialogue. Perhaps as users become more alienated by subreddits like r/The_Donald, Reddit’s policies will change. Like Reddit’s admins have said over and over again about how they define hate speech — it’s all about context.

Photos via Web Summit