Reddit has been dealing with racism for a long time, but with the election of Donald Trump, the site has become overrun with far-right communities such as /r/pizzagate and /r/The_Donald. Hate speech is a regular occurrence on the platform, but when CEO Steve Huffman was asked why he doesn’t curb it, his answer was defeatist: It’s way too difficult.
The question came from Zachary Swanson, a cybersecurity researcher who goes by /u/whatllmyusernamebe on Reddit. In a conversation obtained by The Huffington Post, Swanson urged Huffman (who goes by /u/spez on Reddit) to take harder action against hate speech on Reddit. Huffman pointed to Reddit’s policy on violent speech as a sufficient catch-all. When Swanson argued that hate speech should be dealt with under a separate policy, Huffman said that hate speech is “difficult to define” and Reddit isn’t interested in being the “thought police”.
However, that difficulty hasn’t stopped many other tech companies from defining and banning hate speech. Moreover, this is precisely why courts, judges, and lawyers exist. All laws and policies are hard to define which is why they need to be debated, argued, and reevaluated as our society evolves and the context of the laws change. Sexual assault is something that is still murky to many Americans, but that isn’t an excuse to stop addressing it.
Huffman went on to say that it’s not Reddit’s responsibility to determine what people can or cannot say since it’s a private company. And yet, private entities do this all the time. Few restaurants, bars, or stores would tolerate patrons who repeatedly harass other customers, called for violence, or went on hateful rants. But targeted harassment, incitement of violence, and hate speech continue to be a recurring problem on the platform, despite Reddit’s policies against them.
Huffman’s reluctance to outright ban /r/The_Donald may have to do with the enormous traffic it brings. Out of the top 20 most active subreddits, /r/The_Donald is one of three with less than one million subscribers, but it is consistently the third most active community on the site. Historically, Reddit has only been swayed into action when the public scrutiny puts the company’s image in jeopardy. When CNN reported on /r/jailbait, a subreddit dedicated to photographs of underage girls, Reddit shut down the subreddit after a week of bad press.
Reddit and the fringe communities it hosts have always tolerated each other in a tense peace that sometimes explodes into conflict. Huffman secretly edited comments on /r/The_Donald after growing frustrated with its users. In 2015, the firing of a Reddit employee beloved by fans set off a wave of revolt that targeted then CEO Ellen Pao with racist memes and death threats. The whole saga ended with Pao’s resignation and another exodus of Redditors leaving the site for more receptive far-Right havens such as Voat and Gab.
Solving Reddit’s hate speech problem is quite possible, but it may not be very profitable.