Reddit, freedom of speech and the dark side of community

Unless you spend a lot of time on Reddit, the discussion-forum community that more or less took over after Digg sank beneath the waves, you may have missed the latest storm of controversy over content posted on the site’s various “sub-Reddits” or topic pages. Although Reddit has played host to some fascinating journalistic features recently — including the reporting of a mass shooting in Colorado and an open question-and-answer session with President Barack Obama — it is also well known for its less savory elements, such as a page devoted to creepy (but likely not illegal) photos of women. The way that this modern morality tale has played out over the past few days says some interesting things about free speech and the darker side of the open community that Reddit has become.

As Alex Hern at New Statesman describes it, the issue exploded into public view after the moderators of a Reddit page called r/politics said they were banning the posting of any links from Nick Denton’s Gawker Media network. Why? Because Gawker writer Adrian Chen was reportedly planning to expose the real identity of a moderator running a page devoted to creepy pictures of women called r/creepshots (the same person was also a moderator on another sub-Reddit called r/incest, which was deleted by Reddit last year, as part of an attempt to crack down on offensive and/or illegal content).

Banning links to protect freedom of speech

The moderator in question — who went by the name violentacrez — appears to have deleted the sub-Reddit and all of its posts, and has also deleted his Reddit account completely (Jessica Roy at Betabeat also has a good roundup of the story). And moderators of other pages, including r/politics, decided to block links from Gawker as a way of showing their displeasure at the attempts to force violentacrez to reveal his true identity. The moderators of r/politics posted a statement saying:

“We feel that this type of behavior is completely intolerable. We volunteer our time on Reddit to make it a better place for the users, and should not be harassed and threatened for that. We should all be afraid of the threat of having our personal information investigated and spread around the internet.”

As more than one person has pointed out, these comments are filled with unintentional irony on a number of levels, including the fact that a site which champions free speech is banning links to a specific news outlet for something it hasn’t even reported yet, and the outrage that it is complaining about is the act of revealing information about a person in public — a person who moderates a page where people post revealing photos of women without their consent. Even some Reddit defenders seemed to be taken aback by the hypocrisy of the r/politics moderators in this case.

To complicate the picture even further, a Reddit critic set up a Tumblr blog called Predditors, which posted photos and biographical information about the users who were active on the r/creepshots page, including photos from their Facebook pages, as well as racist and offensive comments made by them, details about their families, and so on. Some Reddit users responded to this attack with further outrage, saying their privacy was being invaded — even though (as Choire Sicha at The Awl pointed out) all of the information was already publicly available on the internet, and was just aggregated by the Tumblr blog’s author.

Can we count on communities to self-regulate?

The Predditors blog was removed by Tumblr, apparently because the site was afraid the photos were not legal, and then it was later reinstated, but it now it requires a password to access. The Jezebel blog (which is part of Gawker Media) spoke to the creator of Predditors, a 25-year-old woman who said she is a Reddit member but was outraged by the content on r/creepshots and decided to do something about it:

“Reddit’s defense of [CreepShots] is that it’s ‘technically legal.’ So I’m doing something that’s technically legal, but will result in consequences for their actions.”

If you’re an optimist about the power of online communities like Reddit and its cousin 4chan (which has been home to even worse content, if that’s possible), you could see this as a kind of self-regulating process at work. Given the ability to post anything whatsoever, with little or no oversight from any site editors — apart from periodic attempts to remove illegal content — it’s natural to assume that every dark element of human nature will be represented. And in some cases, moderators will actually trample on the principle of free speech even as they allegedly are trying to protect it.

At the same time, however, Reddit does self-regulate — and even the appearance of the Predditors blog could be seen as part of that process. The site has taken action in the past to crack down on offensive behavior, and it’s worth remembering that the Reddit community can also be a powerful force for good in the world, by calling attention to worthwhile causes like the fundraising for young Caine Monroy, or engaging in random acts of kindness such as arranging for strangers to send birthday wishes to a retired Army vet in a small town. Or random acts of journalism.

Maybe we should think of Reddit the same way we think about British tabloids — they contain all kinds of unseemly content, nude photos and ridiculous conspiracy theories, but occasionally they also have actual news in them, and so they are probably worth keeping around.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Hoggarazzi and Jennifer Moo