Reddit and the Struggle To Detoxify the Internet

In an article published on The New Yorker this week, Andrew Marantz discusses the state of free speech on the Web and takes a look at Reddit, the internet’s fourth-most-popular site, after Google, YouTube, and Facebook. Some excerpts from the story: On November 23, 2016, shortly after President Trump’s election, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman was at his desk, in San Francisco, perusing the site. It was the day before Thanksgiving. Reddit’s administrators had just deleted a subreddit called r/Pizzagate, a forum for people who believed that high-ranking staffers of Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign, and possibly Clinton herself, were trafficking child sex slaves. The reason for the ban, according to Reddit’s administrators, was not the beliefs of people on the subreddit, but the way they’d behaved — specifically, their insistence on publishing their enemies’ private phone numbers and addresses, a clear violation of Reddit’s rules. [...] Some of the conspiracy theorists left Reddit and reunited on Voat, a site made by and for the users that Reddit sloughs off. Other Pizzagaters stayed and regrouped on r/The_Donald, a popular pro-Trump subreddit. Throughout the Presidential campaign, The_Donald was a hive of Trump boosterism. By this time, it had become a hermetic subculture, full of inside jokes and ugly rhetoric. The community’s most frequent commenters, like the man they’d helped propel to the Presidency, were experts at testing boundaries. Within minutes, they started to express their outrage that Pizzagate had been deleted. Redditors are pseudonymous, and their pseudonyms are sometimes prefaced by “u,” for “username.” Huffman’s is Spez. As he scanned The_Donald, he noticed that hundreds of the most popular comments were about him: “fuck u/spez”, “u/spez is complicit in the coverup”. One commenter simply wrote “u/SPEZ IS A CUCK,” in bold type, a hundred and ten times in a row. Huffman, alone at his computer, wondered whether to respond. “I consider myself a troll at heart,” he said later. “Making people bristle, being a little outrageous in order to add some spice to life — I get that. I’ve done that.” Privately, Huffman imagined The_Donald as a misguided teen-ager who wouldn’t stop misbehaving. “If your little brother flicks your ear, maybe you ignore it,” he said. “If he flicks your ear a hundred times, or punches you, then maybe you give him a little smack to show you’re paying attention.” Although redditors didn’t yet know it, Huffman could edit any part of the site. He wrote a script that would automatically replace his username with those of The_Donald’s most prominent members, directing the insults back at the insulters in real time: in one comment, “Fuck u/Spez” became “Fuck u/Trumpshaker”; in another, “Fuck u/Spez” became “Fuck u/MAGAdocious.” The_Donald’s users saw what was happening, and they reacted by spinning a conspiracy theory that, in this case, turned out to be true. “Manipulating the words of your users is fucked,” a commenter wrote.

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