[Editors note: The New York Times weighed in with “When the Web’s Chaos Takes an Ugly Turn“, which includes several quotes from Tufekci.]
Reddit may be the most important Internet forum that you have never heard of. It has more than a billion page-views a month, originates many Internet memes, brilliantly exposes hoaxes, hosts commentary on everything ranging from the trivial to the most serious–and it is the forum that President Barack Obama chose for his “ask me anything” session. Part of Reddit’s success has been due to it’s “live and let live” ethos in sub-forums, called “subreddits.” These sub-forums are created and moderated by volunteers with little or no interference from Reddit, whose parent company is the publishing conglomerate Condé Nast. This delegation approach facilitates Reddit’s business model, allowing it to operate with a comparatively small paid staff. However, the sub-forums that have flourished under this model are at times predatory and disturbing. For instance, “jailbait” was dedicated to sexually suggestive pictures of minors, and “creepshots” specialized in nonconsensual revealing photos of of women in public places–including infamous “upskirt” photos.
The brewing controversy came to a turning point last week after the infamous moderator of sub-forums “jailbait”, “creepshots”, “rape”, “incest”, and “PicsOfDeadKids” was outed by Gawker. The moderator, “Violentacrez”, was revealed to be 49-year-old computer programmer Michael Brutsch. Outing a person’s name, or “doxxing”, is one of the few things that Reddit bans outright. Thus, Reddit chose to ban all links to Gawker from the site, but later rescinded the decision. The issue has been taken up in high-profile Reddit forums like “politics” an “TIL” (“Today I Learned”). Michael Brutsch, meanwhile, lost his job.
Tonight, CNN hosted an interview with Brutsch, in which talks about how he may be sorry (although it really sounds more like he is sorry he is caught) but also claims to be a fall guy. He proudly displays the trophy given to him by Reddit in the interview. After all, “jailbait” was once voted the top subreddit, and “jailbait” was among the highest search terms associated with Reddit on Google. By many accounts, it provided a great deal of traffic to the site. Brutsch himself was at one point was been moderating more than 600 subreddits including many popular and mainstream ones like “WTF” and “funny“.
In the interview, Brutsch says that Reddit encouraged and enabled this behavior and that he shouldn’t have been a part of it. He seems to have a point. According to CNN, Reddit’s response was that Reddit now “regrets having sent the trophy.” Reddit also said it banned Brutsch’s “Violentacrez” account several times since last year, adding that Reddit “regret(s) not taking stronger action sooner.” (Michael Brutsch immediately went online on Reddit under his real name and denied parts of Reddit’s assertions, such as that he had been banned).
The real question is this: “What should Internet platforms do when confronted with speech that crosses over from being merely offensive to being predatory?” If Reddit is indeed regretting “not taking stronger action sooner,” its leadership must choose a decisively different path in the future–Michael Brutsch is not the only person in the world with interest in spreading such content. Will Reddit continue to host forums dedicated to material that feature gross invasions of privacy of women going about their business in public? Will Reddit tolerate sexualizing of minors–even though its rules purport to ban it? It is clear that mere “bans” have been ineffective because Reddit relies on volunteer moderators whose interest may diverge from the intent of the ban. As Whitney Phillips observes:
“By examining not just what [Violentacrez] did, but what others allowed and in many cases encouraged him to do, it is therefore possible to see into the heart of Reddit’s administrative workings, whatever objections to the contrary its co-founders might present.”
During the “jailbait” scandal that preceded this latest wave, Reddit administrators shut the forum down. However, similar content popped up elsewhere on Reddit and it degenerated into a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in for moderators who were interested more in continuing their predatory behavior than protecting children. Other Reddit contributors exposed that photos of obvious minors (young girls wearing “class of 2016” high school jackets) were being posted with misleading titles designed to get around the ban (eg: “ah, look, 18+ hottie”).
We have ample examples of deeply problematic practices when Reddit takes a stance in which they essentially say, “we will let volunteers moderate their forums and not do anything unless the police knock on the door.” And as I’ve written elsewhere, starting and ending one’s analysis with “it’s just free speech,” and not analyzing harms is an abdication of responsibility. Indeed Reddit is not an absolute “free speech” environment, as noted in this insightful post by Chris Conley of the Northern California ACLU. Reddit has strong rules against outing people (and, nominally, against sexualizing minors).
What will Reddit do in practice to enforce existing rules about sexualizing of minors? How it will behave towards other predatory behavior like in the sub-forum “creepshots”? Reddit is not the only place on the Internet that one can find such forums, but Reddit should not allow and encourage such forums. Such a stance still allows a very, very broad interpretation of free speech.