Reddit Disasters Pile Up: Are The Trolls Running the Site?

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Another high-ranking female employee at Reddit — namely, Head of Community Jessica Moreno — is leaving the company, and although she doesn’t mention gender issues or harassment directly in her statement, the look is not good for the site. As Re/Code’s Noah Kulwin notes, “[Moreno]’s exit is the latest by a female higher-up at the social news site at a time when the company’s efforts to rein in the most toxic elements of its community have been in the spotlight.”

A quick timeline of those efforts, which have had limited success at best, and their repercussions; First, Reddit cracked down on “hate groups” for the first time in June, sparking huge protests. Another round of controversy hit when a well-liked staffer, Victoria Taylor, left, leading to what seemed like a full-on revolt. Then came Ellen Pao’s resignation, and her subsequent op-ed stating that “the trolls are winning.” Finally, just after Pao left, Bethanye Blount, another higher-up, quit, saying that Pao had been placed on a “glass cliff.”

“I feel like there are going be some big bumps on the road ahead for Reddit,” Blount said upon leaving. “Along the way, there are some very aggressive implied promises being made to the community — in comments to mods, quotes from board members — and they’re going to have some pretty big challenges in meeting those implied promises.”

Which leaves us with the third departure of a major female staffer, and a bunch of promises made by the remaining brass, and a user base that ranges from genuine culture, news and information enthusiasts (Stephen Hawking did an AMA!) to violent racists. At the moment, the site’s distinction for banning or not being manned is between content that is just plain hateful — which is allowed with a sign-in and now has no ads running near it — and content that actively inciting violence, which is overtly banned.

But what that means in practice, according to the thoughtful bloggers at the anti-MRA website We Hunted the Mammoth, is that the hateful folks who haven’t been banned are in a sense being subsidized by the site (which is now mostly owned by Conde Nast).

Actually, that’s understating things a little. If you add Reddit’s other racist subreddits into the mix, Reddit is already the number one destination for white supremacists looking for a place to talk online. And Reddit will keep footing the bill.

Even worse, other hateful users on Reddit, like the 4chan group, are angry that the white supremacists are getting ad-free spaces. So they’re spamming their own channels with racist and anti-Semitic garbage, hoping to get the same designation for themselves.

This continuing mess shows proof that you can’t — as Reddit’s leadership seems to have done — tacitly encourage unhinged and hateful people without having that encouragement create a blowback sooner or later. At this point it’s hard to tell whether Reddit’s brass or its trolls are in charge.

But adding the politics of the company itself, it’s about a cultural moment of backlash. Feminism is hip; it’s trendy, and public misogynists, racist and transphobes are getting shamed.

As a result, women-haters, hate groups, and other bottom-feeders are on the retreat, and they’re lashing out particularly aggressively. This is going to be a particularly potent issue around online spaces that they consider to be “theirs” or “safe,” as they have done with Reddit. No one likes to give up territory, particularly people who feel that they’re losing and already have a well-developed sense of paranoia. It will take a lot more than a few new rules to get this situation under control, and in order to make the space safer and freer, Reddit may have to lose some of its massive user base, and perhaps its monetary power.

Thus the question for the next crop of executives at the company is whether the capitalist gods of profit will be appeased at the expense of basic decency.