Reddit will start issuing warnings, timeouts, and permanent bans to its most abusive trolls, but will also limit the intervention capabilities of its own CEO after he apologized today for ethical violations that shook the trust of the online community.
Last week, Reddit CEO Stuff Huffman, who goes by the handle Spez, secretly edited users’ comments in the pro-Trump subreddit r/the_donald from “fuck u/spez” to say fuck the moderators of that subreddit. Using his editing power as an engineer at the company, he was able to edit the comments without leaving a trace, framing the trolls who insulted as having insulted the leaders of their own sub-community. The move could be viewed as censorship, or simply a childish, gross abuse of his power.
Huffman soon callously commented that he was trying to unwind after trolls implicated him in a false pedophile conspiracy theory involving Hillary Clinton and a pizza parlor. But he stopped short of apologizing or providing details on how Reddit would prevent this in the future, opening questions about whether he should remain CEO.
.@Reddit needs to immediately issue an apology for CEO secretly tampering with users' comments, outline systems to prevent it in the future— Josh Constine (@JoshConstine) November 25, 2016
Preventing Content Tampering by Reddit Staff
Today, Huffman finally issued a formal apology for his “attempt to troll the trolls”, writing that “I fucked up. I ruined Thanksgiving. I’m sorry. I won’t do it again” and added “I am sorry for compromising the trust you all have in Reddit”.
He went on to explain that “I honestly thought I might find some common ground with that community by meeting them on their level. It did not go as planned. I restored the original comments after less than an hour”. Huffman attributed his actions on his own history of instigation on the Internet, writing “I spent my formative years as a young troll on the Internet.”
Thankfully, he announced “we are updating our internal controls to prevent this sort of thing from happening in the future.” When asked how he could essentially assume control of users’ accounts in the first place, he wrote “admins (employees) can’t do this in general. It’s because I had access to everything as an engineer, which we are limiting going forward.”
This is critical to regaining the trust of the community, as the fear of staff members assuming control of users’ accounts and taking actions that could reflect on those users casts doubt on the validity of all content on the platform.
Years ago Facebook added its own systems to prohibit employees from prying into users’ private content or messages after incidents early in the company’s history.
Fighting Trolls the Right Way
Luckily, the incident has shed light on some of the more egregious harassment that occurs on Reddit. The company has in the past struggled with managing hate speech on its platform, as well as retaining employees who deal with it.
Former interim CEO Ellen Pao resigned after firing community manager Victoria Taylor, which led to moderators blacking out parts of Reddit as part of protests that saw users making racist and sexist comments towards her. After she resigned, Huffman announced new policies to hide indecent content and reiterated its bans on harassment.
Now Reddit will start more actively enforcing that ban from a top-down perspective. Huffman writes “We have identified hundreds of the most toxic users and are taking action against them, ranging from warnings to timeouts to permanent bans.”
That’s a shift from allowing moderators to manage their own subreddits. “Historically, we have relied on our relationship with moderators to curb bad behaviors. While some of the moderators have been helpful, this has not been wholly effective” Huffman explains.
“Sticky” post from r/the_donald that are pinned to the top of the forum will no longer be allowed on the r/all page. Trolls had been misusing the feature that’s meant for general announcements to get more views and upvotes for their posts in order to catapult them on the r/all and troll the entire Reddit user base.
Users will also be able to filter r/all to prevent posts from any subreddit they choose from appearing on the unofficial aggregation page of Reddit’s top posts.
Reddit faces a challenging future in our increasingly polarized political landscape. What’s considered acceptable opinion has diverged. For a site that houses disparate communities that don’t get along, it must find ways to promote civility without censorship, and give people space to share their opinions while fighting back when those opinions spill into harassment of other users or hate speech against specific demographics.
If Reddit swings too far towards totalitarian control, it may push away users who’ve relied on the forums as a home for free speech, contrarianism, and niche beliefs. But if it can’t stop the trolls from blatantly abusing the rest of the community or projecting hate, it will have failed society and more mild-mannered users will move to cleaner pastures.
Executing this balance will require leadership that Reddit’s community can trust. By not mincing words and instead apologizing outright, Huffman has at least taken a step in the right direction.