The volunteer moderators of Reddit’s r/blackladies community—an online message board that currently has over 40,000 members—wrote an open letter outlining their frustrations with the popular website in August 2014. They had pitched their message board, known as a subreddit, as a safe space for Black women, but were being deluged with hateful comments and links to racist content from anonymous accounts. “They are relentless, coming in barrages,” the moderators wrote. “We have a racist user problem and Reddit won’t take action.”
Several months later Alexis Ohanian, one of Reddit’s co-founders, joined a comment thread on r/blackladies discussing the letter. Ohanian, who had recently returned to the company as its executive chairman, said protecting communities like theirs from abuse was a “top priority.” He solicited suggestions on how to do it, and expressed interest in an “ongoing dialogue with all of the mods who signed onto the open letter.”
Reddit user TheYellowRose, a r/blackladies moderator who helped write the letter said in a recent phone interview that Ohanian’s promised dialogue never materialized. To TheYellowRose, who asked to be identified only by her screen name because she is still regularly subjected to racist abuse and fears physical violence if her identity is revealed, Ohanian’s initial enthusiasm for the idea seemed like just another example of the company’s leaders trying to say the right things without seriously confronting the ways their site harbored extremists and gave them a place to organize.
Reddit has faced several potential inflection points in its approach to racism in the six years since then, but has never undertaken a full enough reckoning to satisfy its critics. It’s facing another big moment in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. Once again, the pressure is coming in part from the volunteers who moderate Reddit’s countless message boards. On June 1, Steve Huffman, another co-founder who has been chief executive since 2015, sent a note to Reddit employees voicing support for the Black Lives Matter movement. “We do not tolerate hate, racism, and violence, and while we have work to do to fight these on our platform, our values are clear,” he wrote.
Many or the site’s users felt they’d heard this too many times before. Several days later, moderators from over 800 message boards began signing onto an open letter calling on the company to ban hate speech, shut down racist and misogynistic subreddits and offer better support to moderators by doing things like hiring more community managers. “We’d like to see them actually take seriously the white supremacy problem they have,” said Therese Singer, a retired high school English teacher in her late 60s who spends several hours a day moderating dozens of Reddit forums. She asked to be identified by her maiden name because she feared retaliation online.
This time, Ohanian isn’t endeavoring to find a solution himself. Ohanian—now best known as the spouse of tennis icon Serena Williams, one of the most famous Black celebrities in the world—resigned from Reddit’s board on June 5, breaking ties with the company. He asked Reddit to appoint a Black board member to replace him. “It is long overdue to do the right thing. I’m doing this for me, for my family, and for my country,” he tweeted. Ohanian declined an interview request.
Ohanian’s move was intended as a public gesture to address a much-needed lack of diversity. But the move was also an admission of personal defeat and illustration of the dysfunctional relationship between Reddit’s founders. Huffman said in an interview this week that Ohanian hadn’t told him of his planned departure in advance, and that they hadn’t talked since.
Huffman said the company will, for the first time, implement a policy explicitly prohibiting hate speech. To replace Ohanian on the board he appointed Michael Seibel, the CEO of Y Combinator, the famous startup incubator that was one of Reddit’s early investors. Seibel, who Huffman has known for years, is Black. At a forum for Black entrepreneurs hosted by Bloomberg, Seibel said that there was an inherent responsibility for a site of Reddit’s scale to maintain certain standards. “It really pisses me off when people are just saying, ‘Hey this is just a website, people are going to do whatever they’re going to do,’” he said.
TheYellowRose wasn’t impressed with Ohanian’s gesture. “He was in a position to do something and instead he left. I wish he had done something and then given his seat to somebody else, instead of just leaving,” she said. “We have been hoping and wishing that having a Black daughter and a Black wife would help him see the light, so to speak, and do something.”
As to whether Huffman can help reform Reddit, said TheYellowRose, “I guess that depends on what Reddit’s goal is. If it’s to be a free speech haven where white nationalists can continue to recruit people, yeah, he’s the right guy. If it’s a place where everybody should feel safe and welcome, then he’s got some work to do.”
The content moderation policies of companies like Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet’s YouTube have been at the center of the national political debate. Reddit has many of the same problems. But the site has kept a somewhat lower profile in part because, despite being one of the most popular websites on the internet, it has never become a huge success as a business.
Huffman and Ohanian started Reddit in 2005, and sold it to Conde Nast a year later. This made them personally wealthy, but turned the site into a small media property inside a broader conglomerate, instead of a technology company in its own right. While Facebook has changed drastically over the last decade, there have been fewer major changes to Reddit, which now operates independently but still counts Advance Publications Inc., Conde Nast’s parent company, as a major shareholder. It remains a series of message boards whose pseudonymous users vote on which posts should be most prominently displayed.
From its earliest days, Reddit developed a reputation as a free-for-all, something its founders have alternately embraced or promised to control. In 2012, Ohanian referred to it as a “bastion of free speech.” Three years later, describing the company’s intention to clean out the more offensive corners of the site, Huffman had a different message. “Neither Alexis nor I created Reddit to be a bastion of free speech, but rather as a place where open and honest discussion can happen,” he wrote in July 2015.
The company deflects significant responsibility—and stress—onto moderators, who are unpaid. In the aftermath of the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, for instance, the moderators of the r/blackladies subreddit compiled a series of racist messages they’d received and presented them to a staff administrator, asking the site to take some action against their harassers. “There is no doubt that there are some idiotic trolls commenting on your subreddit,” the administrator replied in a message viewed by Bloomberg. “This happens in every subreddit and really it is up for the mods to deal with.”
Reddit’s attempt to police speech on its platform has been partially based on the fatalistic view that doing so is pointless, because the site is just a reflection of the world at large. In fact, researchers at Georgia Tech showed that Reddit can be effective when it does take action. In 2015 the company removed a number racist subreddits, including a notorious one called Coontown. The result was that many abusive accounts that had posted regularly on those forums shut down altogether, and remaining accounts that had posted on the banned forums posted hate speech at drastically lower frequencies.
Independently-developed tools have also been successful.Moderators at r/blackladies and other subreddits praised a tool that allows moderators to prevent any user who has posted on certain other subreddits from commenting in theirs. This has cut off the ability of people who would use certain subreddits to plan harassment campaigns against others, although it has occasionally stymied the ability of some people to post in certain places even if they were uninvolved in abuse.
In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, a sort of omni-channel for the site’s far right emerged in the form of the r/The_Donald. Ostensibly a subreddit for supporters of Donald Trump, it became a place to market-test right-wing memes and organize harassment campaigns, often against the site’s non-white communities. “Reddit ignored r/The_Donald for months and years as they were perpetually breaking the site’s terms of service almost daily” said Robert Allam, widely considered among the most prolific Reddit posters and moderators of all-time.
Reddit “quarantined” The_Donald in 2019, making it invisible in searches. Its moderators then tried to reconstitute the community on their own website, and it essentially collapsed on Reddit.
Reddit’s wavering response to subreddit was emblematic of a broader pattern of the company’s leadership resisting action until doing so became untenable. At a board meeting in March 2018, for instance, Huffman and his executive team gave a presentation about controversial subreddits, including a forum called r/watchpeopledie, where users posted videos of people—often non-white citizens of developing countries—dying.
Huffman and his team boasted they had convinced the community’s moderators not to encourage people to post suicide videos, bringing it into technical compliance with Reddit’s policy against self-harm, according to two people who were present. Ohanian, then a board member, pushed back. He argued the company should shut down communities like this altogether, rather than trying to get them to make changes to bring them within the letter of Reddit’s content guidelines. But Ohanian couldn’t convince Huffman or the board to go along with him, and r/watchpeopledie remained on Reddit.
Huffman defends the decision. “The argument that that community made is that this is not a community glorifying violence, this is an outlet for folks,” he said this week, explaining his thinking at the time.
Still, Reddit quarantined the message board in September 2018 after continued criticism. Then in March 2019 a gunman killed 51 people in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the video proliferated on the subreddit. Reddit finally took r/watchpeopledie offline. “Sharing that video itself was an act of violence, that was an act of terrorism,” Huffman said. “With that community, we hit this tipping point.”
Huffman’s latest tenure as CEO has been marked by periodic controversy. Soon after the 2016 election, he secretly edited live comments from unsuspecting users who had mocked or criticized him, removing his screen name. Huffman was quickly forced to apologize. The following year, he told a reporter at the New Yorker about his doomsday plans, saying that if society collapsed, “I will probably be in charge, or at least not a slave, when push comes to shove.”
Reddit’s management has also launched products with little seeming foresight about the potential for abuse. Last year, Reddit created icons that users could buy to tag posts. One of them was a monkey, which some users soon began using as a way to harass Black users. Earlier this year it introduced a new public chat feature tied to subreddits without giving moderators the authority to supervise them; the chat rooms were soon targeted with harassment and the company had to shut them down after moderators complained. Reddit removed the monkey after it was abused and says it will bring back the chat feature after some updates.
This has led to disillusionment among some people familiar with Reddit’s inner workings. Employees have complained about the lack of diversity at the company, according to a person familiar with the matter. “You need people running platforms to empathize with the users who are experiencing hate, racism, violence harassment, and misogyny, to actually want to get rid of it and do the work to actually fix these platforms,” said Ellen Pao, who served as Reddit’s interim CEO in 2014 and 2015.
While Huffman has worked to signal to his critics that this time will be different, some of Reddit’s other leaders seemed to be already dampening expectations. At the event Monday, Seibel said he joined the board because Huffman is a personal friend, and planned to be deferential. He said he didn’t think his job “is to tell Reddit what to do and what not to do.”
Reddit’s general counsel, Ben Lee, explained Huffman’s plans for a hate speech policy by saying the company planned to clarify its values. “Our existing policies are quite similar to hate policies on other platforms, however, they will be updated to prohibit the promotion of hate based on identity and other characteristics, vulnerabilities, etc.,” he said in a statement. “We will also step up enforcement to address the policy change.” The company believes there are fewer hateful communities left on its platform and will target individual bad faith users.
Reddit’s executives are going to be facing down an audience whose scars from past rounds of this same fight have hardened into a deep sense of skepticism. “We hope that Reddit will not just share empty platitudes—but will take a meaningful stand against hate, and take these recommendations to heart,” wrote the moderators who signed onto the open letter this month.
Still, many of them are still holding out hope that engaging with the company’s leadership can lead to change. Huffman has held several hour-long video chats with groups of moderators in the past week. One of the people in attendance was TheYellowRose. “It was almost surreal to talk to him,” she wrote in an email afterwards, “after years of only knowing him from thumbnail images.”
More must-read tech coverage from Fortune:
- A new coating could protect ATMs from spreading diseases like COVID-19. But will it work?
- George Floyd protests, coronavirus face masks pose challenges for facial recognition
- Eliminating social media’s legal protection would end Facebook and Twitter “as we know it,” legal experts say
- Can Nikola Motor’s big battery promises be true?
- Big investors like Bitcoin for the wrong reason