Reddit CEO Steve Huffman made waves earlier this week by telling users on the platform that racism was not explicitly against site rules. The chief executive has since clarified his position in an updated statement, saying today that “while racism itself isn’t against the rules, it’s not welcome here.” Huffman had originally responded to a question about racism and racial slurs in a thread about Reddit’s 2017 transparency report, saying Tuesday that Reddit’s policy on hate speech was more lenient than other social media platforms.
“I try to stay neutral on most political topics, but this isn’t one of them,” Huffman says in the statement given to The Verge. The chief exec, however, stood his ground on how to deal with racism on Reddit. “I believe the best defense against racism and other repugnant views, both on Reddit and in the world, is instead of trying to control what people can and cannot say through rules, is to repudiate these views in a free conversation, and empower our communities to do so on Reddit.”
Huffman’s view, shared by some in Silicon Valley and derided by others as abetting harassment and hate, is part of an ongoing debate about free speech and moderation on technology platforms. Specifically, it’s about how and to what extent tech platforms should be responsible for and police what people say and do with the tools available to them in what are effectively private spaces not protected by the First Amendment.
As a logistical matter, Huffman goes on to say that moderating all of Reddit for hate speech is a potentially impossible task. And he’s right. Reddit, like Facebook and other sites, may never be able to hire enough human moderators to police every bit of speech uploaded daily. That’s why Facebook is increasingly looking to artificial intelligence to do the job, as flawed an approach as that might be. Reddit doesn’t have an in-house AI team or a multi-thousand-person team of moderators. Instead, it relies on site administrators, special in-house teams, and subreddit moderators to work in tandem to monitor subreddits so they stay within Reddit’s rules and hand out punishments when applicable.
“When it comes to enforcement, we separate behavior from beliefs. We cannot control people’s beliefs, but we can police their behaviors. As it happens, communities dedicated [to] racist beliefs end up banned for violating rules we do have around harassment, bullying, and violence,” Huffman says, referencing the banning of notorious subreddits dedicated to fat-shaming and bigotry, among other abusive and hateful communities that have been scrubbed from the site over the last 10 years or so. Reddit users and critics of Huffman’s approach here have called into question whether the use of a racial slur constitutes a behavior or a belief. You can make a strong argument that it’s a behavior, one that represents a belief.
Still, while Reddit’s approach makes more sense on the surface than that of Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter — all of which have struggled immensely with moderation over the last few years — it does raise questions about the company’s stewardship of its communities. Reddit has clear lines it draws around threats, violent speech, doxxing, and abuse and harassment, like the sharing of nonconsensual pornography. It does not, however, have a three-strike system — like YouTube does for questionable channels — for more directly policing subreddits. And, unlike Facebook and Twitter, Reddit does not take action against individual users over singular instances of hate speech. That is as much a logistical, resource-driven decision as it is a political one, as Huffman has articulated. For instance, Reddit bans self-promotion, but using a racial slur is permitted, granted you say it on the right subreddit.
Huffman says the company’s approach is evolving, as are Huffman’s own views on Reddit moderation. (Nearly 10 years ago, he thought banning users for hate speech was a reasonable approach, a sentiment he no longer believes.) But it’s clear Reddit does not want to wade into divisive political debates with actions like banning of the Trump-centric subreddit r/The_Donald, despite the racism and other questionable activity that breeds there and overflows to other parts of the site. So unless communities like those break Reddit’s existing rules around harassment and violent speech, they’re here to stay.
Here is Huffman’s full response:
In the heat of a live AMA, I don’t always find the right words to express what I mean. I decided to answer this direct question knowing it would be a difficult one because it comes up on Reddit quite a bit. I’d like to add more nuance to my answer:
While the words and expressions you refer to aren’t explicitly forbidden, the behaviors they often lead to are.
To be perfectly clear, while racism itself isn’t against the rules, it’s not welcome here. I try to stay neutral on most political topics, but this isn’t one of them.
I believe the best defense against racism and other repugnant views, both on Reddit and in the world, is instead of trying to control what people can and cannot say through rules, is to repudiate these views in a free conversation, and empower our communities to do so on Reddit.
When it comes to enforcement, we separate behavior from beliefs. We cannot control people’s beliefs, but we can police their behaviors. As it happens, communities dedicated to racist beliefs end up banned for violating rules we do have around harassment, bullying, and violence.
There exist repugnant views in the world. As a result, these views may also exist on Reddit. I don’t want them to exist on Reddit any more than I want them to exist in the world, but I believe that presenting a sanitized view of humanity does us all a disservice. It’s up to all of us to reject these views.
These are complicated issues, and we may not always agree, but I am listening to your responses, and I do appreciate your perspectives. Our policies have changed a lot over the years, and will continue to evolve into the future. Thank you.