#RedditRevolt is Harassment Dressed Up as Free Speech

You may have heard the sad news that Al Jazeera America will soon be shutting down.  I will be archiving all of my opinion pieces written for the site here so that once the website is gone, the work will remain.

“#RedditRevolt is Harassment Dressed Up as Free Speech” was originally published on July 7, 2015.

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#RedditRevolt is Harassment Dressed Up as Free Speech

Users’ protest pushes back against inclusive democratic participation in virtual spaces

It is growing difficult to keep track of the so-called scandals continually erupting in geek culture. First there was #GamerGate, the opening salvo in the fight against feminist criticism of games and gaming’s male-dominated culture. Then there was #GamesSoWhite, which, depending on who you ask, is either an attempt to call attention to the lack of racial diversity in video games or a demand that game developers abandon their artistic vision to please a mob of PC police.

Now we have #RedditRevolt, a hashtag that originated as an attempt to oust Reddit Interim CEO Ellen Pao over the decision to ban several of the site’s controversial message boards dedicated to specific topics, called subreddits. (Reddit is both a social networking site and an online bulletin board; users determine what content is featured on the front page by voting posts up or down. Currently the 10th-most-visited website in the United States, it has received more than 7 billion page views in the last month.)

The hashtag was most recently revived over the weekend in response to the firing of a popular Reddit staffer, with volunteer moderators shutting down a huge number of subreddits in protest and making entire sections of the site temporarily go dark. In a second piece to follow, I’ll discuss how this most recent use of the hashtag provides so-called consumer revolt cover for what is essentially an anti-progressive agenda. But to understand the most recent turn of events, let’s first consider the original #RedditRevolt.

The protesters behind #RedditRevolt claim to be resisting censorship and championing freedom of speech — for the good of the site’s community as a whole. But the rhetoric they employ reveals their true anxiety: that online spaces previously belonging almost exclusively to young, straight, white men are opening up to other demographics — and even more alarming, the cultures and values of those spaces are starting to shift to accommodate these new participants. Far from protecting free speech, #RedditRevolt is thus actually about maintaining the hostility of certain areas of the web toward people dubbed undesirable, from women of color to LGBT people, and about harassing those who would make virtual spaces truly public by safeguarding the ability of all kinds of people to participate.

On June 10, Reddit announced that it would be banning five subreddits for violating site rules about harassment of individuals:

Our goal is to enable as many people as possible to have authentic conversations and share ideas and content on an open platform. We want as little involvement as possible in managing these interactions but will be involved when needed to protect privacy and free expression, and to prevent harassment … We want to be open about our involvement: We will ban subreddits that allow their communities to use the subreddit as a platform to harass individuals when moderators don’t take action. We’re banning behavior, not ideas.

The removed subreddits violate one of Reddit’s most cherished ideals: the right to privacy and anonymity. One of the banned communities was Fat People Hate (r/fatpeoplehate), a community “devoted to viciously demeaning obese people and denouncing the idea of fat acceptance.” Posts included photos taken from people’s social media accounts and online dating profiles and posting them on the subreddit without their permission. Users deluged their targets’ personal websites or subreddits with cruel comments in a practice known as brigading that is also a violation of new anti-harassment rules implemented this May.

But some members interpreted the ban as an attempt to enforce a new culture of political correctness and warned that it was the beginning of the end of the Reddit community. Others threatened to decamp from Reddit and set up groups on rival websites such as Voat or 8Chan. Opponents of the decision branded their protest messages with hashtags. The most popular has been #RedditRevolt, which focuses on the right to free speech — however unpleasant or disgusting — as a cornerstone of online ethics. But the #RedditRevolt posts expose an underlying fear of becoming irrelevant, a sentiment that drives the broader movement.

After all, Reddit wasn’t always a huge, widely known online entity. When it was founded in 2005 by Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian, it was a small community dominated by techie types and largely entrusted with its own administration. It has since evolved into “a major social network with a board and a PR firm and millions of users,” according to The Washington Post. The site thus needed to begin making its moderation decisions with that increasingly diverse set of users in mind. Reddit administrators committed to a new set of core values, including “embrace diversity of viewpoints” and “create a safe space to encourage participation.”

The corollary to embracing a diversity of viewpoints is, or course, rejecting a monopoly on them. But some Redditors viewed these changes as a threat to the power they wielded over the discourse on the site and an unwelcome invitation to feminists, progressives and Social Justice Warriors — a catch-all term used to describe media critics such as myself who are committed to equality issues of race, class, gender and sexuality — to impose their politics on the community. Their reaction reveals the gendered and racialized nature of these fears.

The poster girl for #RedditRevolt is “Chairman Pao,” a mock-up of the Interim Reddit CEO as a censorious communist overlord. The decision to ban r/fatpeoplehate and its fellow offenders, which included a subreddit with a racial slur in the title and others dedicated to ridiculing transgendered people and harassing members of a social justice gaming forum, was announced in a letter signed by multiple members of Reddit’s leadership, including co-founder Ohanian, #RedditRevolt focuses on Pao, a Chinese-American woman who recently made waves in the tech community for filing a high-profile sexual discrimination lawsuit against the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins.

Pao lost her case (she may appeal), but she is widely credited with jump-starting a discussion about the realities of gender discrimination in Silicon Valley. It’s thus unsurprising that she would be a target for those afraid that the influence of young, straight, white men in tech culture might be waning. It’s also unsurprising that the protest has taken the form of sexist and racist personal attacks — the same toxic behavior that the decision was intended to prevent. The “Chairman Pao” images, as well as images of Nazi flags labeled as “Pao’s family crest” and innumerable posts calling her a “c—,” were pushed onto the front page of the site by popular vote, ostensibly in an attempt to force Pao to resign.

For women and people of color in the Reddit community, witnessing such a pile-on of violent and hateful rhetoric is disturbing. The chilling effect it has is a feature of the protest, not a bug; it’s a tactic employed to dissuade those who would attempt to make changes in the community by convincing them that it is too backward, misogynist and racist to be worth fighting for in the first place. If these trolls can turn Reddit into an awful enough place to be, then, they reason, it will be abandoned to them entirely, and the threat of their voices being diluted will disappear, along with all the people who think differently from them.

Let’s be clear: #RedditRevolt isn’t about freedom of speech. There are still many unbanned subreddits available for those who want to engage in sexist, racist or homophobic discussions. There are even multiple subreddits dedicated to fat people hatred that are still operational. Rather, much like #GamerGate before it, #RedditRevolt is about maintaining the power to minimize the ability of others to speak. It’s about the use of an online platform to incite mobs to harassment — harassment that typically (though not always) takes place online, but nevertheless harms the ability of its targets to live, work and socialize in a world that is increasingly depending on the Internet. It’s about fighting back against unwanted community members, such as women, people of color, LGBTQ people and the disabled, who are seen as, to repeat a phrase reportedly used by the shooter in the Charleston church massacre, “taking over our country,” or in this case, the Internet. It’s an attempt to push back against inclusive democratic participation in virtual spaces, dressed up as a defense of democracy.

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