Image from the 1954 film, “Animal Farm”, based on the book by George Orwell.

Reddit Deletes Groups Left and Right with New Orwellian Hate Speech Rules

Reddit, one of the most visited websites in the world, deleted thousands of online communities for violating their new hate speech policy. Reddit CEO, Steve Huffman announced yesterday that they banned “about 2000 subreddits” but no official list has been provided.

Perhaps the largest community removed was “The Donald” a group of 790,000 users posting memes, videos, and messages in support of President Trump. Another large group deleted was “Chapo Trap House” dedicated to one of the largest and highest grossing leftist podcasts on the Internet.

Reddit cited no specific instances of what was said to warrant the deletion of every single word ever typed in each of the groups’ long histories. Instead, Huffman explained the reasons for the bans in general terms, citing Reddits new eight rules. The rules include prohibiting targeted harassment, doxxing, and pedophilia. However, the site had already banned such behavior. What’s really different is the new rules take a harder line on speech that “promotes hate based on identity or vulnerability.”

Rule 1 states that “everyone has a right to use Reddit free of harassment, bullying, and threats of violence.” Then two paragraphs down it states that “..the rule does not protect groups of people who are in the majority”.

This contradictory rule sounds like it comes straight out of George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel “Animal Farm” in which animals found a farm on the principle that “all animals are equal” until an authoritarian pig takes charge and changes the rule to “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.

Rule 1: Remember the human. Reddit is a place for creating community and belonging, not for attacking marginalized or vulnerable groups of people. Everyone has a right to use Reddit free of harassment, bullying, and threats of violence. Communities and people that incite violence or that promote hate based on identity or vulnerability will be banned.

Marginalized or vulnerable groups include, but are not limited to, groups based on their actual and perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, immigration status, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, pregnancy, or disability. These include victims of a major violent event and their families.

While the rule on hate protects such groups, it does not protect all groups or all forms of identity. For example, the rule does not protect groups of people who are in the majority or who promote such attacks of hate.

While protecting vulnerable groups is admirable, it seems utterly unnecessary to exclude “majority” groups from the same protection. (For example, Facebook and Twitter policies have banned hate speech against any race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation. Period.)

And considering Reddit is a worldwide website, what exactly does “majority” refer to? Presumably it refers to the cisgendered, straight, and white majority populations here in the United States. But this can be problematic if we want to protect women because they make up the “majority” of the U.S. population.

Will Reddit update or reverse its policy when America becomes majority non-white in the next decade? Will blacks and whites be protected from hate speech differently if they happen to live in black majority countries like South Africa or Zimbabwe instead of the US? Will Reddit’s protection of one’s demographic population change depending on one’s geographic locations? Currently, all this is unclear.

Image courtesy Boston Globe

What is clear is this was not the vision Reddit co-founder and self-described “something of a free speech absolutist”, Aaron Swartz, had for the website or the Internet. Before tragically passing away in 2013, Swartz wrote the following in his 2006 blog post, “Free Speech: Because We Can”.

Human freedom is important, so we should try to protect it from encroachment wherever possible. With most freedoms — freedom of motion, freedom of exchange, freedom of action — permitting them in full would cause some problems. People shouldn’t be free to walk into other people’s bedrooms, take all their stuff, and then punch the poor victims in the face. But hurling a bunch of epithets at the guy really isn’t so bad.

Freedom of speech is one place where we can draw the line and say: all of this is acceptable. There’s no further logic to it than that.

Swartz conceded freedom of speech could be taken away if people “seriously started getting hurt because of freedom of speech.” But he couldn’t imagine that would actually ever happen.

If people really, seriously started getting hurt because of freedom of speech, it seems right for people to take the privilege away. But, to be honest, I can’t even imagine how that might be possible. Words just don’t genuinely wound, they’re always mediated by our listening.

I do worry that people might try to stretch this justification — say that continued free speech might destroy the war effort, or the government, or civil society. But I have no problem destroying all of those. It’s only the destruction of actual people that I worry about.

So here’s to free speech…

UPDATE 07/09/20: Reddit has stealthily changed the wording of Rule 1. (You can still see the original Rule 1 text archived here.)

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