Reddit banned a subreddit dedicated to being awful to overweight people, so Redditors are being awful to fat people all over the site as a show of protest. Meanwhile, other Redditors are jumping ship to a "censorship-free" Reddit clone that prides itself on being a place where people can be awful to whoever they want.
Such is the difficulty in trying to police a massive website with a very vocal minority of people who believe that they have the right to free speech on a privately-owned website. Under a new anti-harassment policy, Reddit has taken its first strong steps to clean up toxic subreddits by banning a handful of communities focused on attacking overweight people, transgender people, and black people.
In a message posted by an administrator of the site, Reddit said it had banned r/fatpeoplehate, r/hamplanethatred, r/neofag, r/transfags, and r/shitniggerssay, which were subreddits specifically dedicated to being awful to marginalized people. The largest of which was r/fatpeoplehate, which had just over 149,000 subscribers.
"We will ban subreddits that allow their communities to use the subreddit as a platform to harass individuals when moderators don't take action," the Reddit team wrote. "We're banning behavior, not ideas."
As a form of protest, thousands of Redditors have moved to both new subreddits and a competing service called Voat, a Reddit clone founded as a response to earlier perceived Reddit censorship.
Right now, there are tens of thousands of users posting photos of overweight people on r/fatpeoplehate2 and r/thefattening (a nod to the celebrity nude leaks of a year ago). Other subreddits that have popped up are called r/fatpeopleloathing and r/againstfatpeople.
Despite the protests, Reddit told me it has no plans on backing down from its decision, and says it's dedicated to fostering an environment in which it's not acceptable to be awful to people just for the sake of it.
"As far as people leaving—as [Reddit CEO] Ellen [Pao] and [Reddit community manager] Jessica [Moreno] noted in today's announcement, the goal is to make Reddit a place for authentic conversations and idea-sharing. Reddit hopes that users will welcome the changes to make the platform a more welcoming place for all," Heather Wilson, a spokesperson for the site told Motherboard. "These subreddits were banned after repeated complaints about extensive harassment of users both on and off Reddit."
Though it's being painted as such by some pissed off free speech types, this is not an existential threat for Reddit. As many as 22,000 people were reading the r/fatpeoplehate2 subreddit at the time I was writing this. That's not an insignificant number, but, considering that nearly 173 million people visited Reddit last month, it's barely a drop in the bucket.
"The loudest, grossest assholes also tend to be the people most desperate to have their loud gross voices heard," Whitney Phillips, a researcher at Humboldt State University who wrote This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things, an academic look at online trolling, told me in an email. "So it's not surprising that new subreddits would crop right up. Nor do I think that Reddit will be able to snuff this sort of behavior out entirely. But again, signaling a commitment to a robust sort of free speech, one that actually values democratic participation, is a hell of a lot better start than no start at all."
Phillips said that, despite the protests, Reddit is doing the right thing. It may not work right away, and the "Streisand Effect," is already in full swing, but she said the site had to try to rein in some of its bad behavior.
"This is a good move. It's perhaps not a fully (or very, or remotely, take your most cynical pick) enforceable move, but enforceability isn't (necessarily) what makes a move good," she said. "What makes a move good is the attempt to do good, to have a positive impact on the site's users and online discourse generally. Some might be tempted to discount this as lip service, caving to political pressure, whatever. And maybe it is."
"But who cares—protecting diverse communication is the essence of free speech, and at the very least this announcement acknowledges that free speech is compromised when the loudest, grossest assholes get to set the tone," she added. "We want more and diverse speech, not less. And anything that forwards that basic tenant is a good thing in my book."
In the thread announcing the bans, many users predicted that Reddit's moderation tactics would result in the ultimate downfall of the site. Many vowed to switch to Voat, a site that has vowed to never censor users' posts. That site has become a favorite for people who have taken part in the "GamerGate" movement and those who have said that Reddit has been ruined by "social justice warriors" who preach equality.
Considering that the traffic sent to Voat from one very small Reddit thread crashed the site, it seems unlikely that it'll be a viable replacement for Reddit's masses anytime soon.