We Investigated the Conspiracy Theory That r/conspiracy Is Hiding Something
Why did the subreddit decide to ban CNN articles?
Image: Shutterstock Remix by Louise Matsakis
It began when Reddit user AssuredlyAThrowAway, a moderator of r/conspiracy, posted an announcement to the subreddit on Wednesday. They explained that after a discussion with the forum's users, its moderators had decided to ban direct links to CNN.com and its related properties because of an investigation the news network conducted into a Redditor earlier this week (several other subreddits would soon join in the ban). Archived versions of CNN articles are still being permitted, which allows them to be discussed but denies the news network advertising revenue.
The thread quickly garnered hundreds of comments, and was posted to at least six other subreddits. While many r/conspiracy subscribers agreed with the decision to block CNN articles, others said r/conspiracy was censoring the type of discussion that's typically welcome on the subreddit. Several users claimed on other forums, like r/undelete, that the moderators of r/conspiracy were purposely deleting comments that disagreed with the CNN ban.
The decision to no longer allow CNN articles came after the news network published a story Tuesday about Redditor HanAssholeSolo, who claimed he created a WrestleMania GIF featuring Donald Trump pummeling a CNN logo. Two days earlier, Trump had tweeted the GIF, turning it into a national news story. In the article, CNN claimed it had identified HanAssholeSolo in real life and "reserves the right to publish his identity," which would be considered "doxxing," an act verboten in the Reddit community.
"Those actions, in and of themselves, represent a grievous threat to the free exchange of ideas and information on the modern internet," AssuredlyAThrowAway wrote in his post announcing the CNN ban on r/conspiracy.
In the days since that post, r/conspiracy's CNN ban has become the subject of its own conspiracy theories on other subreddits.
On Wednesday, Redditor tyronrex posted a series of screenshots to r/undelete—a subreddit dedicated to tracking content removed by moderators on other subreddits—claiming to show that comments opposing the ban were surreptitiously deleted from r/conspiracy. The comments from the screenshots can be viewed on Ceddit, a site that archives Reddit and flags deleted posts and comments. In total, Ceddit shows that 58 comments were deleted from the thread at the time of publishing.
In that undelete thread, redditors started posting their own theories about what was going on in r/conspiracy: "If you sub to places like /r/undelete, /r/censorship, etc., you quickly come to understand that there are subs that are run like indoctrination camps. /r/conspiracy is one," user Elliptical_Tangent wrote.
"The biggest WTF for me over the past few months has been how the conspiracy subreddit has turned pro-establishment. The mods are unironically loyal to the most powerful administration on the planet," user TheIntelligentLion wrote.
AssuredlyAThrowAway, the r/conspiracy moderator who originally wrote the post announcing the CNN ban, says that moderating the subreddit in a way that makes everyone happy is a tough job, and said they try their best to be politically and ideologically neutral. They see the decision to boycott the news network's articles as an apolitical act. For the moderator team, it was about standing up for anonymity on the internet, rather than supporting any particular political ideology.
"I vehemently supported Bernie in the election," AssuredlyAThrowAway told me over the phone. "There is certainly a moderator or two who lean right," they said, but r/conspiracy "approaches these kinds of things in a content neutral and a politically neutral manner."
The moderator told me that the team running the subreddit was deleting comments in the CNN ban announcement thread, but said most of those deleted were written by people who had come from other subreddits. AssuredlyAThrowAway says it's difficult to decide when to remove a comment, but that r/conspiracy's moderators aren't trying to censor any particular viewpoint. "It's a fine art. Like everyone, we make mistakes sometimes," they said.
Generally, r/conspiracy is a fairly transparent subreddit. It has a moderator log of all the changes made to it, and usually a reason is given whenever a comment is removed. But when the subreddit gets brigaded by a flood of comments from outside voices, not everything gets logged. "Providing comment removal reasons can oftentimes only embolden those who are trying to manipulate the very ethos of free and open discussion we seek to uphold," AssuredlyAThrowAway explained.
They also argued that banning CNN articles shouldn't be seen as censorship, because archived links are still allowed (the distinction was made in an attempt to prevent CNN from receiving ad revenue from the traffic sent to its site via the subreddit). "To me, censorship would apply if content or the flow of content would be stopped," they said. "We took steps to make sure content from CNN could be posted."
Some Redditors don't believe the CNN ban is a conspiracy, but think it's a step in the wrong direction for the subreddit. "I don't think it's wrong to ban all links from CNN necessarily, particularly if that falls into a broader set of restrictions on certain links already in place," Simon Trinculo, a conspiracy author and frequent poster on the subreddit told me in an email. "But the reactionary way it was done, without any past precedent of banning sites, doesn't sit right."
Trinculo and other Redditors like him say they see the CNN ban as part of a larger shift toward a general pro-Trump stance on the subreddit. "This to me is clearly a case of the POTUS declaring war on CNN and the pro-Trump forces that have taken over the sub using any excuse they can to continue that war," he said.
Trinculo added that the ban is a step that's too far from r/conspiracy's original goals and serves as an example of how Trump and his followers have permeated so many pockets of the internet.
"I would just like to point out that the current activity appears to be the polar opposite of what the sub is supposed to be about," he said. "Originally conspiracy theories were sincere grassroots efforts to question authority, but lately topics such as pizzagate and Seth Rich are insincere astroturfed efforts to support the current authority."
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