The Mind of the Reddit Protester: 'Reddit Has Never Been as Bad'
Motherboard talks to a handful of the most vocal opponents of Reddit's crackdown on harassment.
Image: Scott Kidder/Flickr
This week, Reddit has devolved into some sort of "free speech" battleground. The administrators of the site banned several subreddits that were harassing users, most notably one called r/fatpeoplehate. As the internet (and especially Reddit) tends to do, it reacted in an extreme way: Reddit's most popular posts Thursday were posts shaming fat people and ones comparing Reddit CEO Ellen Pao with Nazi Germany.
Most of the protestors don't hate fat people, of course. But they saw Reddit's crackdown on harassment as a fundamental shift in the foundation of the site, a move to take away their "free speech."
Of course, Reddit is a private company and has always been, more or less a corporation. Regardless of what the company has said in the past, there is no expectation of forever free speech on a private website.
Most people on Reddit (the silent masses, and there are perhaps as many as 172 million of them) see the banning of these fairly objectively awful subreddits as being a good move, one that may actually facilitate free speech moving forward. When marginalized groups can post things without the fear of being harassed or perhaps even threatened, you'll get a more diverse smattering of ideas.
"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," Whitney Phillips, a researcher at Humboldt State University who studies online trolling told me.
"Reddit to me is a place where I could go look at a cat picture then immediately after look at some guys head being blown off"
Phillips notes in her book, This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things, that it is important to find out who the people behind the loudest voices are and what they actually want. And so I sought out about a dozen of the people leading the charge in Reddit's latest blowout. The people who moderated "EllenPaoHate" subreddits, the people who posted Nazi flags, the people who casually throw around the word "cunt," the people who want the right to say whatever they want, wherever they want, and the people who just want Reddit to stay the way it's always been.
- Who are these people?
- I asked them the following questions:
- How much are you willing to tell me about yourself?
- How long have you been on Reddit, and what originally brought you here?
- What is Reddit, to you?
- What does "free speech" mean to you?
- Has Reddit gotten worse over the years? When did it start going downhill?
- Do you think there is anything on Reddit that shouldn't be allowed? Where is the line?
- What do you want to happen?
- Do you understand the argument coming from the other side? From what I understand, there's a school of thought that says that, if people are scared to participate in conversation (because they're fat or LGBT or otherwise marginalized), then there's not actually "free speech," because their voices are being subconsciously pushed aside. Do you think there's anything to that?
- Do you think there's a "right way" and a "wrong way" to protest? In your opinion, are some people taking it too far with the "Ellen Pao is a fat cunt" stuff?
- What does it say that so many different new subreddits, organized by seemingly different people, have popped up here?
Here are their responses. The content has been edited for clarity and length only, and I included my questions only where it was necessary for comprehension.
Moderator of: A banned fat shaming subreddit
My name's Erik I'm from NY and I'm only a high school student, I find it weird that a HS student is more involved with Internet free speech than most other people. Reddit to me is a place where I could go look at a cat picture then immediately after look at some guys head being blown off. Or a place where you could talk to a random person and feel like you have known them for a while. Free speech to me is something that defines who someone is, someone who talks about a controversial topic seems like they would be an outgoing topic, or someone who speaks for what is right seems like a righteous person.
Reddit hasn't seemed to be going downhill until now, this whole thing with Ellen Pao and free speech seems like a stupid argument, she thinks just because she's the CEO she could change what made Reddit Reddit, if she didn't want everyone to lash out she shouldn't have been CEO in the first place. I think everything should be allowed on reddit, if it's legal, if it's in its own subreddit I don't mind it. If I don't want to see something I just won't go to that subreddit.
I just want want the reddit admins to stop banning subreddits and let us have free speech. I actually thought it was funny that they accidentally banned a whale watching subreddit because they thought it was a sub for shaming fat people. I'm surprised they didn't already ban our subreddit. (As I was writing this they did ban the sub)
I see where the other side is coming from, but I feel as if they don't want people speaking for them, you could say one thing but the people speaking for you could say another.
I feel like [people creating other fat shaming subreddits], they are doing the right thing, making subreddits expressing them self help protesting without hurting anyone, but the people who are calling Ellen Pao "a fat cunt" aren't helping protest they are just giving them more of a reason to not stop banning subs. I do find it funny though how people are putting her face on/r/punchablefaces, those give me a good chuckle.
Moderator of: EllenPaoHate
Recent post: "An open letter to Ellen Pao: Our fight is not about shaming fat people, it's about suddenly losing the freedom we've enjoyed on this site for years. Therefore, I declare today to be Freedom Day on Reddit. (Rise up and spread the news everyone.)"
"I'm a 38-year-old male from Gainesville, Florida. I've been on reddit for 5 years and was brought here by a suggestion from a friend. My current account has been active for 2 years.
Reddit is a place for me to share ideas, expose criminal politicians and corporations, and a place to enjoy myself - either with a laugh or learning something new.
Free speech means the ability and the means to express one's ideas no matter how much others feel opposed to those ideas.
"They are shouting in any way they can."
Reddit has become worse in some areas and better in others. Censorship has certainly risen and I feel that's awful, but it has always been a problem. The unelected and unremovable mods of default subs have the ability to remove posts that they personally do not like with thousands upon thousands of upvotes. It only takes a click. That's like one person having the power of thousands of downvotes and there is little anyone can do about it. The changes in recent days have only increased this culture of censorship on Reddit.
Illegal content should not be allowed. Reddit is not a place to break the law. But censoring something legal, like fat shaming, is against every principle Reddit was founded upon. Do I agree with fat shaming? Absolutely not! Do I agree with their right to exist? You better believe it! I want Reddit to return to its roots... less moderation, less rules, and the ability for its users to express themselves however they feel. If an opinion is unpopular, it will be downvoted. No need for admins to make that decision, that power should stay with the users.
Do you understand the argument coming from the other side?
I absolutely do not agree with that. To exercise your freedom of speech, you have to rise above your own doubts and speak in a loud voice. If Vietnam War protesters in the 1960s lacked the confidence to speak out about what they believed in, then their voices would have never been heard. Freedom of speech does not mean everyone else has to shut their mouths so you can speak.
Do you think there's a "right way" and a "wrong way" to protest? In your opinion, are some people taking it too far with the "Ellen Pao is a fat cunt" stuff?
Yes. Some people are going to far, but their method speaks about the problem. If they feel they are being stifled, they are shouting in any way they can. I understand them, but they should try to be more mature about it.
What does it say that so many different new subreddits, organized by seemingly different people, have popped up here?
As a certain princess in Star Wars once said, "The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems (subreddits) will slip through your fingers."
Moderator of: r/ellenpaohate and r/ellenpao_isa_cunt
"I live in Bosnia, and I don't think I'm about to get harassed or fired because of anything I've posted. I came from the great Digg migration. I've been on Reddit for almost 5 years now. You came for the fresh content, but you stayed for the comments.
Like a lot of Redditors, I've changed accounts a lot. Whenever I fucked something up in conversation, I would make a new account. The problem with real life, and increasingly, the internet, is that your mistakes follow you. I feel for this generation; their cringe years are forever cemented in an online archive.
My opinions change, and as I grow, I don't want to be persecuted for my past lapses in judgement. That's what I loved about Reddit; it didn't judge beyond the downvote. It was a place to say the stupidest shit, and see what the world thinks about it.
Reddit was a content aggregator that was, as advertised, the front page of the internet. Redditors revel in the fact that content first comes to them, and then their Facebook friends. Why go to 9Gag, Buzzfeed, or anything else really, when it gets to reddit first?
"I hope this is what you became a journalist for. To manipulate people into losing their place to express themselves at the behest of greedy corporate cock bags."
I grew up in an ex-communist country, so it means a lot. I put up a quote by Voltaire on the sub, it might be misattributed though. As corny as it is in the age of neckbeards, it still has a very good point: "I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write."
"To me free speech is the right to express any opinion or idea that you have regardless of how offensive it may be"
Reddit used to reference the "hivemind" a lot, which is the belief that redditors follow a particular white/caucasian/male/libertarian/young sensibility. Conversations on popular posts would often lean a certain way, and that was fine. That was the tone of reddit. But it was never forced; if I wanted to, I could still see the most unpopular opinion by sorting the comments that way. If I wanted to, I could expose myself to the crude and bigoted voices. Most of the time they were wrong, but they provided an important contrast. Conversation should be like a big group brainstorm; there's no wrong answers, just better and worse. Let the crowd sort them out. Turn off the radio if you don't like the station. Censorship insists that the censor knows best; if I wanted to read one person's opinion, I would read their blog.
Reddit has been progressively getting worse since its inception, apparently. Since I've been there, people have been complaining that the quality of discourse has been steadily declining due to its growing popularity. A popular complaint is that Reddit becomes stupider during school summer breaks and starts to resemble 9Gag.
Yes, the front page has gotten worse over the years. That's why "true redditors" are encouraged to engage in "serious" subs, such as /r/truereddit.
"Today my incredibly offensively worded post got 82% upvotes. On a normal day, even if it was REALLY clever, i would never expect that high of a ratio on such an offensive statement."
And that's the whole point; if you don't like it, you make your own community. That's what people did. They created their own subs to engage with likeminded people. They chose what content they wanted to so by subscribing and unsubscribing from communities.
Ironically, Reddit has never been as bad as it has since the latest round of censorship. By banning the controversial FPH sub, they're forced the members to leak out onto the rest of reddit. I think a lot, if not most, of the reddit users never saw a single Fat People Hate post until they banned the sub and created a hate frenzy."
Do you think there is anything on Reddit that shouldn't be allowed? Where is the line?
"No child pornography. No doxxing. What else is there to ban, really?
One of the biggest arguments on the /r/announcements post (that "explained" their actions) is the fact that the precedent set by banning certain subs has not been followed through on; they said they were banning subs for "harassment". What about /r/coontown?
It's a slippery slope."
"Please do not ask for personal information. That is against site rules."
What do you want to happen?
I want Voat to get more servers. Seriously though, I'd like Reddit to realize their full potential. That would include not catering to narrow-minded advertisers. I don't know if Ellen Pao resigning is the solution, since, quite frankly, I have no idea who runs the show.
User: The Schizophreniac
Moderator of: r/fatadmins and r/fatpeoplehate8675309
Sample post: Found Pao's Family crest:
Sample post 2: "An apology regarding the Ellen Pao - Nazi comparison: We, as Redditors who are displeased with the recent bans, would like to apologize to any Nazis we may have offended by comparing them to the vile creature known as 'Ellen Pao'"
I can tell you that I'm an 18 year old student from Turkey. I've been on reddit for almost 3 years. At first, I was drawn by the biggest meme of 2012, rage comics. Then I discovered the discussion based subreddits and fell in love with the website.
"Ideally, the CEO should be replaced and the new CEO should avoid limiting arbitrarily defined hate speech for the sake of keeping advertisers."
To me reddit is a reflection of society and the human mind. A platform where anyone can speak as they wish without the fear of real life consequences. Free speech, to me is the ability to voice opinions without being forcibly silenced. I live in a place where simply criticizing the government is a ticket to jail so to me, it's also a luxury that only exists on the internet.
I think Reddit has only gotten worse since the GamerGate fiasco. There wasn't any visible censorship before that.
I think child pornography, photos to which people haven't consented to sharing, and inciting violence against individuals are on the other side of the acceptability line. Hate speech should be absolutely acceptable IMO.
Ideally, the CEO should be replaced and the new CEO should avoid limiting arbitrarily defined hate speech for the sake of keeping advertisers.
"I weighed 230 pounds. I've managed to lose 50lbs and I'm down to 170lb. And I did it with the help of fatpeoplehate."
Right now, I would say that [fat people and LGBT people] aren't marginalized at all. For groups that are actually marginalized, if they have something valid to say, they should be allowed to speak as they wish and society will eventually get and accept their point. Just like society eventually accepted Galileo's ideas. I think there is a mature way and an immature way to protest. Unfortunately, the mature way gets pushed aside and easily forgotten.
User: MarkRod420, moderator of r/AFattyAteMyBaby
Recent posts: A photoshopped image of Ellen Pao bruised and bloodied, with the headline, "Pao right in the kisser!!"
Recent comment: "Hmm. A tough choice. Remain a sandy vaged cunt until such time that a valuable pearl slides out, or stop being a cunt and have the obvious benefit of not being a fucking cunt. Lol"
"I'm a 26 year old guy. I've been on Reddit a few years now, was told about it by a friend with the description 'everything you see on Facebook i saw on Reddit 2 weeks before.' He was right.
Reddit to me is a place for people to share anything, any opinion, any information they want. Outside of actually illegal things of course. Like child porn and the like.
To me free speech is the right to express any opinion or idea that you have regardless of how offensive it may be. And the right to respond to anyone else' publicly posted opinion with your own. Again no matter how offensive it may be.
"If Ellen Pao can't handle the heat she shouldn't be the public figurehead for a social media company."
I think if anything that doesn't involve hacking into someone's personal information, threats, or illicit activities should be allowed on Reddit. I want Reddit to publicly state that they made a mistake in attempting to censor their content and to undo what they have done.
[On opposing viewpoint]: I see the point of the argument, but i feel that it allows a window to be used to limit people's free speech in an official way. Sure offensive speech may limit an individual because of their own personal mental limitations, but it doesn't actually lay down a rule that says they can't respond. To say "you can't be offensive or others won't participate" is to open a very large and very open window into censorship.
Outside of rioting i don't think there is a wrong way to protest. And if Ellen Pao can't handle the heat she shouldn't be the public figurehead for a social media company. Many of them are just trying to be as offensive as possible but regardless the point is being made. To attempt to censor Reddit will do nothing but ruin Reddit, the users themselves will make sure of it.
The Reddit community will not be censored. They will leave behind a smoldering crater where Reddit used to be, if the executives really insist on pushing this issue. Reddit is essentially alienating 80% of their community to satisfy less than 20% of their community and a punch of armchair politicians that aren't even part of the community. Today my incredibly offensively worded post got 82% upvotes. On a normal day, even if it was REALLY clever, i would never expect that high of a ratio on such an offensive statement. And on that same post with thousands of upvotes compared to hundreds of down, i received 32 reports... just 32 out of thousands of people. Thats who Reddit is doing this for. 32 uptight assholes. It's a clear mistake on their part.
"U know the only explanation i can think of for a reporter to be complicit in downplaying this event and attempting to pacify the community is if the rumor is true and they are trying to clean reddit up to sell it to facebook. Well i hope this is what you became a journalist for. To manipulate people into losing their place to express themselves at the behest of greedy corporate cock bags."
"I don't really want to say much about myself. I'm a truck driver in NYC. Did two years of college. I'm 25. I've been on reddit for 4 years. Had an account for two. Free speech to me is being able to speak your mind without fear of retribution. I mean this is reddit. It was supposed to be the one place where you could speak your mind. Even if what was in their was a bit depraved.
I think that the whole draw of reddit was the fact that anything went. It would be nice to go back to the way things were before. When free speech was tolerated as long as no one got hurt. And I understand people's feelings are getting hurt. I've been there.
I was obese for a very long time. From childhood until 2 years ago. I weighed 230 pounds. I've managed to lose 50lbs and I'm down to 170lb. And I did it with the help of fatpeoplehate. My family and friends enabled me and my obesity for so long. I'm not going to sit here and say that it was all thanks to a subreddits. But they did help me feel like the way I was, was unattractive and unhealthy. It showed me what people really think when your obese. Obviously no one would ever say the things they said. But some did think like them. It just helped me see that I had to change. I think these kind of places can help or hurt people, like a lot of things in life. i mean take movies for example. The movie The Interview is a great example. They made fun of Kim Jung Un and North Korea, their feelings were hurt. Yet people got over it. I understand the way people are protesting probably isn't the most politically correct way to do things. But everyone is different and has their own way of fighting back. Debating ideas is the way democracy works. It is never perfect but nothing ever is. I know I'm not the most well spoken of people but I hope I've got the message across.
Moderator of: PaoYongYang, DoppleBangHer, EllenPaoinAction, NiggerDrama, EllenPaoSucksBalls, online_sluts_fuck, more than 100 others
Interview: "Please do not ask for personal information. That is against site rules."
Moderator of: PaoYongYang
Recent posts: "Banning /r/fatpeoplehate literally just destroyed the place where all these shitlords stayed. Destroying this set them all free to fucking dick around all of reddit."
"I've been a redditor for maybe 4-5 years and I decided to make this account to go with the pitchfork joke on reddit. I originally joined since reddit was one of the only places besides 4chan that had free speech. It was a place where you could find anything legal that you could imagine. No matter how horrible which was the interesting part.
To me Reddit is a platform where anything can be discussed openly. The subreddits created various small communities in which people from everywhere got together and talked about any number of things. It feel like it was a great online community until the censorship began.
Free speech is the freedom to say whatever is on your mind.
When thinking of free speech the quote:
"I don't agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it." - Beatrice Hall
Comes to my mind.
I feel like Reddit as a whole has been generally fine until the attack on free speech. People predicted that Ellen Pao might do something to mess up the way Reddit was already but no one thought they would destroy our faith in Reddit to this degree. The honest line on what should or should not be on Reddit should be what's legal or not. If the subject matter is legal then it should be allowed on Reddit. This was the ideology of Reddit's previous CEO.
I think in addition to that any witch hunting should not be allowed as well since that always leads to something bad like when reddit "found" the Boston bomber. I want the bans to be reversed and for then to assure that we have free speech on reddit.
I do understand the oppositions views but I think that creating a false "safe space" will not help. If something hurts your feelings then don't browse places like /r/fatpeoplehate or /r/transfags. It doesn't mean it's okay but there are other subreddits where it is safe for them to speak. Just because someone said something cruel on the internet doesn't make it true. If someone has something important enough to say then they should say it regardless of those cruel people. By banning those subs they have effectively destroyed entire communities because their viewpoint differs from theirs. It also destroyed the place where they kept to like moved individuals and now they've set them free to plague all subreddits including a lot of the front page/default subs.
I think the best way for an internet protest is action, but saying that Ellen Pao is a fat cunt and such is wrong. I think a better way is to void Reddit of its funding slowly and to not advertise with Reddit anymore. The continuous posting of material helps pressure them as well. The site's content is dropping in quality due to this and there have already been a massive exodus to numerous Reddit alternative sites hoping for unimpeded free speech. Currently Voat.co seems to be a strong choice. Of enough people protest then Reddit can be impacted enough that they reverse these actions. They definitely do not want to end up like Digg.
I think their current actions of shadow-banning protesters is just fueling the fire. It's as if Reddit's admins are acting as the secret police silencing those who they see do not agree with their views.
The mass influx of new subreddits soaring is just Reddit's way of trying to find a new place for the lost communities of people. They need somewhere to be needed up whether that is on Reddit or not."
For better or worse, Reddit is changing. Not everyone can handle it. It's still early days for the site's new harassment policy, but it seems unlikely that this week's brouhaha will be the last.