The XX Factor

What Was the Campaign Against Ellen Pao Really About?

Ellen Pao in March 2015 in San Francisco.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

When Ellen Pao resigned as interim CEO of Reddit, it didn’t seem like there’d be much sympathy for her. Her detractors, whose online petition against her garnered more than 200,000 signatures, accused her of incompetence and focused on the firing of Victoria Taylor, the popular community manager who helped run the “Ask Me Anything” series. Much of the criticism of Pao took the form of racist and sexist harassment, but Taylor’s firing was, empirically, a massive misstep.

But the decision to fire Taylor was not Pao’s doing but that of Reddit’s board chair, Alexis Ohanian. Ohanian, a white man, has not (yet!) gotten a harassment campaign in response. It seems unlikely that he will. The outrage over Taylor’s firing, it turns out, is mostly a pretext—a way to attack a woman while using “but we’re defending a woman” as a cover story.

Observers pointed out that Pao’s attackers had another, less savory reason to hate Pao: She was spearheading an effort to clean up the website, making it harder for hate groups and harassment campaigns to use Reddit as their organizing grounds. Earlier this year, Pao started those efforts by removing revenge porn and banning five subreddits, including /r/FatPeopleHate and /r/ShitNiggersSay. “In a move that surprised no one, these particularly odious forums became martyrs for the cause of ‘free speech’ on the site,” Katherine Cross at Feministing writes.

Pao herself, writing on Thursday in the Washington Post, makes a clear connection between her cleanup campaign and the harassment she received—the exact same strain of harassment she was trying to scrub from the site. “After making these policy changes to prevent and ban harassment, I, along with several colleagues, was targeted with harassing messages, attempts to post my private information online and death threats,” Pao writes. “These were attempts to demean, shame and scare us into silence.” Pao calls the siege on her “one of the largest trolling attacks in history.”

Sam Biddle at Gawker also painstakingly laid out the case that the anti-Pao attacks were not sincere complaints about competence but the result of “the toxic praetorian guard of the men’s rights–Gamergate axis” who believed “a common-sense policy against sexual harassment and violation was nothing less than the trampling of liberty.” It’s hard to get someone fired for declining to host /r/NeoFag at your website. You need a cover story, and Taylor’s ousting provided it.

A lot of Reddit is used for good purposes—I enjoy some fan sites there myself—but the site is overrun with childish straight white men who use the site to throw an ongoing temper tantrum over their declining sovereignty over women, gay people, and racial minorities. Of course they’d hate any Asian woman taking over “their” website, especially one who’s best known for standing up for herself against sexism

Biddle, among others, wonders if Pao was “set up to fail by her male board of directors.” Chief engineer Bethanye Blount quit in protest, arguing that Pao was a victim of the “glass cliff.” Former Reddit CEO Yishan Wong agrees: Ohanian should have admitted that he fired Taylor the minute “the hate-train started up against Pao,” Wong says, but instead he “sat back and let her take the heat.”

Despite all this turmoil, the new CEO of Reddit, Steve Huffman, swears up and down that the site will follow through on the Pao-era plan to clean up the site. “There is also a dark side, communities whose purpose is reprehensible, and we don’t have any obligation to support them,” Huffman wrote. “And we also believe that some communities currently on the platform should not be here at all.” For the sake of Reddit and the overall health of the Internet, let’s hope he makes good on that promise. But what will the trolls do now that they don’t have a woman to blame for their problems?