Reddit CEO Clarifies That Racism Isn’t “Welcome” on Site, Even Though It’s Allowed

Reddit icon cursing.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo/Slate. Image by Reddit.

Reddit CEO Steve Huffman said Wednesday that the website takes a more permissive approach to racist speech relative to other mainstream social media platforms.

Huffman had started a thread to release Reddit’s 2017 Transparency Report, which listed 994 accounts believed to be connected with Russia’s Internet Research Agency, and made himself available to answer any questions. One user asked, “I need clarification on something: Is obvious open racism, including slurs, against reddits rules or not?”

Huffman, who uses the handle “spez” on the site, responded:

It’s not. On Reddit, the way in which we think about speech is to separate behavior from beliefs. This means on Reddit there will be people with beliefs different from your own, sometimes extremely so. When users actions conflict with our content policies, we take action.

Our approach to governance is that communities can set appropriate standards around language for themselves. Many communities have rules around speech that are more restrictive than our own, and we fully support those rules.

Users were dismayed by this response: The post had lost 1,443 karma points by the next day, which is calculated by subtracting the number of downvotes from the number of upvotes a comment receives.

8 November 2017; Steve Huffman, CEO, Reddit, on Centre Stage during day two of Web Summit 2017 at Altice Arena in Lisbon. Photo by Cody Glenn/Web Summit via Sportsfile
Steve Huffman, CEO, Reddit in 2017. Cody Glenn/Web Summit via Sportsfile

The most popular reply to Huffman’s comment read, in part, “How do you respond to the idea that hate speech leads to genocide, and that scholars and genocide watch groups insist that not all speech is credible enough to be warranted? … Not all speech is ‘valuable discourse,’ and by letting it exist on your platform you are condoning its existence and assisting its propagation.”

Last month, United Nations investigators criticized Facebook for facilitating the spread of hate speech in Myanmar aimed at the Rohingya people, who have reportedly been the target of an ethnic cleansing campaign. When Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy brought up the issue during Mark Zuckerberg’s hearing before the Senate on Tuesday, the Facebook CEO said that the company planned to hire “dozens” more Burmese language reviewers to stamp out hate speech along with modifications to the platform.

Twitter, YouTube, and other social media companies have also struggled to keep content on their sites compliant with their hate speech policies. Twitter has notably faced multiple waves of public outcry for the bigotry and abuse that have proliferated on its platform, and in October, it ramped up its rules to crack down on a wider range of hate speech.

While Reddit does not have such hate speech prohibitions, administrators have consistently cracked down on doxing, threats, and other forms of speech that could directly and immediately lead to physical violence. When administrators shut down an offensive subreddit, they typically stray away from citing the underlying racism or other prejudices that make it toxic in the first place and instead cite another rule violation. For example, they referred to specific instances of harassment when they banned the r/fatpeoplehate subreddit, and to incitement of violence when they banned the misogynistic r/incel subreddit.

However, this approach can still lead to inconsistencies. It appears administrators couldn’t find a rule violation when they wanted to remove the r/coontown subreddit in 2015. Rather than pointing to the blatant racism that infected the forum, Huffman offered a convoluted justification for their decision: “We are banning a handful of communities that exist solely to annoy other redditors, prevent us from improving Reddit, and generally make Reddit worse for everyone else.”

Update, April 12, 2018, at 3 p.m.: Steve Huffman posted an addendum to his original comment on Thursday:

In the heat of a live AMA, I don’t always find the right words to express what I mean. I decided to answer this direct question knowing it would be a difficult one because it comes up on Reddit quite a bit. I’d like to add more nuance to my answer:

While the words and expressions you refer to aren’t explicitly forbidden, the behaviors they often lead to are.

To be perfectly clear, while racism itself isn’t against the rules, it’s not welcome here. I try to stay neutral on most political topics, but this isn’t one of them.

I believe the best defense against racism and other repugnant views, both on Reddit and in the world, is instead of trying to control what people can and cannot say through rules, is to repudiate these views in a free conversation, and empower our communities to do so on Reddit.

When it comes to enforcement, we separate behavior from beliefs. We cannot control people’s beliefs, but we can police their behaviors. As it happens, communities dedicated racist beliefs end up banned for violating rules we do have around harassment, bullying, and violence.

There exist repugnant views in the world. As a result, these views may also exist on Reddit. I don’t want them to exist on Reddit any more than I want them to exist in the world, but I believe that presenting a sanitized view of humanity does us all a disservice. It’s up to all of us to reject these views.

These are complicated issues, and we may not always agree, but I am listening to your responses, and I do appreciate your perspectives. Our policies have changed a lot over the years, and will continue to evolve into the future. Thank you.