Politics & Policy

No More Free Speech on Reddit

(Photo Illustration: NRO)
The news-and-opinion website’s founder may end up destroying the site in order to “save” it.

Laying the ground for the coming “purge,” the chief executive officer of Reddit today channeled his inner Baghdad Bob. Outlining some of the structural changes that users should expect to see over the next few months, Steve Huffman suggested bluntly that neither he nor his co-founder had wanted the site to be what it has become. Reddit, he argued somewhat self-contradictorily, was not designed “to be a bastion of free speech, but rather as a place where open and honest discussion can happen.” “Some communities currently on the platform,” he added ominously, simply “should not be here at all.” It is time, Huffman concluded, for the “reprehensible” denizens of the Internet’s scrofulous “dark side” to find another home.

If Huffman gets his way, Business Insider confirms, “the removal of offensive, harassing, and racist subreddits” is imminent. (Reddit is usually described as the online equivalent of a bulletin board, where users can post news items and commentary. Readers vote to determine the popularity of items, with more popular ones getting better placement. “Subreddits” are sections of the site devoted to particular topics.)

Being a private company, Reddit can of course do as it wishes. If its CEOs do not like the way their product looks, they are within their rights to order alterations. If they disdain a few or all of their users, they may exclude them at will. For better or for worse, its future is theirs — and theirs alone — to play with.

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But some basic honesty about the nature of the changes would be welcome. Alas, now that an abstersion is in the offing, Reddit’s founders appear to have picked up the airbrush and contrived an entirely new creation story. Speaking to Forbes in 2012, Huffman’s co-founder, Alexis Ohanian, quite literally described the site as a “bastion of free speech on the World Wide Web.” Had he been alive today, Ohanian added, Thomas Paine would have been a user. Later, Ohanian suggested that he was inspired to found the site by London’s famous Speakers’ Corner. Reddit, he proposed, was intended to be a place “where literally anyone can get on a soapbox and talk about what matters to them” — however “challenging” or “uncomfortable” or “really hateful” are their words.

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Ohanian got his wish. Within the swampier quarters of the site, you will find all sorts of insalubrious offerings. One area features graphic discussions of bestiality. Another hosts a bunch of white supremacists. Elsewhere, there are threads that brim with unreconstructed misogyny — perhaps exhibiting the rare and ugly “rape culture” that we are told is ubiquitous. But far from surprising or shocking us, this should be regarded as a dull inevitability. If Reddit’s role is to give everyone their say, some users are necessarily going to be awful. What, one has to wonder, did Ohanian and Huffman think would happen if they opened up a digital Speakers’ Corner? Were they expecting an online equivalent of the debating society at Oberlin?

There is no means by which an administrator can evaluate objectively which sentences are ‘hateful’ or ‘offensive’ and which are to be cherished.

So often we learn too late that one cannot straighten crooked timber without bringing down the whole tree. If Reddit is to begin cracking down at the edges, it will end up changing its function dramatically — eventually inviting the question, “What is this forum for?” Because most websites are the product of a clear editorial, political, or moral line, their proprietors feel an understandable need to keep a close eye on their contents. As Talking Points Memo would not be well served by hiring me to write about the Second Amendment, so its brand would be demonstrably hurt if it permitted commenters to bang on about the KKK or President Obama’s birth certificate or the “truth” about 9/11. If one’s aim is to sell a certain worldview, one has to shut out those who disagree.

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Reddit, however, is not a magazine or a repository of a certain strain of thought. Rather, it is an oversized bulletin board, the key attraction of which is its openness. Outside of those prohibitions that are inherently neutral in nature — say, a ban on pornography involving minors; restrictions on the promulgation of sensitive personal information; speech that is illegal under federal law — any attempt to “purge” the “bad” elements from the site will inevitably be open to abuse. Contrary to America’s would-be arbiters of public discussion, there is in fact no objective way of determining which opinions are “dark” and which are light; there is no means by which an administrator can evaluate objectively which sentences are “hateful” or “offensive” and which are to be cherished; there is no chance that a moderator will be able to keep his own preferences out of his job. How long can it be before we hear it said that the management is taking sides?

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Viewpoint discrimination is just that: discrimination. At present, Reddit is a place where people can duke it out for themselves without fear of outside intervention. If that changes, the site as it has heretofore existed will be dead, dead, dead. If its owners are set upon getting out of the say-anything business and moving slowly toward sanitization, that is their prerogative. But they might do us the honor of admitting upfront that they have gazed into the ugly side of the open web, and they have not liked what they’ve seen.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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