Reddit, known as the "front page of the internet," is a website where you can find all kinds of people talking about all kinds of stuff. From forearms to television to gay bros to cute dogs to female bodybuilders, the Reddit community is a huge pastiche of people from all walks of life.
On Wednesday, June 10, Reddit killed one of its most popular — and ugliest — forums, a "subreddit" called Fat People Hate (FPH).
FPH was Reddit at its best and worst. It existed because of free speech. It thrived because of the internet's unparalleled ability to connect people who would never find each other in real life. And it was designed solely to mock fat people, no matter how famous or obscure they might be. FPH was one of the meanest and most active areas of the site; it was astonishing how fast its 150,000 subscribers could mobilize.
Reddit's decision to shut down this forum has set an important precedent — the first of the site's bans against harassment — sending shockwaves throughout its massive readership and raising questions about censorship and free speech.
What is Fat People Hate?
Fat People Hate, or r/fatpeoplehate, is what's called a subreddit — a specific section of the larger website. That concept can be kind of confusing to people who don't regularly venture onto Reddit, so an easy analogy would be to picture Reddit as a giant supermarket. Each aisle would be a subreddit, with the most popular items on the top shelves — think of these items as the top posts. And because they're so popular, they're usually displayed in additional places throughout the store, which is more or less what happens when something appears on Reddit's "front page."
Fat People Hate was a subreddit devoted to viciously demeaning obese people and denouncing the idea of fat acceptance. What distinguished it from some of the darker, more obscure corners of the internet where terrible stuff happens is that it had an extremely active membership, and so many of its posts would get upvoted (Reddit users have the power to "upvote" or "downvote" each post; the more upvotes a post receives, the better its chances of making it to that top shelf, if we're still using the grocery store analogy) that it had a very vocal, inescapable presence on the site.
What's kind of mystifying is that Fat People Hate didn't have as many subscribers as some of Reddit's other forums. However, it boasted a very committed community, according to the site Redditlist, which tracks Reddit analytics:
This all changed when Reddit banned the forum.
Why did Reddit ban Fat People Hate?
Reddit's interim CEO, Ellen Pao, invoked the site's new anti-harassment policy in explaining the decision to ban FPH. The policy, which was first announced in May, represents an attempt to make Reddit a more welcoming place. Reddit's harsh and unforgiving tendencies have often been mentioned in the press, and the site has gained a reputation for not being a particularly welcoming place for women. FPH was seen by many as one area of Reddit that needed to be eliminated for the overall good of the site.
"Our goal is to enable as many people as possible to have authentic conversations and share ideas and content on an open platform," Pao and the site's leaders said in a statement that addressed the FPH ban. "We will ban subreddits that allow their communities to use the subreddit as a platform to harass individuals when moderators don’t take action. We’re banning behavior, not ideas."
According to Pao, FPH was the only subreddit with more than 5,000 subscribers to be banned.
Just how mean was Fat People Hate?
It's difficult to show you the venom of FPH because the posts are now gone. But if you look at YouTube and other platforms like Imgur, the image-hosting site that many Reddit users rely on to share photos and graphics, there are still a few FPH remnants to be found.
FPH recently targeted a woman named Rachel who had created videos that focused on her struggle with her weight, fat acceptance, and how forums like Fat People Hate were terrible. Within days, FPHers found her YouTube channel and began aggressively voting down her videos. The comments that followed were ruthless:
"As of last night I have become the latest target of a fat haters group on Reddit," Rachel wrote on her blog on May 24. "Since then My YouTube channel has received thousands of negative comments and death threats along with my Google account with hundreds of more comments. Some have even gone onto my Twitter and Tumblr accounts."
Users at FPH would mine social media accounts like Instagram and even dating sites like OkCupid to find pictures of obese people (mostly women) to make fun of. The following picture, posted on Imgur and linked on FPH, was viewed more than 70,000 times (I've obscured the faces of the people in the picture):
This next post, featuring a screenshot of a cruel joke between a Reddit user and an obese woman, netted more than 300,000 views. The woman is flirting, describing a sexual fantasy, while the man is joking about her weight:
FPH was also home to super-personal attacks, like this set of photos where a user posted pictures of a woman he or she knew and tracked her weight gain over time:
The users of FPH referred to themselves "shitlords" and "shitladies," a mild acknowledgment that they knew they were mean people. And they would call the fat people they were laughing at names like "hamplanet," "landwhale," and "butterbeast."
What was Fat People Hate's main message?
What's sort of strange and bewildering is that FPH didn't uphold any sort of extreme mission statement. The basic idea that permeated the forum was that people should be exercising and eating healthy, and that obesity can lead to health problems. This isn't a groundbreaking concept — organizations like the CDC and the World Health Organization have said as much.
Of course, one of the things that made FPH stand out was the cruel way it went about spreading its message. But there's something more: FPH was particularly irate at the "Fat Acceptance" and "Health at Every Size" (HAES) movements, and regularly targeted people who promote them. Both Fat Acceptance and HAES strive to change the way we think about fat people and the harmful attitudes some people hold toward them.
The collision point between FPH and the Fat Acceptance/HAES movements lies in some related medical findings. FPH supporters believe the ideas of Fat Acceptance and HAES aren't based in any real science, while Fat Acceptance and HAES supporters believe that it is possible to separate health and body weight (i.e., that it's impossible to judge people's health by their weight). As with any social movement, there's a vast spectrum of what people believe and how strongly they believe in it, and FPH tends to identify (and perhaps exaggerate) the more extreme views of Fat Acceptance and HAES and apply them to the whole movement.
Essentially, FPH is the antithesis of "acceptance," which is why the forum's posts were overtly cruel and nasty.
How did Fat People Hate get so popular?
The real peak of FPH came in May 2015, when Tess Holliday, a size 22 model, was featured on the cover of People:
Holliday has become the face and de facto spokesperson for Fat Acceptance because of her People cover. Over at FPH, Holliday's cover was viewed as a sign that the movement had gotten out of hand. And it wasn't long before she became an object of fixation at FPH.
How are people reacting to the ban of FPH?
Reddit, warts and all, has always been a place where its users praised the existence of free speech — where FPH could exist alongside lesser-known subreddits like Forearm Porn and Swole Acceptance. The topics covered on the site are extremely varied; they range from sexual fantasies to video game strategies to, I'm guessing, sexual fantasies that involve video games. Reddit is widely known as a place on the internet where people can find anything. And in the aftermath of FPH's demise, many Reddit users want more transparency on how the banning process works.
The process seems subjective. For example, the racist subreddit known as Coontown (13,000 subscribers) still exists, as does a subreddit devoted to "cute female corpses." One could argue that both of these subreddits are more disturbing than FPH.
However, what separates those forums and FPH are the reports of harassment. As Pao explained to one Reddit user:
Going by this theory, FPH would still exist — and possibly could, in the future — if its subscribers stopped doing what they did to people like Rachel (inundating her YouTube channel with mean comments, following her to Tumblr, etc.) and confined their activities to the subreddit.
Is the ban going to work?
The ban is still so new that it's hard to tell right now.
But there are a lot of people who think Reddit's decision will ultimately backfire. One of the pervading beliefs is that the people who belonged to the FPH subreddit will scatter and start posting FPH-like posts in other subreddits, becoming a bigger problem (for moderators especially) than the more isolated FPH subreddit ever was. Reddit user Tylenol_Creator made an image visualizing this possibility:
There are also some users who believe that in banning FPH, Pao has initiated a Streisand effect, turning FPH subscribers into internet martyrs by drawing attention to them. FPH is gone for now, but some FPH subscribers have already departed Reddit for Voat, a Reddit competitor, to start a new community. Others are trying to "hydra" this moment by creating new FPH-like subreddits, which are being banned as fast as they're being created.
Did Reddit do the right thing in banning Fat People Hate?
Ultimately, the move to ban FPH was Reddit's first huge step toward making the site a friendlier place. And it seems the company has decided to draw the line in the sand at harassment.
But I'm left wondering if Reddit is prepared to take further action.
Back in 2012, Reddit banned a subreddit called "Creepshots," a place where people shared sexualized pictures of women without the women's consent. But in 2013, the subreddit appeared under a new name, calling itself "Candid Fashion Police." That forum still contains pictures of women that were ostensibly taken without their consent, and it still thrives today. Something similar could very well happen with FPH.
No doubt, I disagree with the messages that subreddits like FPH and Candid Fashion Police breed and contain. But I also knew to avoid those forums when visiting Reddit. I fear that eliminating them makes it more likely that their subscribers will post elsewhere, putting more pressure on Reddit to monitor more conversations. Reddit hasn't eliminated the FPHers, it's merely dispersed them.
Reddit's move was admirable. The site shouldn't be used a vehicle for harassment. But banning a subreddit was the easy part. Keeping its promise is going to be more difficult, and if past attempts to ban subreddits are any indication, Reddit hasn't proved it's ready to do so.