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Are Steve Huffman's New Rules for Reddit a Band-Aid on a Broken Leg?

Critics say Reddit's new policy misses the real problem: How to clean up the toxic culture that pervades the site.

Andrey Popov / Thinkstock

Talking about why black people are the scum of the earth is okay, but encouraging violence against them is not. Inciting people to rape women isn’t kosher, but hosting lengthy discussions about how women are evil is permissible. Before you can comment or share these kind of noxious opinions, however, you’ll have to log in.

These are the new rules for posting on Reddit, as outlined by new CEO Steve Huffman in an “Ask Me Anything” session today. And judging by the response thus far, many think the changes look like a digital band-aid on what is a much, much larger problem.

The cesspools of hate that populate Reddit have been thoroughly documented. Revenge porn subreddits and places like r/FatPeopleHate were removed earlier this year, because they encouraged offsite harassment. The new policy bans places that incite violence, like r/rapingwomen. But the anti-black racism hub r/CoonTown or r/PhilosophyOfRape are within bounds, because their hatred is apparently more theoretical.

In one reply to a question, Huffman seemed to imply that r/FatPeopleHate wouldn’t have been banned had its discussions not cheered on violent actions. Insult fat people all you want, but no urging to smack them around?

Welcome to Reddit, the new new version.

Randi Harper is the founder of the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative and a prominent target of the Gamergate hate mob that spawned on Reddit last year. She says such contradictions are at the heart of a still-flawed policy that doesn’t address the culture problem in the Reddit community.

“What Reddit has to do is step up and do stuff that doesn’t make them look good,” Harper said. “This means shutting down even more subreddits, taking a firmer stance on what’s actually harassing content. And then once the community has shifted — learned to be a little less vile on the Internet — then the community can police itself.”

But Harper thinks that Reddit’s new policy is a mealy-mouthed way of distinguishing “incitement” from more abstract conversation, and that the burden of policing remains on Reddit’s community of unpaid moderators, many of whom are part of the problem.

“I think community management is a good idea. Self-policing is a great idea,” Harper said. “But when the community is poisoned, that changes the baseline for acceptable behavior. Because harassment is okay, you need to change the culture of the site before you can rely on your community filter.”

Because Reddit moderators of the site’s uglier side are also influential in its more advertiser-friendly, widely used sections, the company effectively relies on the same people who spread the dreck around to clean it up.

And criticism of Huffman’s announcement extends beyond activists like Harper. On Twitter, people tore into the post:

A lot of the backlash focused on the razor-thin line that Huffman is drawing between what’s acceptable and what isn’t, although he did concede that the company needs to work on a better definition of what constitutes harassment.

Still, Huffman didn’t spend too much time detailing the bold promises that have already been made — more aggressive mod tools, better content filtering technology — that led to the exit of Reddit’s engineering chief on Monday.

And in choosing to center the new content policy on what seems like a semantic distinction between hateful ideologies and hateful incitement, Huffman is dipping into the familiar Reddit well of free speech rhetoric to skirt a tougher conversation about changing the culture of the site’s community.

Reddit still has many non-creepy users and moderators who want the site to succeed, and they are invested in cleaning up the toxic parts. These folks have been there a long time, but scandals like Gamergate, the exit of Ellen Pao and the constant barrage of hate they experience on Reddit are pushing them away.

“I’m still hanging out on Reddit because I’ve been there for seven years,” one moderator of a 45,000-subscriber subreddit told me last week. “At this point it’s habit, but if anything else comes along that could give me that experience, I’d jump so fast. I’m kind of done with the site.”

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