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Can't Have It Both Ways: The Trouble With Reddit's Content Policy Update

The site doesn't want to offend free-speech diehards, but it also wants to tamp down harassment.

Robert Hyrons / Thinkstock

When new CEO Steve Huffman announced Reddit’s new rules for content three weeks ago, he attempted to make clear what’s acceptable to post on Reddit and what isn’t. Stuff that incites harassment or violence is off limits. Offensive and hateful speech, while deplorable, is not. That was that, or so we thought.

Huffman came in following the departure of CEO Ellen Pao, who was pilloried by members of the Reddit community for what they saw as arbitrary firing of beloved staffer Victoria Taylor, who coordinated the site’s popular Ask Me Anything posts. Huffman promised more transparency and proper empowerment of Redditors, who already hold immense sway over the site’s operations. Part of that effort included creating a revised content policy that would stand as an impartial guideline for how management makes decisions.

Today, Huffman published the formal content policy update, and confirmed the removal of some white supremacist and animated child pornography subreddits. The move reflects the harder line Reddit is taking against the seedier parts of the social news site, but it directly contradicts what Huffman said publicly on Reddit when the initial content announcement was made three weeks ago.

The updated content policy itself doesn’t really contain any new developments. Reddit previously said that venues like r/rapingwomen, concrete examples of subreddits that encourage harassing behavior, would no longer be tolerated. The company also said that really offensive subreddits (like, say, r/KikeTown) would be hidden behind a wall for casual Reddit users, a move that Reddit is calling “quarantining.

But accompanying the new policy was the revelation that r/coontown and some associated subreddits were now banned, despite earlier statements by Huffman that they would not be banned. The reason for the reversal? In a reply on Reddit, Huffman said it was because they “violate the spirit of the policy by making Reddit worse for everyone else.” Three weeks ago, Huffman specifically mentioned r/coontown as an example of something that was obviously offensive, but allowed to stay.

Huffman’s reasoning, predictably, didn’t elicit warm feelings from many on Reddit. It also raises questions about the point of such policy changes if the company is also comfortable making content decisions that conflict directly with previously stated policy.

To clarify why r/coontown specifically was banned, but r/KikeTown remains up, Reddit provided a statement to Re/code (that uses conspicuously similar language to another Huffman reply on Reddit): “We found ourselves spending a disproportionate amount of time dealing with [r/coontown] instead of working on Reddit itself, so this was a necessary shift for our team to maintain a healthy and successful platform.”

It makes sense that hosting what the Southern Poverty Law Center described as the nexus of white supremacism on the Internet makes it difficult to “maintain a healthy and successful platform.” It’s obvious that Reddit doesn’t want to play host to racism and harassment.

But the company doesn’t want to compromise too much on the “free speech” principles that hardcore Redditors, who are integral to the day-to-day functions of the site, obsess over. And Reddit also wants to cut ties with well-known hate centers like r/coontown that offend both advertisers and common decency.

Reddit’s problem is that it wants to have it both ways.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.