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Reddit is trying to give users a tool to fight harassment without censoring posts

Noam Galai/Getty Images

Reddit — the forum the Verge once described as a "techno-libertarian's wet dream" — is joining other online platforms in attempting to deal with its harassment problem by rolling out a new feature that gives users more power to block hateful comments.

Reddit announced this week that it has expanded its blocking feature from private messages to public forums so users can remove terrible replies and comments from their view without other users (or even the person who originally posted the terrible thing) being notified.

"Our changes to user blocking are intended to let you decide what your boundaries are, and to give you the option to choose what you want — or don’t want — to be exposed to. [And, of course, you can and should still always report harassment to our community team!]," a Reddit moderator posted on the site.

After blocking someone, users will no longer be notified of their messages, and all their comments, posts, and messages will be removed from the user's view.

Dealing with harassment has been a long struggle for Reddit

While most internet forums have been able to deal with online harassment more painlessly (by just removing the questionable comments), Reddit has struggled to find a middle ground between creating a safe environment for its users and censorship.

Because even when it comes to horrific ends, Reddit has become the internet's bastion of free speech, blurring the line between literally any form of prejudice and just strong differences of opinion.

So much so that the former CEO of Reddit, Yishan Wong, once found himself defending a user, Violentacrez, who had created an entire channel dedicated to "distributing images of scantily-clad underage girls, but as Violentacrez he also issued an unending fountain of racism, porn, gore, misogyny, incest, and exotic abominations," according to Gawker, which found and revealed the identity of this person.

"We stand for free speech," Wong wrote on a subreddit published by Gawker. "This means we are not going to ban distasteful subreddits. We will not ban legal content even if we find it odious or if we personally condemn it. Not because that's the law in the United States — because as many people have pointed out, privately owned forums are under no obligation to uphold it — but because we believe in that ideal independently, and that's what we want to promote on our platform."

To be clear, Reddit currently does censor behaviors, like posting involuntary pornography, content that threatens or harasses people, or posts intent on "breaking Reddit."

In 2015, the site, led by then-CEO Ellen Pao (who made headlines for an unsuccessful sex discrimination lawsuit against a previous employer), unveiled a new harassment policy, defining harassment as:

Systematic and/or continued actions to torment or demean someone in a way that would make a reasonable person (1) conclude that reddit is not a safe platform to express their ideas or participate in the conversation, or (2) fear for their safety or the safety of those around them.

But even defining harassment earned ire from Reddit's cult following. Pao ultimately resigned from her position after the fallout. Reddit's users tend to be passionate about fighting what they see as censorship — and this new blocking feature is no different.

"The outcome then will be many subreddits where groupthink will dominate, and discussion will be suppressed," Donnadre, a Reddit user, posted on the site referencing the feature, the New York Times reported.

Even so, Reddit administrators are hoping this newly expanding blocking feature is the middle ground — maintaining a culture of free speech while also allowing users to shield themselves from the less palatable posts.

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