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The Internet Your Rights Online

Reddit and the Struggle To Detoxify the Internet ( 405

In an article published on The New Yorker this week, Andrew Marantz discusses the state of free speech on the Web and takes a look at Reddit, the internet's fourth-most-popular site, after Google, YouTube, and Facebook. Some excerpts from the story: On November 23, 2016, shortly after President Trump's election, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman was at his desk, in San Francisco, perusing the site. It was the day before Thanksgiving. Reddit's administrators had just deleted a subreddit called r/Pizzagate, a forum for people who believed that high-ranking staffers of Hillary Clinton's Presidential campaign, and possibly Clinton herself, were trafficking child sex slaves. The reason for the ban, according to Reddit's administrators, was not the beliefs of people on the subreddit, but the way they'd behaved -- specifically, their insistence on publishing their enemies' private phone numbers and addresses, a clear violation of Reddit's rules. [...] Some of the conspiracy theorists left Reddit and reunited on Voat, a site made by and for the users that Reddit sloughs off. Other Pizzagaters stayed and regrouped on r/The_Donald, a popular pro-Trump subreddit. Throughout the Presidential campaign, The_Donald was a hive of Trump boosterism. By this time, it had become a hermetic subculture, full of inside jokes and ugly rhetoric. The community's most frequent commenters, like the man they'd helped propel to the Presidency, were experts at testing boundaries. Within minutes, they started to express their outrage that Pizzagate had been deleted.

Redditors are pseudonymous, and their pseudonyms are sometimes prefaced by "u," for "username." Huffman's is Spez. As he scanned The_Donald, he noticed that hundreds of the most popular comments were about him: "fuck u/spez", "u/spez is complicit in the coverup". One commenter simply wrote "u/SPEZ IS A CUCK," in bold type, a hundred and ten times in a row. Huffman, alone at his computer, wondered whether to respond. "I consider myself a troll at heart," he said later. "Making people bristle, being a little outrageous in order to add some spice to life -- I get that. I've done that." Privately, Huffman imagined The_Donald as a misguided teen-ager who wouldn't stop misbehaving. "If your little brother flicks your ear, maybe you ignore it," he said. "If he flicks your ear a hundred times, or punches you, then maybe you give him a little smack to show you're paying attention."

Although redditors didn't yet know it, Huffman could edit any part of the site. He wrote a script that would automatically replace his username with those of The_Donald's most prominent members, directing the insults back at the insulters in real time: in one comment, "Fuck u/Spez" became "Fuck u/Trumpshaker"; in another, "Fuck u/Spez" became "Fuck u/MAGAdocious." The_Donald's users saw what was happening, and they reacted by spinning a conspiracy theory that, in this case, turned out to be true. "Manipulating the words of your users is fucked," a commenter wrote.

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Reddit and the Struggle To Detoxify the Internet

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  • by IWantMoreSpamPlease ( 571972 ) on Tuesday March 13, 2018 @01:23PM (#56253355) Homepage Journal

    With unlimited up/down modding, which just reinforces the statement above.
    Ars Technica has recently gone the same way and it's brought a once great site down because of it. Contrary ideas get downmodded into oblivion and it stifles the discussion of controversial topics.

    A bad thing to do.

    • by Solandri ( 704621 ) on Tuesday March 13, 2018 @01:43PM (#56253489)
      That's the problem with allowing downvotes.

      Allowing only upvotes means once an idea passes a certain threshold number of supporters, then it can be highlighted. But if you allow downvotes, then ideas popular only with the minority get downvoted back into oblivion by the majority. Resulting in a system where only the majority's ideas survive to be highlighted.

      It seems like such a minor thing, but it creates a vastly different environment. One toxic to the premise of democracy - that new, disruptive and unpopular ideas can gradually build up support until they supplant the old majority viewpoint. That can't happen if the majority essentially has veto power over any new ideas contrary to their long-held beliefs.

      As bad as hate speech is, if your underlying premise is that on balance people are good and that if given all sides of an argument they will usually make the right choice, then the proper way to fight hate speech isn't to ban it. It's to counter it by informing people of the contrary arguments. Otherwise you throw the speck which will grow into a baby out with the bathwater.
      • by MightyYar ( 622222 ) on Tuesday March 13, 2018 @01:56PM (#56253607)

        Downvotes could be used to identify controversial ideas - often the most interesting parts of the discussion. A troll will have mostly downvotes. A platitude will be overwhelmingly positive. The real gritty, interesting stuff will have both up and downvotes.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          The problem with a simple up/down is it allows no classification. At least Slashdot separates by Troll, Flamebait & Offtopic.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Nope, not a problem in the slightest.

        You seem to think Reddit / Slashdot / Ars / any site have the monopoly of forums. No, this is not the case. Anyone with a few hundred bucks lying around can quite easily start their own forum and host said "disruptive voices".

        Also, you'd have a stronger point if the article weren't about doxxing people and really obvious lies tied to a specific person (Pizzagate / Hillary). Constructive conversations about gun control? Debates about abortion? Those are topics worth

      • by quantaman ( 517394 ) on Tuesday March 13, 2018 @03:31PM (#56254417)

        ./ seems to do well allowing downvotes. There's certainly bias on certain subjects, but in general you find high quality comments on both sides.

        I think technology (the moderation system) plays a role, but as tech people I think we tend to overemphasize technology and understate the role of editors in establishing a site's culture. The /. editors simply don't post the sorts of stories and summaries that attract trolls and extremists, as a result the people who mod tend to be more reasoned and open to opposing ideas.

        Sites who post controversial stories to drive page views are going to have lower quality comments because that's the people they attract and the tone they set.

        Sites who allow users to post stories are going to end up with sections that are cesspools.

        I don't think you can fix reddit with the right moderation system, whenever users control the content there's always going to be problematic content.

    • No, voting is not a problem.

      The problem is Reddit does not allow anyone the option to use Reddit with voting turned off.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        That site is called 4Chan and you can still visit it if you wish.

        • by aevan ( 903814 )
          4chan isn't nearly as censor/echoy-free as you think. There is a reason for the 'he does it for free' meme.
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Luckyo ( 1726890 )

        You can set the site to show you all posts regardless of score. I know I do. And then you just ignore the score. That said, it is an effective tool to attack the majority who don't mess with settings and just use it with default settings.

        My biggest problem with reddit however is that it's a platform that is essentially in hands of clear cut ideologues, who are segregating the site into system where they constrain certain viewpoints to certain subreddits only via admin assistance (i.e. shadow bans). That res

    • by apoc.famine ( 621563 ) <apoc.famine@gmail . c om> on Tuesday March 13, 2018 @02:13PM (#56253775) Journal

      Reddit is especially insane with its modding. It's baffling, really, how they never attempted to fix the utterly broken system they started off with.

      1) Unlimited up/down modding

      2) No meta-modding

      3) No sock-puppet control

      4) No effective karma of any sort for good posts or good modding

      If they had addressed any two of those four, I think it would be a totally different environment. As it is, it's designed to be abused by those with the most time and single-minded focus on their hands, and there's nothing anyone can do about it except fight fire with fire. And for most people, they don't have that sort of time and energy.

      Having suffered under a number of modding systems in my life, I attempted to come up with one that deals with gaming the system, prevents echo chambers, rewards positive contributions, and doesn't overly disrupt the flow of communication. And you know what? I don't think it's possible. Sure, you can get most of those things in a modding system, but it's damn hard to get them all. And what I modeled which seemed to be close was so opaque that it would likely lead to tons of censorship and conspiracy complaints. /.'s modding system really isn't half bad, compared to all the others out there. And having tried to come up with a better system, I can sort-of see why so many sites just gave up and implemented a known broken and bad system.

      Still, Reddit's is about the worst. I think even 4chan's is better.

      • I think Slashdot really stumbled across the formula - modding is limited, metamodding is a thing no one does, downmods are capped, upmods are capped. "2" represents debate, "5" represents the majority, "-1" represents the silenced, "1" represents that no one cares enough to mod it. This post will be a "1", and I'm okay with that. Part of the problem on /r/politics is that an opinion which is in the 40% minority gets easily modded to "negative and silenced from discussion" quickly.

        As an example, consider

    • Contrary ideas get downmodded into oblivion and it stifles the discussion of controversial topics.

      A bad thing to do.

      The problem is the people who are the most motivated to "detoxify" the internet want this to happen. It's just a matter of what is considered "controversial." Not coincidentally, this is why I have yet to kick the Slashdot habit, no matter how annoying the crusading has become.

    • by ( 4475953 ) on Tuesday March 13, 2018 @02:48PM (#56254083)

      Sorry, I don't buy this. I'm following online discussions of controversial topics for more than 20 years now, and I cannot recall many instances where these would really and genuinely be enlightening or beneficial to anyone. This is extremely rare. The best thing you can get from such discussions is unreliable, superficial knowledge by testimony that you have to check manually with other sources anyway before you can trust it. In other words, I don't think that online forums are good for discussing controversial topics. Even the local pub fares better in terms of civility, reasonableness, politeness and overall friendliness, listening to each other, rational exchange of standpoints and ideas, constructive dialogue, etc.

      On Usenet we used killfiles, they were a somewhat of a solution to keep the crackpots and conspiracy theorists at a distance, though not ideal. Centralized forums like Slashdot don't want to empower users, so they don't give them the same functionality.

      In my opinion, civil public online discourse with anonymity or pseudonymity is only possible with a combination of heavy moderation, temporary IP banning, and shadow-banning. It has nothing to do with left or right or freedom of speech or anything like that, it's just a matter of common sense and extensive experience that without moderation and bans the number of toxic shitposters will raise above a critical threshold. Trolls and crackpots, whether they do it for fun or because they have mental problems or political agendas, have way more time at hand than reasonable people. This is a fact of life.

      Forums with less moderation work fine in smaller communities oriented towards common goals. But even these usually need quite drastic measures against hostile takeovers at hand - see IRC wars, etc.

      Echo chambers: These exist, but people who are susceptible to becoming seriously influenced in their life by their online participation in a "circle jerk echo chamber" have much more of a problem than just these echo chambers. Most people do not have this problem. Nowadays there is 0 problem of getting good information on practically anything. On the contrary, we're swamped in insanely accurate and fast news, which leads to a distorted negative perception of reality. Echo chambers are only a problem for certain personalities who would find their echo chamber in real life if they don't find it online.

      I've been on Slashdot under many different handles almost since its inception, and I would say that in the past 5 years or so it has failed. Why? Probably just because more people are online, and you only get along with most people personally, not by "discussing controversial topics" but by dealing with them in daily interactions. There are still forums that work, reddit is not bad in fact, and I spend more time on another forum that I do not want to mention in order not to get trolls any ideas.

      • It's the editors (Score:5, Interesting)

        by tomhath ( 637240 ) on Tuesday March 13, 2018 @03:44PM (#56254503)

        I've been on Slashdot under many different handles almost since its inception, and I would say that in the past 5 years or so it has failed. Why? Probably just because more people are online, and you only get along with most people personally, not by "discussing controversial topics" but by dealing with them in daily interactions.

        I agree that slashdot has failed, but i think the reason is different. Back in its heyday, stories in the firehose which were voted up made the front page. Today, voting doesn't really matter; the editors find and post stories according to their own agenda (e.g. Trump bashing and SWJ stories). That filter/selection process by the editors far outweighs any moderation.

    • by zifn4b ( 1040588 )

      With unlimited up/down modding, which just reinforces the statement above

      If Slashdot comments were moderated like Reddit I suspect you'd be well over 100.

  • [] Good luck changing human nature and all. A noble goal overshadowed only by its ludicrousness.
  • I wonder if he named the script

  • by Karmashock ( 2415832 ) on Tuesday March 13, 2018 @01:43PM (#56253497)

    Do bikers mix with the cocktail crowd when they go out for dinner on the town? They do not.

    Do teenage girls go to the same concerts as 80 year old women? They do not.

    We are defined not merely by what we are but what we are not. Various ideologies are defined in part by their opposition to other ideologies. Given world views conflict.

    The mistake of the social networking people is putting everyone in the same room. That was the error.

    Nazis are going to exist.
    Jihadis are going to exist.
    Communists are going to exist.
    Evangelical Christians are going to exist.

    Etc etc etc... You don't put them all in the same social network. You segregate.

    You can have common areas for mainstream groups but keep places open for fringe groups to go or they'll intrude into the mainstream space given no alternative.

    Also do not presume to control who believes what by controlling the flow of information.

    As the man said: "The internet views censorship as damage and routes around it."


    Provide space for NON-ILLEGAL fringe groups to congregate and leave them unmolested in those spaces. Do not censor people.

    These are the mistakes. Fix them and the issue goes away.

    • Nazis are going to exist. Jihadis are going to exist. Communists are going to exist. Evangelical Christians are going to exist.

      Odd grouping since only Christians are responsible for building things and improving the world. Unless you subscribe to unsupported yet trendy views like religion has killed more people than anything else.

      • by darkain ( 749283 )

        Correct. Communist Soviet Russia's Tetris was all about blocks falling from the sky and destroying all the other blocks below.

    • Do teenage girls go to the same concerts as 80 year old women? They do not.

      Bad example []

    • by Optic7 ( 688717 )

      What you say makes some sense, as long as people are only talking smack. The only problem is that TFS says that the pizzagate reddit was banned for repeated doxxing of people. Should that be allowed anywhere, even segregated fringe groups? I would imagine that any US-based business would never allow this, as the potential liability is insane. Refer to the recent mistaken identity SWATting death.

  • Once you have your own Reddit, within that you can ban, unban and mute people for whatever reason you want. You can delete any post. You can be a tyrant.

  • I find it better to ignore those dark souls or even better laugh at them. Yeah defiantly laugh at them.

  • "Although redditors didn't yet know it, Huffman could edit any part of the site."

    This is pretty silly. It's their site, of course they can edit and delete anything they want to.
    Why would anyone believe otherwise?

  • by brennz ( 715237 ) on Tuesday March 13, 2018 @02:09PM (#56253727)
    Reddit has been waging a war against free speech, and against certain demographics, for the sake of political correctness, for many years now.

    Merely recounting some of the facts of journalistic ethical missteps with regards to Gamergate was sufficient cause for massive Orwellian Bannings, Shadowbannings, and Mass censorship. They will also do the same across Reddit for terrorist bombings that dare to mention a privileged group that bombed or killed, such as with the London terrorist knifings, or the Orlando Massacre []

    If you bring up inconvenient facts that are not politically correct, you can expect to receive the same treatment. You can also expect to have the Inquisitors of SRS [] downvote brigading your small subreddit. SRS is quite open about being against free speech, and actively opposing non-SJW outlooks. SRS receive active admin support, so they are rarely, if ever, punished. If you resist Admin control over a subreddit, your subreddit is removed.

    Furthermore, there is a massive conspiracy of leftist moderators [] that, in cahoots with the Administrators of Reddit, actively attempt to squelch and censor the views of the Right, and Libertarians. This is not unlike the situation with Wikipedia, and the moderation wars that have occurred there, or the regular invasion of SJW material here, into Slashdot.

    Why is this?

    Politically Correct speech stands in direct opposition to Free Speech.
    The privatization of the Commons
    Corporate attempts to push Feel Good communication codes everywhere, to sell More Advertising.
    Demonization of Men (White & Asian mainly), like Google []
    Active attempts to silence political opposition outside the Silicon Valley Worldview
    • by burtosis ( 1124179 ) on Tuesday March 13, 2018 @02:43PM (#56254023)
      Just wanted to let you know this is strong with the neoliberal left and almost nonexistent with the progressive left. I definately lean progressive left to the point I can't stomach mainstream democratic candidates and I, like most progressives, aren't on board with SJW facist bullshit in general. People who trample on 1st amendment rights in the name of corporate protections to hate and discriminate disgust me as I hope they would disgust any American.
  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna ( 970587 ) on Tuesday March 13, 2018 @02:12PM (#56253765) Journal
    Reddit reflects what the people are thinking at deep levels, reveals their innermost thoughts, unrestrained by the need to wear masks, protected by anonymity. Yes, anonymity provides some cover for the malicious trolls. But not all of them are trolls.

    What we need to detoxify is our minds, not Reddit. We can pretend everything is hunky dory. These people exist. Most of them would be could be persuaded. We ignore them at our peril. They vote. In large numbers. In off year elections.

  • by karlandtanya ( 601084 ) on Tuesday March 13, 2018 @02:14PM (#56253783)

    "Manipulating the words of your users is fucked,"

    Assuming "fucked" means it's harmful in some meaningful way beyond the complainant not liking it...
    My first reaction is it's childish, not "fucked".

    Was Huffman's intention to "put words in the mouth" of the poster?
    Could this sort of thing expose Huffman's victim to some kind of liability for speech (slander, libel, incitement, etc.)?
    Does this sort of thing detract from the credibility of the fourms?

    Yeah...after thinking about it for *just* a few minutes, it seems both childish and "fucked".

    Huffman says he considers himself a "troll", but in this situation, he's a bully and guilty of abuse of authority.
    Certainly not a troll of any pre-September finesse or art.

    Legitimate authority--even over a forum that you have created and own--can only be exercised for the benefit of *everyone* (collectively everyone the group--not that it has to be something each and every individual approves of).

    Huffman pulled rank to win an argument. He bullied his users and called into question anything anybody posts on his site.

    Yah, I'd have to say it's both childish and fucked.

  • by HeckRuler ( 1369601 ) on Tuesday March 13, 2018 @02:37PM (#56253969)

    Reddit and the Struggle To Detoxify the Internet

    The CEO wrote a script that redirected insults to him towards prominent members of a group.

    Does anyone not see how these two statements don't jive with each other?

    Let's say you're a real city slicker, and you're travelling between cities and you stop in at a rural diner for a bite to eat. Or you're some other sort of outsider. Any sort of scenario where a bunch of people are going to see how "people like you" are going to behave. This is going to form stereotypes. To an extent, you are representing the group. Now.... do you spit on the trucker, throw your drink at the waitress, scream wildly, and run away from the bill? Do you purposely antagonize them?

    Now, these guys are douchbags, sure. They're certainly not initiating a calm and rational debate. And you know what? I can excuse a bit of tomfoolery and funny shenanigans. But as far as "detoxifying the Internet".... I have to agree, manipulating the words of your users because they said mean things to you is pretty fucked, and it's really not helping.

  • by Millennium ( 2451 ) on Tuesday March 13, 2018 @02:43PM (#56254025)

    The Internet was built by people who didn't understand the difference between ostracism and bullying. Neither did anybody else at the time, and if anything, people struggle even harder to tell them apart nowadays. This lack of understanding causes terrible damage in all sorts of ways, most of which are beyond the scope of this thread, buy I'll point to Geek Social Fallacy #1 ("Ostracizers are evil") as one of the major factors behind what happened next.

    Essentially, the Internet has no effective way to ostracize people because it was created by people who mistook it for bullying. But as a result, it is being taken over by people who really, really need to be ostracized, and who often are in offline contexts. They come online because it's easier to escape off to The Great Enabler rather than confront the reasons nobody wants them around, but the latter is what they really need to be doing. And we have no way to force them into it now.

  • by Prien715 ( 251944 ) <agnosticpope&gmail,com> on Tuesday March 13, 2018 @02:56PM (#56254135) Journal

    There's a difference between admin and user moderation.

    If I were to post on this site about how the Holocaust was faked, I'd be downmodded into oblivion (I hope). On certain subreddits, you could be upmodded for such things. And sure, you can believe that Hillary Clinton is running a child sex trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor, and that's all fun and games until someone starts shooting a gun inside [].

    Like many on this site, I'm a proponent of free speech -- but with user moderation to prevent stupidity. One of the problems with Reddit is that subreddit nature creates echo chambers. As many have pointed out before, websites are private businesses and have a right to kick people out whom they don't like. If someone walks into your pizza parlor and accusing you of running a child sex trafficking ring, you can ask them to leave -- and that's not censorship -- any more than it is a bar kicking out a rowdy patron.

  • I have long thought that a really good moderation system would allow a handful of reasonable people to outright edit what was being posted, to change tone and make more reasonable what someone was saying.

    It would however be hard to find people neutral enough about some subjects to be able to edit properly though, and not punish one side over the other as so often happens when a small group of people have editorial control.

    It just seems like if it's done well, it could be a really great way to let people spe

  • spez *is* a cuck (Score:4, Insightful)

    by devloop ( 983641 ) on Tuesday March 13, 2018 @03:59PM (#56254581)
    "One commenter simply wrote "u/SPEZ IS A CUCK," in bold type, a hundred and ten times in a row."

    Just because the delivery is off, it does not mean the message is wrong.

"Nuclear war can ruin your whole compile." -- Karl Lehenbauer