Reddit CEO Steve Huffman recently made clear the platform's hate speech policy: Open racism and slurs are technically permitted — but "not welcome."
Huffman's statement came about in a conversation thread about the activity of Russian trolls on the site. At one point, a user named clomyster shifted the discussion toward Reddit's policy on monitoring racism
“I need clarification on something: Is obvious open racism, including slurs, against reddits rules or not,” the user asked.
“It’s not,” Huffman, who writes under the handle "spez," responded.
He went on to explain that Reddit separates "behavior from beliefs." He was referring to the company's policy that allows racist language but doesn't allow harassment, bullying, or threats.
As far as far social media platforms go, this position puts Reddit out at sea on a lonely ice floe. As The Verge points out, most major sites, like YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram, have very explicit hate speech guidelines and will quickly boot users for it.
Understandably, Huffman's ambiguous initial statement caused some uproar among Reddit users. The CEO's post was "downvoted" 1,400 times. Many commenters called out the platform's Trump-centric "r/The_Donald" forum, where they said the chatter often crosses the line into racism.
By Thursday, Huffman quickly wrote an addendum to his original comment.
"To be perfectly clear, while racism itself isn’t against the rules, it’s not welcome here. I try to stay neutral on most political topics, but this isn’t one of them," he said. "I believe the best defense against racism and other repugnant views, both on Reddit and in the world, is instead of trying to control what people can and cannot say through rules, is to repudiate these views in a free conversation, and empower our communities to do so on Reddit."
He went on to say:
"There exist repugnant views in the world. As a result, these views may also exist on Reddit. I don’t want them to exist on Reddit any more than I want them to exist in the world, but I believe that presenting a sanitized view of humanity does us all a disservice. It’s up to all of us to reject these views."
It's important to note, as Huffman demonstrates, that the conversation about how to construct open digital platforms is separate from the conversation around racism and bigotry generally. The question, "How should we monitor a digital platform for racism" (answer: we're not sure) is different from the question, "Is racism bad" (answer: yes).
At the least, users should recognize what a difficult jam all these social media companies are in: They have to monitor, through human administrators or AI, the conversations of a user population that is larger than the population of many countries (542 million in Reddit's case, upward of 2 billion in Facebook's).
They further have to reconcile the "free and open" ethos that spawned these tech giants 20 years ago with the fact that their platforms are now woven into the fabric of society — and come to terms with their responsibility in it.
So what is Reddit's responsibility? The answer is not so easy.
Racism lives ultimately in the minds of those who are truly racist — not in the house of ones and zeros that Reddit has built. Racists should be called out wherever they lurk, of course, and in this case, Huffman seems confident that either they will be called out by Reddit users or will be regulated by the rules set by individual Reddit forums. (And in any case, Huffman points out that many racists on Reddit ultimately get booted for breaking the site's rules against harassment and bullying.)
On the other hand, there is a role for corporate responsibility. As Facebook is discovering in its ongoing attempt to put out the Cambridge Analytica fire, these social websites have become virtual societies in which people's hearts, minds, beliefs, and politics come to bear.
In a way, these companies are coming to grips with the same dualism that has for centuries lived in government: balancing freedom vs. order, liberty vs. safety, and the attempt to square ancient principles with modern sensibilities.