Reddit is in the midst of a painful growth process. The fact that the site has played host to repugnant, often violent strains of misogyny and racism has made it a difficult sell for people beyond its traditional user base, as well as for many advertisers.
As former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao put it in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, in order for websites like Reddit to attract mainstream audiences and big-budget advertisers, they must “hide or remove the ugly.”
In one of his first acts upon his return to Reddit, current CEO Steve Huffman made the decision to attempt to hide some of the ugliest portions of his site instead of removing them. That decision was wrong for Reddit, its business partners, and society at large.
You can’t hide hate. As we can clearly see on Reddit right now, the people who harbor it can’t help but let it out. Racists on Reddit have never intended to stay contained in their “subreddits,” or designated forums; white nationalists have even provided a template for using Reddit to recruit for their cause.
The tone of the site is increasingly ugly as a result; hate can be found far from spaces dedicated to it. Even subreddits as innocuous as /r/SomethingIMade are not immune; last week, a popular thread about a handmade toaster was derailed when the original poster sought to use his newfound popularity to share a video “summarizing the impending danger Europe is in.”
Quarantining that user’s subreddits does not prevent him from using the rest of the site. Even banning the hub of the most notorious offenders, as Reddit did last week when it banned CoonTown and a few related subreddits, cannot solve the entire problem in the absence of a clear policy banning hate speech. Those tens of thousands of users are still on the site, harassing and even threatening other users as well as developing a successor to CoonTown.
Obviously, Reddit and companies that can be tied to it as it continues to host hate speech are risking serious reputational harm that could lead to loss of revenue. Generation Y in particular has a fondness for “voting with their dollars,” and they have more than enough information at their fingertips to enable them to reject companies that use their dollars in ways they find abhorrent. But hate speech also poses a long-term growth problem for Reddit. As an astute Redditor pointed out in a thread last week, the decision to host hate speech on Reddit forces all Redditors to participate in a debate about racism, whether they want to or not.
Most people these days consider the humanity of people of color and their right to live in their own homes to be settled questions. To be constantly compelled to argue with people who think that, for example, African-Americans should be forced to live in separate neighborhoods or move to Africa, is obnoxious to them. The toaster example linked above is instructive.
To an anti-racist, the negative responses to that comment are heartening, but it should make Reddit and its partners nervous; if this trend continues, people who are not susceptible to radical ideology will find Reddit increasingly useless and leave in droves.
Those users will leave behind angry, disaffected people who are not particularly appealing to most advertisers. Such people do not trust mainstream media or big business, and they are not likely to click or buy. Banning hate speech on Reddit is a clear case where the right thing to do is also the smart thing to do, from a business perspective.
But ultimately, racism is not just bad for business; it leads inevitably to violence, and that cannot be tolerated. The recent massacre of nine black churchgoers by a young man radicalized by hate speech online is a salient rebuttal to the argument that hate speech is harmless.
The violence and needless suffering so many people of color are burdened with are not always as noticeable as they have been this past year, but that suffering has been with us since our nation’s founding, and it is supported by ideologies of the kind Reddit harbors in its “hidden” chambers of hate. That is unacceptable, especially for a company that wants to be a force for good in the world.
So even if Reddit could quarantine the fastest-growing, most engaged hate community on the web behind a wall, those of us committed to improving society would not let it. You can’t hide from the Internet, and you can’t hide hate.
Casey Stevens is a member of ColorofChange.org and is leading the effort to stop hate speech on Reddit.