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Exclusive: Reddit CEO talks about fending off Russian election interference

“We've become more sophisticated,” CEO Steve Huffman said of Reddit's efforts to stop foreign influence campaigns.
NBC News' Jo Ling Kent talks with Reddit Co-founder and CEO Steve Huffman.
NBC News' Jo Ling Kent talks with Reddit co-founder and CEO Steve Huffman.NBC News

The "front page of the internet" is on the front lines of the U.S. midterm election.

Reddit, the fifth-most visited U.S. website, according to the analytics firm Alexa, has been on the offensive against suspicious accounts linked to Russia, which its CEO Steve Huffman said have attempted to put up more than 1,000 posts in 130 different communities on the website in the past month.

Huffman, in an interview with NBC News, provided a glimpse inside an “Ask Me Anything” session, in which he took scores of questions from Reddit users. He also told NBC News that Reddit is building a "war room” to deal with foreign efforts to push misinformation on the site ahead of the midterm elections.

“We have a handful of teams working on this topic here,” Huffman said. “The biggest thing we can do is to ensure the authenticity of the content of Reddit and that the behavior is not manipulative.”

While Reddit says it attracts more than 330 million people every month, the company's staff of 400 is considerably smaller than other tech companies: 30,000 at Facebook and about 3,400 at Twitter, for example.

Huffman said the "war room" was essential to be able to combine resources across the company to collaborate when working to counter foreign influence.

“They’re not simple issues,” Huffman said. “The behaviors are complex, so it takes a variety of expertise to sort them all out.”

Despite the ongoing activity from Russia, Huffman says dealing with misinformation threats has become “easier because we have people dedicated to it.”

“We've become more sophisticated,” Huffman said. “Our tools for dealing with them have increased as well.”

In the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. election, Reddit, Facebook and Twitter have each been taking steps to crack down on non-U.S. accounts that pushed misinformation and divisive political rhetoric. In April, Reddit released a list of 944 accounts it says were created by one of Russia’s troll factories, the Internet Research Agency. These accounts posted often in popular subreddits — communities within Reddit dedicated to various topics — including r/funny, r/gifs, but also r/racism and r/The_Donald, a page of supporters of President Donald Trump.

Reddit has also begun to ban certain communities from which violent threats and harassment originated. In September, the company banned the largest community focused on the fringe Qanon conspiracy theory along with 17 other subreddits associated with the topic.

Like many tech companies, Reddit began with a light touch on moderating what its users posted and how they interacted on its platform. In recent years, the company has slowly begun to ban communities focused on targeting other groups, such as in 2015 when it removed five communities, including one dedicated to transphobia and another to racism.

Image: Key Speakers At The Sooner Than You Think Technology Conference
Steve Huffman, chief executive officer and co-founder of Reddit Inc., speaks during the Sooner Than You Think' conference in the Brooklyn borough of New York, U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018.Bloomberg / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Huffman acknowledged that some comments and posts on the site remain “troubling" but that he does not believe the company will ever create a permanent set of guidelines for its users.

“I had hoped at one point to draw a line and say, ‘this is allowed,’ and ‘this is not,’” he said, “But no matter where you draw that line, there will be people living in the gray area on both sides. One of the founding principles of this country is this idea of free speech. And free speech does have restrictions.”

When asked about Reddit’s personal responsibility for the site’s content and the possibility of regulation by Congress or the federal government, Huffman said the company has to be “careful” when talking about “what people can and can’t say online.”

“The real challenge is it’s not possible to control what people believe. The best approach we can take is make sure it’s a fair discussion,” Huffman said. “I think it’s inappropriate for a private company to choose what people can and cannot believe. It’s sometimes very difficult, but we also have a higher duty to allow these debates to play out.”

Huffman said he feels what’s happening on Reddit is largely a reflection of what’s happening in the country.

“In the country, we see a lot of political tension, and we’re having a difficult discussion right now around all of those topics,” he said. “I think as citizens, we also have a responsibility to speak out against things we disagree with, and to vote against people we disagree with, and to stand up for our values."

CORRECTION (Oct. 22, 2018, 4:18 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this story misstated where NBC News interviewed Reddit CEO Steve Huffman. It was at a question-and-answer session at the company's headquarters in San Francisco, not in the company’s “War Room."