Social Networking

Reddit Flaps Gums at Harassers

Reddit on Thursday announced a new policy prohibiting harassment and other personal attacks on its site.

It defined 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.”

Victims can report a harassing message, post or comment, as well as the harasser, by sending an email to [email protected] or modmailing Reddit , including any relevant external links.

“We are updating how we apply existing policies to address new types of harassment on Reddit,” company spokesperson Heather Wilson told TechNewsWorld.

“The community wants these improvements,” she said. “They told us in Redditor survey data from March 2015. We believe less harassment means more participation, leading to more free expression, better conversations, and better communities.”

You’ll Do What, Again?

Reddit did not indicate what action it would take against harassers, a point that sparked intense discussion.

Instead, it promised a thorough investigation by the company — not moderators — and a response based on the nature of the harassment.

There is an indication that harassers might be banned — Reddit said banned users would be able to contact it and discuss the situation.

“Reddit can simply excise an account for violating their policies and, in fact, imply they will,” said Mike Jude, a research manager with Stratecast at Frost & Sullivan.

“Stating policies and then dropping those who violate them is pretty mild,” he told TechNewsWorld.

There’s nothing to stop someone who has been banned from creating a new account shortly afterward.

Free Speech Issues

Some responders to Reddit’s announcement suggested antiharassment policies would curb free speech.

That goes to the heart of the long-running debate over free speech on the Internet: Is the Internet a public place, which therefore implies unrestricted free speech, or can private companies offering Internet-based services control how they are used?

“Free speech doesn’t apply here,” contended Jude. Reddit “is a private exchange that’s open to users as a free service. If you want to use it, you have to agree to their rules — and the rules can be completely arbitrary.”

Reddit long has held itself to be a supporter of free speech, which has led to the establishment of several racist and sexist forums on its site.

One of its forums, the “jailbait” subreddit, was criticized on CNN by Anderson Cooper, though that caused a spike in traffic to the forum, exceeding more than 1.7 million views on the day of the report. That forum subsequently was closed by Reddit administrators in 2011.

Behind Reddit’s Changes

There’s speculation that Reddit’s change is being driven by interim CEO Ellen Pao, who joined the company in April after filing a discrimination suit against her previous employer, Kleiner Perkins. She lost that suit.

However, Pao’s influence may not be the driving force — Reddit had begun making changes earlier.

The company in January released its first annual transparency report, and in March updated its privacy policy to address revenge porn.

The change probably was driven by “market forces — specifically the fear of litigation,” Frost’s Jude opined.

“Harassment has only recently come to the attention of trial lawyers,” he explained. “Litigation will increase as lawyers figure out ways to take the social media sites to court.”

Reddit’s putting a stake in the ground now “is a good tactical effort,” he commented. “Whether it’s sufficient to dissuade a lawyer from forming a class and going to court remains to be seen.”

The question of profitability also may be exerting pressure on Reddit.

The company raised US$50 million in funding last year, and it likely is being pressured to become profitable.

Racist and sexist postings on its site might drive away potential advertisers and subscribers.

Richard Adhikari

Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where it's all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeon's Law still hold true? You can connect with Richard on Google+.

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