Reddit on Wednesday announced reforms designed to crack down on trolls and punish the most abusive members of its community.
Reddit has identified hundreds of the most “toxic users,” said CEO Steve Huffman, who founded the site 11 years ago while in college, and it has devised a plan to take action against them.
Consequence for unacceptable behavior could range from warnings to timeouts to permanent bans.
The announcement of the new strategy follows a recent incident in which Huffman was caught editing the comments of users who had insulted him personally on r/The_Donald, a subreddit community that supports President-Elect Donald Trump. This particular subreddit has been at the center of a controversy over reports that users employed aggressive tactics to push pro-Trump content to the top of the site.
Given the highly contentious recent election, many Reddit users have dropped any pretense of civility, and Huffman stepped in after being attacked personally. He since has apologized and promised not to edit users posts again.
Reddit’s latest move serendipitously mirrors the current plotline of Comedy Central’s hit animated series South Park, which depicts Internet trolls as having become a serious global issue. Reddit’s newly announced changes appear to mark a significant departure from its limited self-policing by community moderators.
Like many online forums, Reddit has relied on volunteer moderators who oversee subreddits to keep the peace and to keep would-be trolls in check. Instead, it now will take a much more direct approach when monitoring conversations, doling out punishments to those who are seen as particularly abusive.
“The problem is that the ugly side of freedom of speech all too often comes out online,” explained Roger Entner, principal analyst at Recon Analytics.
The First Amendment — and its guarantee of freedom of speech — protects individuals from government restrictions that include voicing one’s opinion, he told TechNewsWorld.
It doesn’t apply universally however.
“What people don’t understand — or don’t want to understand — is that their right to express their opinion does not extend to a private platform like Reddit, where the platform owner has the right to set the terms and conditions under which you can voice your opinions,” Entner explained.
Friendly and Hostile Discussions
One aspect of any Internet forum is that it is a place of discussion, and that means everyone is not going to agree. Problems arise when disagreements veer into hostility. That said, Reddit’s success is attributable in part to its practice of allowing a fair amount of arguing, as that keeps people on both sides of an issue coming back for more.
“Entertainment is built on conflict,” said Josh Crandall, principal analyst at Netpop Research.
“From one dimension, Reddit can be considered entertainment for users who spend their evenings skimming through their feeds,” he told TechNewsWorld.
“When trolling isn’t directed at them or the issues they care about, it’s easy for the bystanders to chuckle at the sarcasm or other nasty statements being hurled across the Internet,” Crandall added.
Rise of the Trolls
The ability the Internet gives people to say anything they want and hide behind relative anonymity has given rise to trolls, who often simply want to make trouble without adding anything to a conversation. However, actual conversations can turn into flame wars too, with participants adopting a troll-like attitude.
“When people are in front of their own device, alone, typing away, they feel insulated from any reproach about what they are saying,” explained Crandall.
“There is no consequence to sharing socially inappropriate statements and positions that are very hurtful to others,” he added.
“Facebook has mitigated this issue somewhat through requiring people to use their own identity,” Crandall noted. “Reddit, through use of aliases, allow people who troll even greater anonymity, and distance from the people who they target.”
Fighting the Trolls
The issue of trolling isn’t unique to Reddit, but because discussion is key to the platform, it is one that it must resolve or risk losing users who are disgusted by the atmosphere.
“Reddit has to create a platform where people exchange their opinions, not one where so much acrimony and discord is created that one side of the argument has just had it and leaves,” said Entner.
“If you are any kind of decent human people, the way people are treated on these platforms is disturbing, and that can drive people away,” said Frederick Lane, a social media industry consultant.
This is why the response from Reddit could be seen as a way for it “to future proof their platforms, so that if someone comes up with a better system they won’t see mass exodus of users,” he told TechNewsWorld. “This is much more about the marketplace than legal risk.”
The next step for Reddit may be to remove the most toxic elements — the ones that are there only for the sake of disruption and destruction.
“If Reddit as a company wants to stay in business and continue to provide a valuable service to a large audience, they need to clean it up,” said social media consultant Lon Safko.
“Bashers and trolls are not entitled to the freedom of speech on Reddit or my blog or anywhere a company should exercise their rights to maintain what they feel as proper etiquette,” he told TechNewsWorld.
For its part, Reddit should try to “keep the discourse going at an intense and engaged level,” said Entner — “but below where the normal people just pick up their ball and go to a different playground and let the toxic elements play by themselves.”