Last week, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman ignited a firestorm when he told Reddit users he would not ban the /r/the_donald subreddit, the pro-President Trump message board, over dubious claims of racism.
While fielding questions about the site’s latest transparency report, Huffman was explicitly asked about /r/the_donald. One poster asked when Huffman would review the content posted on the pro-Trump board, as the user claimed the board was “obviously breaking” the site’s rules. Huffman responded by saying the Trump subreddit is not currently breaking the rules, which prompted another user to ask whether the board’s alleged “obvious open racism” violated the site’s policies.
In his original response, Huffman claimed that racism does not violate Reddit’s rules. Rather than policing people for their language and social beliefs, Huffman said, “[w]hen users actions conflict with our content policies, we take action.”
Huffman updated his reply to reflect that while he personally condemns racism, but believes that the best course of action when faced with “repugnant views” is to fight them openly:
[...] 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.
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.
When it comes to enforcement, we separate behavior from beliefs. We cannot control people’s beliefs, but we can police their behaviors. As it happens, communities dedicated racist beliefs end up banned for violating rules we do have around harassment, bullying, and violence.
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.
As of April 16, Huffman’s reply was downvoted approximately 1,387 times, which means 1,387 users have voiced their disagreement with his position.
In fact, the opposition to Huffman’s position on “racist” content even warranted an opinion piece by Shona Ghosh in Business Insider. The headline of the article explicitly claims “Reddit's permissive attitude to racism is poisoning the internet.” In her piece, Ghosh argued that Huffman “has a scarily US-centric view of the world” when it comes to how speech should be policed online. Ghosh writes, “Free speech absolutism is not common outside the US, where people are free to spout racism thanks to the First Amendment.”
Reddit is, after all, headquartered in the United States.
Huffman’s attitude towards the /r/the_donald subreddit seems to have shifted over time. In 2016, Huffman admitted to editing posts of users on /r/the_donald board that used explicit language.
Huffman’s position on allegedly racist content is also a clarification of the decisions that were made by former Reddit interim CEO Ellen Pao. In 2015, Pao banned subreddits, including anti-fat people subreddits, by referencing the site’s anti-harassment policies. While many users heralded the deletion of the boards as a loss for freedom of expression, Huffman’s statements on racism assure users that it is not expressions of language that violate the site’s rules, but calls for mass harassment.