Reddit CEO Was Wrong to Prank Critics but Reddit Is Right to Ban Toxic Minority

Influential websites have a responsibility to act against online intimidation and fake news, even if Steve Huffman was wrong to change a few critical posts as a joke.

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By Peter Gasca • Dec 12, 2016 Originally published Dec 12, 2016

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Steve Huffman, co-founder and chief executive officer of Reddit Inc.

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Censorship is a word that typically arrouses aggressive and negative feelings and has long been decried as an infringement on our constitutional right to exercise free speech. And while free speech is an important liberty, there are limitations to its use. We cannot, for instance, run into a crowded movie theater and yell, "Fire."

Over the past decade, the rapid adoption and widespread use of social media platforms has really blurred the line between acceptable and unacceptable censorship.

This past November, this blurry line manifested on Reddit, an immensely popular social news aggregation, web content rating and discussion website with more than 243 million users and 150 million monthly page views, when CEO Steve Huffman edited messages posted on forums that targeted him critically.

Ironically, the ire of the commenters resulted from Huffman and the management at Reddit banning a discussion thread widely attributed to starting "pizzagate," a conspiracy theory that a DC pizza parlor was the business front of an underground sex and child abuse ring run by Hillary Clinton, John Podesta and a few other Democrats. The alleged conspiracy, based completely on fake news, prompted a man to visit the pizza restaurant with an assault rifle in search of the people behind the fictional activities.

On a recent episode of Recode Decode, Huffman justified banning the pizzagate thread, saying when users disclosed the name and location of the (innocent) pizza restaurant they breached Reddit's strict harassment policy against dissemination of any personal information.

Immediately after banishing the threads, several users took to Reddit to criticize Huffman continually and personally. On the evening before Thanksgiving, Huffman took advantage of his authority to simply prank those harassing him online by editing several of the posts, replacing his name with the name of the thread moderators.

Huffman explained that the edits were done as a prank in the "spirit of fun." He continued, "Harassment is important, and we don't want it on Reddit. I figured, I'm just going to mess with these bullies, and I actually have the capability of messing with them, so I'll do so."

After reflecting on his actions, Huffman admitted regret for what he did and accepts that the Reddit community in general had a very negative reaction to them. Huffman emphasized, "Even words said in jest have an impact."

Huffman's prank undermined the community's trust. Many users wonder how many other threads have been edited. Huffman made assurances that these actions were his alone and would not happen again, but went on to say that Reddit's policies on harassment and sharing private information would stand. In fact, Reddit has banned more than 800 of "the most toxic users" from the site, an action focused on removing a select few egregious and repeated policy offenders.

Related: Reddit to Crack Down on Abuse After CEO Is Targeted

"I don't want to take your voice away," Huffman offered. "I just want you to stop being assholes."

While many may point to Huffman's and Reddit's banning of users and discussion threads as a form of censorship, it is important to remember that, to some degree, these platforms, especially those as popular and widely used as Reddit, have a right and a responsibility to police their content. If bullying and trolling are not reasons enough for some level of censorship, the growing global issue of fake news is providing an even more important one.

Consider, for instance, that almost 50 percent of people consume their news through social media networks. This past year, several completely fabricated news stories eluded Facebook algorithms to become trending topics and are suspected by some to have had a significant effect on the last election.

The problem, however, is not just the algorithm of Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media site you use, but rather our personal bias and self-formed "echo chambers." This, however, is a problem worthy of an entirely separate discussion.

Censorship of news feeds, regardless of the reason, is a sensitive topic for many. While I personally enjoy my tailored feed, I also prefer to see news and opinions that differ with my views. Moreover, reports of Facebook allegedly suppressing conservative topics in news feeds this past year have fractured (and rightfully so) the trust that social media sites can fairly monitor and properly police users and news.

Related: Reddit's Chief Engineer Quits After Losing Faith in Site's Direction

Something, however, must be done. While we try to disregard and even poke fun at the online vitriol, the truth is that the behavior seems is becoming slowly normalized and accepted. Young adults, whose basis for traditional means of communication is limited, are even more susceptible to this normalization, and it is having a profound impact on interactions and behaviors.

Today, most of the negative online behavior is limited to a relatively small minority of users, but the potential long term impact of these behaviors is frightening. As Hoffman stated, it is important to not "let the actions of a toxic minority undermine the greater conversation." He continued, "I think you're seeing this play out in the country. A toxic minority of people who are trying to re-normalize bigotry and bad behavior are undermining this message that 50 percent of country feels disenfranchised, is left out. Separating (the toxic minority and the rest of us) is not easy."

While the technology platforms struggle to find a fix, entrepreneurs and business leaders can start making an impact simply by taking responsibility for civil discourse within their organizations and setting a mission statement and policies to encourage the same.

Individually, we all have a responsibility to protect our freedom of speech by resisting the urge to accept every story we receive through our personal echo chamber and, more important, calling foul when necessary. New services such as Fake News Monitor will help. Like Wikipedia, it crowd sources the authenticity and accuracy of websites.

Related: Reddit Lays Out New Harassment Policies

We can also fight back in a traditional way -- with our wallets. Facebook, Google and Twitter have all publicly announced a concerted effort to thwart fake news by restricting ad revenue that fake news sites can generate. Organizations like Sleeping Giants help companies stop questionable websites from generating ad dollars with its company ads.

This battle against fake news, conspiracy theories and trolling is an uphill battle. As users become more sophisticated, it will be even more difficult to stop or even reduce the spread of intolerable behaviors. Entrepreneurs, however, have never backed away from a challenge or finding creative ways to make both an impact and a profit.

In the long run, I believe we will learn how to fight back against this toxic minority that is poisoning our culture and our values. Success will not come from Reddit or Facebook alone, however, but rather from top community and business leaders who will lead by example.

Peter Gasca

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Writer

Management and Entrepreneur Consultant

Peter Gasca is an author and consultant at Peter Paul Advisors. He also serves as Executive-in-Residence and Director of the Community and Business Engagement Institute at Coastal Carolina University. His book, One Million Frogs', details his early entrepreneurial journey.

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