Seventh Annual International Symposium on Digital Ethics →

Is Reddit Ethical?

  • AuthorKate Knibbs
  • Published Thursday, November 1st, 2012
  • Comments8

Back when the Internet required modems and AOL user names – around the same time Vanilla Ice was un-ironically cool and Bill was the most powerful Clinton — message forums reigned as hubs for online communities, and sites like 4Chan drew active, enthusiastic memberships.

Predating social media, these communities reveled in fringe culture and relished the relative anonymity granted by handles obfuscating their real-life identities. The consensus among these chat rooms favored the idea of compartmentalizing one’s online avatar and real life identity into separate spheres.

Online communities are significantly more sophisticated now, but Reddit, the massively popular forum referred to as “the front page of the Internet” and recently privy to an exclusive, interactive interview with the President of the United States, still clings to several aspects of Web 1.0, eschewing cutting-edge web design in favor of a stripped-down forum setup reminiscent of much older websites.

And though the Website is owned by Advance Publications–also the owner of Conde Nast–Reddit hews close to its no-frills aesthetic and does not shy away from fostering sub-groups devoted to anti-authority, mayhem and darkness in many forms. Not exactly what you’d expect from a website technically in the same family as VanityFair.com.

Reddit hurtles towards the mainstream, despite its rough-hewn look and embrace of the fringe. It draws over 18 million  unique users a month. It is often mentioned in the same breath as Twitter and Facebook, and users have played integral roles in breaking important news, including this past summer’s Colorado theater shootings. And it is at the center of a maelstrom capturing the attention of the New York Times and other major media outlets.

Unfortunately, Reddit is currently embroiled in a controversy exposing some problems with its underlying principles. Following proper “Reddiquette” is extremely important to the community, and this guideline presents a reasonable set of conditions for using the site and shows users what the community stands for: it allows the creation of “subreddits” ran on a mostly autonomous level by appointed moderators. These smaller forums are places where anything and everything is allowed as long as it is legal, which means things outside of the realm of accepted taste are fine insofar as they do not break laws.

This tolerant statute means people can discuss rape, incest and a number of provocative topics without worrying about being shut down, and Reddit cultivates a framework of understanding in which user avatars are not meant to lead back to personal information or the exposure of their offline identities. This edict stands in stark contrast to the way some other popular social media sites operate.

For instance, Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr banned “Thinspiration” images, or images of extremely thin people used to spur extreme dieters onward, because they may negatively affect vulnerable people, despite the fact they are licit. Web users keen to preserve unfettered expression—even about potentially combustible topics—derided these content bans, as they are undeniably censorious. Reddit sought a different approach and maintained its devotion to allowing legal content of all kinds, including a purposefully vile subreddit called r/spacedicks, which specializes in deliberately repulsive and perverse content like photos of dead babies.

Eventually, though, even Reddit caved to some demands. Its leadership made the decision to ban its controversial subreddit “Jailbait” because, although the approved images on the thread were not illegal, the group’s raison d’etre was explicitly to sexualize underage girls, which legitimated the idea of child pornography and molestation.

Even after that group disbanded, other salacious communities cropped up, including one called “r/creepshots” which published what are known as “up skirt” images, which was not guided by the age of the subjects but rather by whether you could see up their skirts (many were still underage). Since these images did not feature nudity they were not subject to the Video Voyeurism Act of 2004 because the Act only outlawed nudity.

Websites like Jezebel drew attention to these subreddits, which were not indicative of the spirit of many other communities but which comprised a shockingly robust percentage of traffic hits for Reddit.

Reddit did not welcome the attention, and tensions between the Reddit community and Gawker Media, of which Jezebel is a part, boiled over into all-out warfare when Gawker reporter Adrian Chen published the identity of Michael Brutsch, one of Reddit’s most notorious moderators, who went by the handle “Violentacrez” on the website.

Violentacrez moderated the r/jailbait subreddit and helped grow the r/creepshots subreddit, while presiding over other unsavory corners of Reddit’s heterogeneous community. And though his behavior was looked at askance by many Reddit users, legion members of the community came out in full force to defend him from “doxing,” the term for revealing the personal identity of an Internet moniker. Chen’s decision to reveal Violentacrez’s identity was seen as an attack on the right to anonymity of Reddit users, and moderators from numerous subreddits decided to ban Gawker links.

This is where the problem of Reddit’s ethics is made apparent. Instead of privileging the right to free speech over the desire to remain anonymous and thus not responsible for the speech users put forth, some of Reddit’s moderators and users besmirched the website’s mission by conflating the right to discuss and post distasteful but perfectly legal things with the right to do so under the veil of anonymity. This lack of distinction between publishing legal filth a la Larry Flynt and having the right to do so without being identified is the heart of the problem with the website’s mission.

Amid the turmoil, the CEO of Reddit contacted team members in a statement explicitly criticizing the actions of the moderators who chose to censor Gawker, the implicitly non-hierarchal structure makes it difficult to police the moderators without upending the site’s management scaffolding.

Anonymity is not a legal right when someone enters a public arena, and Reddit’s forums are not subject to the same privacy expectations as e-mails. Though an expectation of anonymity is woven into Reddit’s tenets, expecting the outside world will respect that ethos is naïve. Striking back at another website with a different set of ethical principles by censoring content showed Reddit moderators valued anonymity over free speech. The fragmented nature of the Reddit moderation system means there cannot be one cohesive interpretation of Reddit’s ideology, and the site is too sprawling and autonomous to ever operate strictly within its stated ideals. It’s simply not a cohesive community, but rather an assembly of disparate communities, and this means it cannot have a fully coherent ethos.

While the decision to grant moderators autonomous control over subreddits keeps with Reddit’s egalitarian, non-hierarchal principle, it also makes maintaining a unified front difficult—if not impossible. And the non-hierarchal structure means individuals can wield disproportionate control over the site’s public face if their particular subreddit gains popularity. This is what happened with Violentacrez when his brand of speech became a massively popular aspect of the website, and it is something that will likely continue to challenge Reddit as a community in the future, if the site decides to maintain its present moderation structure.

Anonymity is an ideal condition in Reddit’s ideology, and the fact that the site chose and continues to choose to censor Gawker, even after staking its claim of mainstream legitimacy by decrying SOPA and PIPA, indicates many prominent Reddit moderators privileges anonymity over freedom of speech.

Reddit’s model for digital citizenship separates actions taken online and taken outside of the annals of subreddits too severely, and it does not have an apparatus for bringing its plethora of communities under one ethical umbrella. Therefore, while Reddit espouses an ethos of free speech that is nothing if not admirable, the way ethics are practiced on the site reflect a reality far less idyllic and idealistic.

Kate Knibbs is a writer and technology news analyst from the southwest side of Chicago. Reach her at kateknibbsfreelance@gmail.com, or check out her Twitter at @kateknibbs.

8 Responses to “Is Reddit Ethical?”

  1. Tanna Solberg says:

    I find the part about relating Reddit to Instagram, Tumblr, and Pinterest extremely interesting. All three social media websites operate almost as message boards, with access to comments, the ability to post photos, and links to other websites. So why is it that these websites are under a higher scrutiny than forums like Reddit? I believe, in part, that some of this imbalance can be attributed to the professionalism of each website. Reddit somehow tends to remain out of the public sphere whereas websites/apps such as Instagram make their way into the public realm quite often. This factor causes the website managers/designers/moderators to take into account what is seen as distasteful and act accordingly. Another aspect of Reddit mentioned in this article is that of its design quality, or lack thereof. Reddit does not possess the same professional look that these other websites do which makes me view it as more of an “underground” message forum. People who go onto subreddits like r/jailbait know exactly what they are going to find when they enter into the message board. Therefore, they are not shocked or offended by the content because they are personally seeking it out. This differs from Tumblr, Pinterest, etc. because users go to these sites for multiple purposes. In Pinterest’s case, users go to the site looking for craft, food, and decorating ideas which is what makes seeing “thinspiration” images unexpected and offensive. I think this contributes to the divide between message boards and other social interaction and opinion-oriented websites. Ethics on the internet are tricky because there is no level playing field. Each website that is created presents new and different challenges to what is right and wrong.

  2. Kristin C. says:

    Websites like this and the Internet community as a whole are young and still evolving. One part of internet growth is building an ethical foundation for behavior. In other words, deciding what goes and what goes too far. I feel with time we will have a more unified approach to dealing with issues on social
    media sites like Reddit. This will take time and participation from users to apply pressure to the moderators of the sites. The troubling topics and images that are on the website are possible due to anonymity.This is a part of the evolution the internet is going through. While it is upsetting to me that these topics and images such as threads regarding child pornography have a place on the internet I am thankful that I have the freedom to discuss topics that interest me. I think that over time Reddit will also step back and evaluate how they are doing things just as other social media and networking sites have been doing in the past year. As the internet grows so will the dialogue about how we should structure our social media sites.

  3. Eva Pavelko says:

    Though I understand the concerns of Reddit, it seems strange to question its ethics wholly. As Knibbs states, its communities are separated, and are not “under one ethical umbrella”. Reddit certainly has a responsibility to maintain legal activities on the site, and they recognize that as they did with r/jailbait. However, individuals can choose to say whatever they please anonymously on a wide variety of websites and message boards, and nobody is forcing you into r/spacedicks or any of the other obscene areas of Reddit. As long as they remain within the bounds of legality, I don’t see any major cause for concern. Moderators of specific subreddits have the authority to do as they please, and certainly, whenever given anonymous freedom, there are going to be some unfavorable results, but that is the principal on which the site is built. One also must recognize the great things that have been done by Reddit, the millions in donations to charitable organizations and people, help to people in need both physically and emotionally, and sometimes, just cracking jokes here and there. It would be difficult to find something especially unethical on the main site, and one must at least have some interest in the obscene areas to find themselves there. The truth is that you can say pretty much whatever you want on the internet in a variety of places, and though I don’t agree with moderators censoring Gawker, I would doubly disagree with censoring the internet. There are dangers to anonymity, but there are also some pretty intense dangers to revealing your identity in every post too. How would one feel comfortable posting to the site, when somebody potentially harmful could seek them out, especially on a site with millions of hits daily? That being said, I can’t argue with Knibbs that users should feel more of a responsibility to use their free speech in a positive way, and it is an unfortunate truth that anonymity so commonly leads to revealing one’s inner ugliness before their kindness.

  4. Lauren Murray says:

    The good and the bad of anonymity online is prominent far beyond Reddit. As Eva pointed out, Reddit has done good things for the world, but it does seem to predominantly cause harm. The site’s moderators seem to be sticklers for only discussing what is legal and whether or not it’s taboo after that it irrelevant. Personally, I do not think that legality should be the only thing that comes into question when setting the standards for this site. Yes, these forums are “opt-in” spheres of the website. But is that enough? Can the existence of these hurtful forums be justified by saying that people can choose not to look at them?
    That can be answered with the credibility and usefulness of the statements being posted. If the topics and their commentary generate a positive contribution to the marketplace of ideas then the site is ethical. But if the space is just a place to ventilate hurtful and caustic hot air, it is not serving a worthwhile purpose in neither society nor the internet.

  5. Erin Schnittker says:

    It is a tragety that an online forum with such an ability to empower individual’s right to free speech has used that ability to shelter those who abuse it. However, the people who choose to use the site and subreddit forums to discuss those things that are obscene are not in any violation of the First Amendment. My professor in a class on Media Law stated that when we encounter issues dealing with free speech and the disturbing way some choose to use (or perhaps, in this case ‘abuse’ would be more proper) it, and we don’t necessarily like that individual’s speech, the unfortunate way we often must deal with it it to simply ignore it. In the case of Reddit, as I’m sure the moderators of forums containing such content would agree, we simply should not visit the site or subsequent pages. Nothing is forcing us to be privy to the content we may find disturbing; we must simply focus our attention elsewhere. But is this enough? Shouldn’t obscenity be found in violation of the First Amenment? Obscenity, as we all know, is not protected under free speech. However, in the case of a public internet forum, and as I stated previously, the content is not forced upon us or directed at us, thus we must simply turn our heads from the unfortunate content within the realms of the Redditsphere.

  6. Jordan Berger says:

    From an ethical standpoint, the allowance of such offensive threads on Reddit seems outrageous.
    But through a legal lens, Reddit’s allowance of taboo, offensive threads is
    completely legal, as long as users do not break any laws such as posting child
    pornography. Reddit did not tolerate the r/jailbate thread, which was a thread
    that allowed users to post and view photos of underage girls. Although the
    images themselves were not illegal, the thread seemed to encourage illegal
    activities such as child pornography and molestation. Because Reddit eliminated
    this thread, Reddit showed concern for maintaining legality within its content.
    But in regards to speech that is just offensive, but not illegal and doesn’t
    encourage illegal speech, Reddit does not strip users of the First Amendment
    rights. The First Amendment was not designed to protect solely the most
    favorable opinions in society. In fact, the first amendment specifically aims
    to protect unfavorable speech like the offensive speech and photographs found
    in some of Reddit’s threads. According to the marketplace of ideas theory, the
    most favorable ideas will rise to the top of society, while the unfavorable
    ideas will struggle and fail to garner support from the majority. The
    marketplace of ideas functions similarly to capitalism, but in a different
    arena; in the arena of speech, the most favorable idea will gain popularity and
    rise to the top. Plus, on the Internet, people have the option to simply close
    the tab and look the other way. In an environment where people were forced to
    listen or witness offensive speech, the case would be different and the ruling
    would most likely not be in the favor of the speech (Bethel v. Fraser 1987).

  7. Emily W. says:

    In my opinion, the ideologies behind Reddit are better in theory than in practice. A place where people can anonymously discuss anything and everything insofar as it is legal seems pretty attractive to the predominantly young male user population. However, as subreddits like r/jailbait and r/spacedick present, there are users who abuse this system. To me, abusing the anonymity this website allows is just more of a poor decision rather than an unethical practice. I definitely do not support the perverse and disgusting images some users post, but as commenter Erin Schnittker points out, we cannot censor someone because we do not like what they’re discussing. Many other commenters agree, and point out that no one is forced to read these threads; as someone who has been on Reddit, much of the site is a little more lighthearted, and it is very difficult to just stumble upon the offending threads, unless one does some digging. With so many people sharing ideas and forming communities, there are always going to be spaces that are horrific and weird in nature. There are many things on the Internet that I find offensive or triggering, and that is just the nature of technology. As the name implies, the World Wide Web is extensive and filled with all sorts of gross things; there’s nothing one can do about it, and they just have to know where not to go. That being said, I think most of the discussion focuses on the ethics of what is allowed online, and not necessarily on the fact that Reddit values anonymity over free speech. This is where their ethics come into question, in my opinion. Personally, the decision to censor Adrien Gawker for outing Michael Brutsch is unethical. He did nothing illegal, as anonymity is never guaranteed online, even if it is written into the subculture of a website. Reddit is doing the exact opposite of what they stand for; censoring someone because they do not like their thoughts or actions.

  8. Dani says:

    I agree with Emily W. that the ideologies behind Reddit are better in theory than in practice. If the site were used as it is intended to be used, Reddit would not be hit with so many ethical debates. It is great that Reddit is attempting to create a platform for open discussion, but this should not be done at the expense of others. The Reddit community created much damage for one family after a forum of vigilantes incorrectly identified the bomber in the Boston Marathon bombing. This took a huge toll on the family. The Reddit community is also credited for keeping the nude photos of celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence alive during the major leak of unauthorized photos in the fall of 2014. There was an attempt to remove the photos from the site, but they continued to spread from forum to forum.

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