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Can Reddit Tame The Trolls?

Today Reddit introduced a new anti-harassment policy aimed at curbing abuse on the site.

Can Reddit Tame The Trolls?
[Photo: Flickr user Pete Markham]

Reddit, like so much of the Internet, has a nasty underbelly. But after years of letting some less-than-savory stuff go on unabated, Reddit is changing course. Today, it introduced an anti-harassment policy aimed at taming the worst of the vitriol.

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Under the new policy, people who believe they’re being harassed can report it to Reddit staff, who will investigate it and remove content if necessary. The new policy is apparently driven by interim Reddit CEO Ellen Pao, the former Kleiner Perkins employee who unsuccessfully sued the company for gender discrimination.

As Reddit executives explained in a blog post:

If you are being harassed, report the private message, post or comment and user by emailing contact@reddit.com or modmailing us; include external links if they are relevant.

This change will have no immediately noticeable impact on more than 99.99% of our users. It is specifically designed to prevent attacks against people, not ideas. It is our challenge to balance free expression of ideas with privacy and safety as we seek to maintain and improve the quality and range of discourse on reddit.

It’s apparently a data-driven effort, fueled by intelligence from a study Reddit conducted with over 15,000 of its users. In that survey, 50% of respondents who said they wouldn’t recommend Reddit to a friend cited “hateful or offensive content.”

“We’ve seen many conversations devolve into attacks against individuals,” reads the company’s blog post. “We share redditors’ frustration with these interactions. We are also seeing more harassment and different types of harassment as people’s use of the Internet and the information available on the Internet evolve over time.”

As welcome as it may be by many who rightly cringe at things like revenge porn and bullying, the move will undoubtedly rile some users up. Redditors are protective of the site’s wide-open communication and suspicious of any attempts to interfere with it. Indeed, the very same survey cited by Reddit above also found that 35% of users polled are wary of censorship on the site.

The policy also leaves some questions unanswered. One of them is the matter of how shadow banning might be affected. The decade-old practice is used to effectively neutralize spammy users of the site without them realizing it. By shadow banning these users, Reddit moderators make their comments and activity invisible to other users without notifying the offender, allowing them to obliviously spin their wheels to no effect. It was originally conceived as a way to keep marketers and overly self-promotional users from spamming the site with self-serving links. But many now think shadow banning has become a way to quietly censor users in an unfair fashion, since the “shadow” part makes it impossible for the user to correct their behavior.

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In a thread on Reddit, cofounder Alexis Ohanian hinted that a change to the shadow-banning policy may be on the horizon. “Admittedly, it was an ugly hack 10 years ago that’s still being used — that’s a problem,” he writes, adding that the policy “has not been updated and it needs to be.”

In recent years, Reddit has ballooned into a much more substantial force on the Internet than it once was. The 11th-most-visited site in the United States, Reddit routinely hosts celebrities and world leaders on its Ask Me Anything (AMA) Q&A sessions. The site, along with other prominent Internet properties, was also instrumental in drumming up public opposition to the heavy-handed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) in and Protect IP Act (PIPA) 2011. The controversial bills were eventually axed.

But it’s not all fun and glory for the Reddit community. The site has been used as a tool of digital vigilantism, including the well-intentioned but infamous misidentification of the Boston Marathon bombing suspect in 2013. It also played a role in the rise of Gamergate and the dissemination of stolen, nude celebrity photos last year.

Those are just the high-profile cases. As anyone who has spent time on Reddit knows, things can get pretty nasty on threads related to things like politics, gender, rape, and other controversial topics. Things can be rough for women in particular, who make up a minority of Reddit’s users and are frequently the target some pretty creepy behavior. With this new policy update and reporting mechanisms, Reddit is hoping to tame the worst of the trolls.

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About the author

John Paul Titlow is a writer at Fast Company focused on music and technology, among other things.

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