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Reddit must persist with alt-right purge despite ‘free speech’ concerns

Media efforts to combat hate is pressuring user-based platforms like Reddit and MeWe to follow suit, and rightly so. 

Since the 18th century we have used boycotting as a political weapon for good. In 1791 some 300,000 people abstained from buying any goods produced by slaves in the West Indies, demonstrating for the first time the undeniable influence of consumer action in bringing about tangible change. Today, with social media being a modern mainstay of individual expression, people are employing the same tactics in an effort to force huge platforms like Facebook and Twitter to purge anti-hate/racist content, and to become more inclusive and safer for years to come. 

Dubbed the ‘Stop Hate for Profit’ campaign, an ensemble of major companies has joined a shrewd citizen led movement to hit Facebook where it really hurts: its ad revenue. Comprised of big players who genuinely want to affect change, and no doubt those who’s chief concern is cause marketing or ‘bluewashing’, upward of 900 companies including Microsoft, Verizon Communications, Adidas, Ford, and Coca-Cola have suspended all advertising on Facebook for July – leading to a reported $7bn loss of revenue for chief exec Mark Zuckerberg. 

Brought about by advocacy groups Free Press, Common Sense, Colour of Change, and the Anti-Defamation League, a now global frontier is demanding that the chief social media sites finally take a moral stance against derogatory content, or face months of negative PR, market crashes, and loss of consumer trust. The likes of YouTube and SnapChat has already started curating content more carefully and banning accounts, and streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime have plucked episodes containing blackface scenes or lazy racial stereotypes from their respective libraries.

How is this impacting user run platforms? 

While juggernauts Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are top of the agenda for campaigners and affiliate companies, user run platforms like Reddit and MeWe shouldn’t be exempt from the STHP campaign, and doubters need to understand why. 

As Reddit CEO Steve Huffman is often keen to point out, political conversations ‘have always been a huge part’ of the platform’s makeup,’ and with Donald Trump in the Whitehouse, heated debates are certainly there to be had. However, Reddit’s lax approach to mods and emphasis on ‘authentic conversation’ has previously led to the spread of misinformation, hateful tirades, and, worst of all, attempts to incite violence. 

External pressure is nothing new for Reddit, but amidst the biggest civil rights issue of the decade, and with internal pressure coming from ex-honcho Ellen Pao – who scolded Huffman for ‘amplifying’ racism last month – inaction simply wasn’t going to cut it this time. 

Reddit has reacted by banning 2,000 subreddit groups and users, and has amended its content policy to explicitly rule against the mocking of racial minorities, individuals with disabilities, and rape victims. A quick peruse at the list of recent exiles shows a whole bunch of ‘dark humour’ and alt-right accounts. Undoubtedly Reddit’s boldest move (and biggest victory) was to finally axe pro-Trump subreddit The_Donald after years of tip toeing around its constant breach of the guidelines regarding harassment campaigns and racist content. 

This, coupled with the indefinite suspension of Trump’s Twitch channel, seems to have sent a torrent of Trump supporters over to an emerging app you probably hadn’t heard of: Parler. Thinly veiled as an ‘unbiased’ alternative to Twitter for political discourse, we’re seeing the rise of yet another free-for-all platform likely to house the type of distasteful content just scrapped from Reddit. Community guidelines are in place to deter people from spreading hate and abuse, but like Reddit’s early days the repercussions of breaking them appear to be non-existent. The only saving grace in that regard, is that Parler doesn’t, and probably never will have anywhere near the same visibility as Reddit. 

Progress vs free expression 

The concept of free expression vs political correctness is one that has always been stark in the US both in congress and in the streets. It’s not uncommon for devout democrats to live in the same neighbourhood as a family proudly displaying the confederate flag. However, right now alt-right demonstrators are getting taught a lesson in solidarity by the BLM movement and are starting to realise that their privilege is being threatened. You love to see it. 

Scrabbling to find isolated instances of violence, Trump has continued to denounce and undermine the protests, but public polls point to a nation strongly in favour of the movement and what it represents. On the whole, the BLM message has been made peacefully and has never been intended to perpetuate or condone violence. Unfortunately, we can’t say the same for opposing communities online, and ultimately that is where the line is drawn. 

While derogatory content has been largely stamped out on the big social media sites using innovative AI tracking and stored user data, platforms like Reddit and MeWe have provided the perfect blend of privacy and anonymity for people to spread hate without sticking their heads above the parapet. 

MeWe is famously anti-Facebook, with CEO Mark Weinstein describing its rival’s makeup as ‘surveillance capitalism.’ And while that summation probably isn’t far wrong, MeWe’s less stringent approach has allowed conspiracy theories and misinformation to spread like wildfire on its platform. Nordic hate group Asatru Folk Assembly frequently post about racial segregation being inherent to biology on MeWe, with ex-founder Steve McNallen vowing ‘I will fight for my race, primarily with words and ideas, but I will fight more literally if I have to.’ 

Elsewhere, Reddit has played host to sickening threads like ‘watchpeopledie, where heinous videos of mostly non-white citizens dying have made the rounds in anti-black communities, the content often being memed by its users.

You can understand why people want to maintain a sense of independence and privacy online, and that has always been a huge string to the bow of user run platforms. But if the price is allowing vile ideas and content to spread, simultaneously pardoning dangerous individuals and making people feel unsafe, then you’d have to say stricter guidelines are long overdue. 

In the coming years, it’s essential that Reddit, WeMeParlor, and any new platforms that crop up on the Apple store are held as accountable as the likes of Facebook and YouTube for the protection of their users.