I got a peek behind the curtain at Reddit when I spoke separately with two r/politics moderators* about the controversial, and not unanimous, decision to ban the domain of Gawker and its affiliates from several sub reddits. Were they really just defending adult content featuring young girls or were there other guiding principles?
In the growing world of Reddit, there are often conflicting values and principles, but freedom of information and the idea of a democracy via readers’ choice take precedence. Because Reddit is moderated by anonymous volunteers who have total control over their sub Reddit, there are ample opportunities for Redditors to feel that decisions made behind the curtain are biased, unfair, and/or tyrannical. Sometimes users get mad enough to want to “dox” the mod.
Doxing is a technique of tracing someone or gathering information about an individual using sources on the Internet and it’s prohibited against both users and mods on Reddit. The moderators in favor of the ban say this is actually what they were defending when they banned Gawker for reportedly working on a story that would out a Reddit mod, who by all accounts was engaging in “despicable” behavior involving posting sexualized pictures of unsuspecting young women and girls. “We are banning the entity that is willing to distribute personal information, even if it is more than one person.”
Not only is doxing a violation of terms of service, but moderators say it could also set a precedent that would make moderating next to impossible. The mod, who clarified that they were not speaking for all of the r/politics mods, explained, “Moderators make a lot of controversial decisions. If it became the norm to “dox” moderators any time you disagreed with what they do, then Reddit would (1) not have very many mods and (2) the ones they did have would be unwilling to take any action… it would have a huge chilling effect on any content posted, as well.”
The politics mods I spoke with were in agreement that they did not condone (and in fact were disgusted by) the actions of the moderator in question, “/u/violentacrez” (hereafter referred to as VA), described by one mod as “in my opinion, all around creep.”
The mod agreed that the reporter from Gawker may have a fundamental disagreement with the content of the sub Reddit in question, and agrees that the reporter should cover what VA was doing on Reddit in hopes of shaming VA into stopping. VA has deleted his account due to this controversy.
But the mods ultimately chose via a majority decision (with some dissent) to draw the line at outing VA, due to the possible implications of not taking action. The mod explained, “It would be troubling because it would intimidate the moderators into doing nothing. Related to that is that moderation would become a lot less transparent because, instead of using their real names, moderators would simply create alternate accounts.”
Mod: It’s clearly a controversial subredidt
Sarah Jones: So then the mods of r/pol banned the Gawker domains in solidarity against doxing, is that correct?
Mod: And I personally don’t like the content of it at all. It’s pretty despicable. Right
They also expressed concern over users being outed. “Gawker hasn’t just doxxed mods, let’s remember… if these articles had been published with 0 personal information, then we would not be having this discussion.”
Banning the entire domain and affiliates for the action of one reporter struck me as harsh and possibly unfair to the publisher, but this mod feels that Gawker has a policy that allows outing and is trying to benefit from it by utilizing the traffic power of Reddit, thus the domain ban.
Sarah Jones: Do you think that banning all of the domains for the actions of one reporter is fair, and if so, why? Do you think that Gawker supports his actions?
Mod: I think it’s absolutely fair. Gawker seems to have tolerated and even encouraged Chen’s (the reporter’s) controversial behavior with regard to Reddit, because they know that the controversy will equal page views. By instituting a domain ban, we’ve tried to ensure that controversy will not equal page views, at least from Reddit traffic (which can be a pretty significant amount)… that is why the ban is not just on gawker links, but on affiliated sites like Kotaku to affect the bottom line.
The ban is in place in several sub Reddits, and each sub Reddit will decide when to lift it. As far as r/politics goes, this mod would like the ban to stay in place until Gawker clarifies their policy on outing moderators and users.
This brought up the inherent conflict of Reddit: privacy versus freedom of information. I had to ask – when would outing be appropriate? Isn’t Gawker or any publisher going to come across those decisions when outing someone may be seen as a public service? While PoliticusUSA has a site wide policy against outing private individuals regardless of what they are accused of, certainly the Gawker reporter could argue that he thinks outing someone who allegedly posts sexualized pictures of unsuspecting women without their permission is a public service.
Sarah Jones: How long is the ban instituted for?
Mod: Until something changes. And ultimately, that is up to the moderators of each subreddit taking part to decide. If, for example, Gawker chooses not to publish VA’s information, but doesn’t change their policy that would allow for such information to be revealed in the first place, then I personally would not be satisfied.
Sarah Jones: That’s an interesting point. There is always the issue of freedom of information — that is where this gets sticky; e.g., if they were outing a public official, etc. – that has a different agenda, purpose. How would you define the difference?
Mod: You mean if they had given out a politicians name, or whatever? Well, not name. Address or phone number or something?
Sarah Jones: Yes, a situation where outing would be a public service/good.
Mod: While I guess it would be contextual, it would be a bit out of the scope of what we moderators do, so I don’t know if we would take action as moderators, we are responsible for ensuring the integrity of our own little communities and if we allow someone to participate who is willing to spread information from others in that community, then that integrity is ruined.
Sarah Jones: Right. I mean from the publishers POV in terms of what you would like to see as their policy re outing.
Mod: Oh, in terms of their policy in return for reversing the ban. Honestly, at this point, I’d love to see any shred of integrity or dignity in their policies.
Sarah Jones: Would you say it’s a matter of public service – freedom of information? Public figures are one thing, private another?
Mod: I think that it really depends on what the information was intended for. So if a public figure has a designated way of receiving some feedback, then giving that out seems perfectly fine. Quite different from a situation where VA has not given Adrien Chen (the reporter) his address, name, employer information, etc. I think the potential impact is also important to consider; it’s very likely that VA might lose his job, friends, etc. if this became more public knowledge, and while some might say “good,” I think it’s important to remember that we all probably have some things that we do on the internet that we wouldn’t want our mothers and friends to read about. His may be more severe and disturbing than most, but that’s still not a reason to breach his privacy like that.
Since this is politics, you can broaden this idea out to public figures in order to get an idea of the conflict that could be established for publishers. The mod made the point that their job is to moderate their community, and as to publishers’ policies, they would like to see the reasons for and the impact of the outing taken into account.
Sarah Jones: Here’s the biggest potential conflict as I see it: Reddit exists for freedom of info, which is why there are egregious sub reddits. One of those sub reddits posts pictures of allegedly underage girls or women who did not consent. So, someone can argue that those women/girls deserve privacy as well.
Mod: Of course. Like I said: it’s a pretty despicable subreddit, and no one should construe our ban on gawker posts as being in support of the content of /r/creepshots. But trying to bring this into violentacrez’s personal life is not the right way to go about it. So sure, the women posted to /r/creepshots do deserve privacy, but unfortunately, line-drawing becomes a problem. What can the admins tell you to do and not to do?
Line drawing is the fundamental challenge for Reddit as it continues its surge in growth as the “front page” of the Internet. On the one hand, Reddit exists as a free for all with a sub Reddit for everything, but on the other hand, each sub Reddit is run by anonymous mods in what can be, as the mod said, a rather opaque process. As with all things Internet, without boundaries and lines, you risk vigilante type mob rule — up to and including outing over personal grievances and disagreements, but too many lines risks chilling freedom.
One thing is clear: They will not tolerate doxing of users or mods.
*Note: The moderators agreed to speak with me about the ban on the condition that their user names and identity be kept private. They are not speaking for all of the moderators in r/politics, but rather specifically for the majority who agreed with the ban.