Reddit Censors Nazis and Other Right-Wing Groups in an Attempt to Purge Violent Content

Black-and-white photo, circa 1900, showing a group of men standing around a mound of dead rats
Now, these are professional ratcatchers! (state archives of New South Wales, Australia, via Flickr)
Announcing a ban on content that "glorifies" or encourages violence, Reddit censors Nazi and other far-right subreddits along with more-graphic grossness.

In Reddit’s ongoing effort to become the grownup alternative to 4chan, the online bulletin board once again has declared war on the trolls in its midst, updating its policy on inciting violence and censoring subreddits that promote Nazism along with some that traffic in extreme graphic content.

The site, which boasts 330 million monthly users, detailed the new rules in an announcement posted by Reddit administrator “landoflobsters,” who explained that the existing policy against encouraging violence was “too vague” and required more straightforward and comprehensive parameters.

“Going forward,” landoflobsters wrote, “we will take action against any content that encourages, glorifies, incites, or calls for violence or physical harm against an individual or a group of people; likewise, we will also take action against content that glorifies or encourages the abuse of animals.”

According to the (presumably) Maine man, the new rules apply to all content on Reddit, though landoflobsters acknowledged that such self-policing will require “subjective judgment” and noted that “context is key.”

An October 26 New York Times story by Christine Hauser elaborated on the ban.

Per Hauser:

Reddit said the updated policy would apply to memes, CSS/community styling, flair, subreddit names and usernames. If the content is “borderline,” it should be tagged with a warning.

“Even mild violence can be difficult for someone to explain to others if they open it unexpectedly,” the statement said.

But it added sometimes there were reasons to post violent content — such as with educational, newsworthy, artistic and satirical items — in which case context should be provided to show it was not gratuitous.

On Thursday, as news of the policy surged through the site, moderators began to question how it would be applied in Reddit’s micro-communities, or subreddits, where interests can range from hunting to Bible study, as well as in its dark corners, where people are urged to kill themselves or others.

“What does glorify mean?” one wrote. “Will subs like ‘watchpeopledie’ be categorized as such?” (That forum would remain for now, a moderator said.)

Among the first to be banned were the subreddits r/NationalSocialism, r/Nazi and r/Far_Right.

In a statement on Thursday, Anna Soellner, a spokeswoman for Reddit, said the company was constantly assessing its content policy. “We strive to be a welcoming, open platform for all by trusting our users to maintain an environment that cultivates genuine conversation,” she said.

Shortly after the announcement, Reddit moderators discussed the new directives on the sub r/modnews, posting a list of recently banned subreddits, including r/DylannRoofInnocent, r/whitesarecriminals, r/picsofdeadkids, r/horsevagina, r/SexWithDogs, and r/killthejews.

Some mods contend that Reddit’s policy on haters remains ill-defined. Others suggest that far-left subreddits such as r/fullcommunism, r/latestagecampitalism, and r/anarchism should be treated in the same manner as their über-right counterparts.

A history of attempts at selective censorship

The attempt to drive the unruly rats from Reddit’s online corn maze is not the company’s first housecleaning. Most recently, following the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer, who was struck and killed by a car in a terror attack during an anti-racism protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, Reddit banned the subreddit r/Physical_Removal, which advocated for the involuntary relocation of Democrats from the U.S.

And back in 2015, in a controversial move under the leadership of then-CEO Ellen Pao, the company announced that it would eradicate subreddits that used the site as forum for harassing people. The subs r/fatpeoplehate and r/CoonTown were among the axed.

Though Pao’s 2015 purge engendered a user backlash, an academic study published in September of this year showed that the self-censorship reduced hate speech on Reddit by banning the offending forum (as opposed to the poster).

More than one commentator online has observed the irony of Reddit’s latest attempt at rat-catching, given that Reddit staked out its territory as the vast, gnarly home of unregulated free speech, helping it reach number four in Alexa.com’s rankings for internet traffic in the U.S. and number eight worldwide.

Interestingly, the site’s majority stockholder is Advance Publications, parent company of Condé Nast, which in turn is the publisher of august magazine titles VogueGlamourGQArchitectural DigestGolf DigestBon AppétitVanity FairThe New Yorker, and Wired. A July article on Recode.net reported that Reddit had raised $200 million, with cofounder and CEO Steve Huffman pegging its worth at $1.8 billion.

Granted, readers can still visit outré and gag-inducing Reddit subs like r/watchpeopledie, r/sexyabortions, and r/cutefemalecorpses (though access to the content of the latter two are restricted), just as they can avail themselves of subreddits dedicated to the Hawaiian independence movement and kittens at play.

But it’s hard to deny the apparent contradiction of a self-styled free-for-all forum that has fueled its appeal.

About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.