The world is on fire. No, seriously.
You’ve likely heard about the disinformation campaigns on Facebook and Twitter. But what about the self-described front page of the internet, Reddit?
Not familiar with Reddit? It is, as The Daily Dot describes it:
It’s a place where millions of people go every day to discuss politics, post memes, find porn, and share every odd thought that’s ever occurred to them in the shower. No matter who you are or what you’re into, Reddit has a place for you. From social justice warriors to men’s rights activists and conspiracy theorists, all are accounted for.
There are a bunch of forums, known as subreddits, organized by theme. Individual users upvote comments. Reddit houses one of the more vehement groups that supports President Donald Trump, but there are forums for a variety of political beliefs or general interests. (One of your friendly neighborhood digital producers visits Reddit for skincare tips and for the yoga community.)
But there is another side. Sometimes these groups veer into hate speech. Sometimes subreddits are banned. And Wired reported that “of all of the tech platforms that Russian trolls infiltrated during the run-up to the 2016 election in the United States, Reddit has been among the least forthcoming.”
Here’s how they handled the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, according to The New Yorker.
On November 23, 2016, shortly after President Trump’s election, Huffman was at his desk, in San Francisco, perusing the site. It was the day before Thanksgiving. Reddit’s administrators had just deleted a subreddit called r/Pizzagate, a forum for people who believed that high-ranking staffers of Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign, and possibly Clinton herself, were trafficking child sex slaves. The evidence, as extensive as it was unpersuasive, included satanic rituals, a map printed on a handkerchief, and an elaborate code involving the words “cheese” and “pizza.” In only fifteen days of existence, the Pizzagate subreddit had attracted twenty thousand subscribers. Now, in its place, was a scrubbed white page with the message “This community has been banned.”
The reason for the ban, according to Reddit’s administrators, was not the beliefs of people on the subreddit, but the way they’d behaved—specifically, their insistence on publishing their enemies’ private phone numbers and addresses, a clear violation of Reddit’s rules. The conspiracy theorists, in turn, claimed that they’d been banned because Reddit administrators were part of the conspiracy. (Less than two weeks after Pizzagate was banned, a man fired a semiautomatic rifle inside a D.C. pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong, in an attempt to “self-investigate” claims that the restaurant’s basement was a dungeon full of kidnapped children. Comet Ping Pong does not have a basement.)
To be clear, most of Reddit is innocuous, and its executives favor a “hands-off” approach in terms of what content to crack down on.
Are disinformation and conspiracy just par for the course on Reddit? Or should the website’s managers and users be more intense about posts?
Produced by Kathryn Fink. Text by Gabrielle Healy.
- Gene Park Audience editor, The Washington Post; @GenePark
- Christine Lagorio-Chafkin Author, "We Are the Nerds: The Birth and Tumultuous Life of Reddit, the Internet's Culture Laboratory"; @lagorio
- Renee DiResta Director of research, New Knowledge; policy specialist, Data for Democracy; @noUpside
- Alex Reddit user who helped identity Iranian propaganda efforts on the site
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