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Reddit “Prank” Raises Critical Censorship Questions for Social Media

Reddit co-founder and CEO Steve Huffman was recently caught using his administrative powers to change the text of certain users’ posts in various subreddits. His actions have drawn ire, with some calling for his resignation. At the same time, they invite us to ponder the role of administrators in facilitating open online discussion while simultaneously curbing toxic behavior.

These particular changes affected posts where users were complaining about Huffman by name. In such comments, Huffman replaced his name with Reddit usernames of people who were most vocally critical, in a stunning use of the “I know you are but what am I?” postulate first put forth by philosophical performer Pee-Wee Herman. 

Huffman claimed that the actions amounted to a “prank” and were all in good fun, but the deliberate erasing of criticism poses worrying thoughts of how such power could be used in the future.

No matter your political alignment or thoughts on online culture, learning from this incident is critical. All site owners and owners of social media pages must know how to tread the line between dutiful moderation and draconian censorship because when it is crossed, trust rapidly crumbles.

Silencing Speech, But with the Best of Intentions?

Discussions of online censorship take many forms, but this particular situation illustrates the most vexing iteration: as a site or page owner, how far should you go when addressing troll-like behavior? These issues usually start from an objectively noxious source, such as users posting comments that blatantly harass another user or a minority group. Banning people who openly advocate eugenics, for instance, comes after no great amount of moral quandary, but how far does the spectrum go? Also, who can step in with a neutral, objective take if the side holding more power is acting primarily on bias?

Part of the struggle is setting restrictions on your own personal behavior as someone who has the power to do practically whatever they want on their site should they choose to do so. For instance, Steve Huffman’s self-described prank was conducted within the context of users who were abusing Reddit’s comment rating system in order to flood the main home page with white supremacy conservative political content.

Since Reddit’s homepage thrives on providing a healthy mix of humorous content, thought-provoking science-based content and no small amount of randomness peppered in, having the page suddenly turn into a platform for one small subreddit group’s messages runs contrary to the normal user experience. Huffman fought back by altering an algorithm used for picking front page stories to curb the group’s influence, which led to the string of fiery criticisms against his practices.

At that point, Huffman was in decidedly gray territory, but his subsequent actions of changing the text of users’ comments moved him immediately into darker end of the ethical spectrum. He must now perform damage control to rebuild trust not only towards people with dissenting political opinions and aims, but towards the site at large who question his huge overreach of power.

As one user going by UnimatrixZeroOne wrote: “If he did this just because he thought it was funny, then what stops him from doing it for a more ‘important’ [reason]? What he did completely destroys the credibility of [R]eddit.”

Avoid Fighting Bad with More Bad When Moderating 

Central to Huffman’s issue is a lack of hard and fast personal rules to use when evaluating whether an action could be considered appropriate. Social media content moderators must be able to take a step back and say, “Instead of taking my action, could I set an example of tolerance and further discussion in a more productive way?”

Questions like these inevitably arise when combating abusive or harassing behaviors online, especially on your business’s social media profiles. For instance, our blog covering the topic of curbing fake news as we have covered last week invites questions about whether information in the news article could simply be something no one else has covered rather than an outright deceptive falsehood. At the same time, arguing for the removal of certain content because of a justification like “there are no verifiable sources” can also place supposedly kosher content in the crosshairs and rouse accusations of hypocrisy.

In other words, there are no easy answers. Even in the face of blatantly unacceptable online behaviors, those with the power to put them in check must first consider what their actions do to the online community as a whole. As Nietzsche once said, “Whoever fights with monsters should see to it that he does not become a monster in the process.”

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Let EverSpark Interactive be your neutral yardstick by which to help you temper toxic behaviors on your branded social media without overstepping the bounds of ethical propriety. We provide social media management, reputation management and community-focused web design capabilities within our overall suite of digital PR services. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you!