Does Anything Go? The Rise and Fall of a Racist Corner of Reddit

As the social news site tries to grow up, its managers are struggling to figure out what to do with communities like r/niggers.
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If you're the type of person who reads blogs on the Internet, you're probably already familiar with Reddit. The online community driven by user-submitted content made headlines after hosting "Ask Me Anything" Q&A forums with folks as powerful and established as NPR's Ira GlassCory Booker and yes, even President Obama. With its democratic voting system controlling the prominence of content, Reddit has long been seen as a place that values the insightful. 

But among the good content also lurked a darker corner trying to inch its way into the broader Reddit community: r/niggers. Through the recent banning of r/niggers, one of Reddit's most offensive communities, it seems that the site's leaders are making a conscious choice to keep Reddit a place where the insightful wins out over the hateful.

Reddit's About section proclaims the site a "free speech place." In the past, General Manager Erik Martin has said that he sees Reddit as a place where anything goes, so long as that anything doesn't break the law. That attitude may have worked well back when the site was still finding its footing, but as it's skyrocketed in both popularity and legitimacy, it no longer seems sensible to cling to an "anything goes" policy.

Reddit higher-ups have made it clear that they are unwilling to allow the website's more unsavory communities to tarnish its reputation as a whole. In a phone interview, Martin told me, "There isn't any community that would like being judged by the worst 0.0001 percent of its users." By banning r/niggers, Reddit's leaders have continued to establish reasonable benchmarks for what the site will and will not tolerate, a measure that will allow it to continue to amass mainstream credibility.

As the offensive name implies, r/niggers was a place for users to bond over their disdain for black people. While Reddit itself boasts 69.9 million monthly users, r/niggers had only 6,000 members. On the other hand, on a percentage basis, it was one of Reddit's fastest growing online communities this year.

Visiting r/niggers was a mental chore. Emblazoned with icons like watermelons and fried chicken legs, the site maintained a rotating roster of photographs of whites who have presumably been the victims of violence by blacks, as if no white person has ever committed a violent crime. Most of the community's content was about what you'd expect: news stories about crimes committed by blacks, pseudoscience about black inferiority, and personal anecdotes about troublesome interactions with black people.

While the subreddit's postings were unquestionably racist and offensive, what was really disturbing about r/niggers was the way the group's commentary and subscribers seeped into the broader Reddit community at large. It became a launching pad for excursions into the rest of Reddit. This particular dark corner of the web was never merely content to stay in its corner; its members ventured out.

Earlier this year, r/blackgirls, a Reddit community "that caters to the interests/support of all the black girls who are also Redditors," got a first-hand look at what r/niggers is capable of.

After a user at r/niggers noticed that the r/blackgirls moderator was inactive, and thus not actively monitoring posts to ban rule-breaking users, another suggested flooding the subreddit with racist comments and content, commonly known as "brigading." He commented:

Lets go to work
I think its time for some raysist poitry an shit
Roses are red, violets are blue
How come all black girls smell like poo?
I dont really this to be this crude
their pussies smell like dead seafood
The hair on their head belongs on their snatch
The drapes and the curtains do more then match
They are the very same fucking thing
Nasty pube headed afrikin queen

After his comments offended his target audience, he gleefully added, "they didnt seem to care very much for my comments... Have been trolling hard for a few hours and there is still so much possibility...it[']s endless."

For the next few weeks, r/niggers users flooded r/blackgirls with racist comments on regular contributor's posts, racist posts of their own, and even sent racist private messages to r/blackgirls users.

Thanks to the amount of racist comments on every post, the r/blackgirls community became practically unusable and regular users began to jump ship. A new community called r/blackladies has since been formed.

After their successful disruption of r/blackgirls, posters at r/niggers continued their activities in other subreddits, including more brigading and comment vote manipulation. Vote manipulation is one of only 4 things explicitly forbidden in Reddit's official rules. Back in May, Reddit admins began shadow-banning (making user comments invisible to everyone except the user) handfuls of r/niggers posters for this rule-breaking behavior. The admins warned moderators about this behavior in a series of back-and-forth private messages; one even warned that the community could be banned outright.

Martin hopes Reddit users will see these warnings as proof that even the most offensive communities on Reddit have to continually and overtly break the rules before ever facing a ban. He explains, "Hopefully users can tell from the amount of warnings we extended to a subreddit as clearly awful as r/niggers that we go into the decision to ban subreddits with a lot of scrutiny."

The mass banning of several individual r/niggers subscribers makes it seem as though Reddit admins were drawing a line in the sand, and they were, just not for the reasons you might think. Reddit's official user agreement maintains that by signing up for Reddit, users "agree not to use any obscene, indecent, or offensive language," not to post any "graphics, text, photographs, images, video, audio or other material that is defamatory, abusive, bullying, harassing, racist, hateful, or violent," and "to refrain from ethnic slurs when using the Website." 

But Reddit admins cited vote manipulation and brigading as the reason for the r/niggers user bans. As one Reddit user pointed out, "Getting /r/niggers for brigading is a bit like getting Al Capone for tax evasion. It may not be false, but it doesn't quite capture the whole picture."

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Bridget Todd is an educator, political organizer, and activist. She writes about intersections of race and culture. 

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