In an email, the owners told me that the presence of white nationalists in the My Little Pony fandom is “unfortunate.” They insisted that they have always tried “to act against content [that] displays genuine racist intent on behalf of the poster,” adding “we have not always been as strict as we would have liked to be.” They also clarified that the removed images would be gone only temporarily, because of the moderation headache the images have been causing. They will later be restored to the site, the owners said, “as an artifact of the moment.”
Moderation is always complicated, but never more so than when a community is unsure of what it wants to be or what it’s willing to play host to. Derpibooru’s tiny policy change has led to an uproar in the site’s forums, and disgruntled users insist that it will lead to “a purity spiral,” or a slippery slope to “censorship” and “authoritarianism” (the standard set of arguments that come up in every major moderation dispute, which tend to conflate site rules and deplatforming with government crackdowns on free speech). Meanwhile, supporters of a stricter content policy point out that the update is toothless, and will do almost nothing to curb racism on the site.
What’s clearest from talking with those on either side of the argument is that the My Little Pony fandom has developed a totally nonsensical hodgepodge of values. Many fans who specifically support Black Lives Matter, for example, are also fans of Aryanne, a fan-invented Nazi pony with a pink swastika on her hip. They do not acknowledge a contradiction. “I love Aryanne,” a 25-year-old My Little Pony fan named Sam told me. “It’s just cute, funny, sexy art.” Then he added, “Black Lives Matter art is great. I welcome it.” (Sam asked to go only by his first name to avoid harassment.)
When Acesential posted a drawing of a pony holding an “I Can’t Breathe” flag, and when Henry posted art containing the initialism “ACAB,” for “All Cops Are Bastards,” commenters spat back that ponies shouldn’t be used as a “mouthpiece” for politics, even though some of those same commenters have loved it when ponies wear “Make America Great Again” hats. This idea of what counts as political and what doesn’t is another thing the fandom took from 4chan—where racial slurs are just jokes but anti-racism makes you a “social justice warrior.”
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“This is a fan community that has prided itself on a permissiveness and pushing boundaries and cloaking themselves in irony and the idea that they can make the mainstream uncomfortable,” Anne Gilbert, an assistant media-studies professor at the University of Georgia who has studied the My Little Pony fandom, told me. “That has been a source of pride.”
That pride makes the My Little Pony fandom’s problem twofold. Members who want to tear the fan community away from the active racists will also have to disentangle themselves from a long-held commitment to anything-goes uploading and a willful ignorance of the significance of political imagery. The concept of complicity has become clearer to a greater percentage of white Americans in the past several weeks, Gilbert said. A fandom that used to “ignore” politics is now being asked to acknowledge that it actually has made political choices—by valuing the “free speech” of some over the comfort and safety of many others.