In 2015, the Southern Poverty Law Center called out Reddit as home to “the most violently racist” content on the internet, citing a constellation of antiblack forums, or subreddits, that had adopted the name “the Chimpire” and racked up tens of thousands of members before they were taken down that year. Reddit’s content policy prohibits inciting violence, as well as bullying and harassment, but it has never been very specific about where the lines are drawn. In 2018, when Reddit CEO Steve Huffman was asked about whether “obvious open racism” was against the company’s rules, he said, “It’s not.”
Huffman backtracked at the time, vaguely saying that racism was allowed but not welcome. Then, last week, he made a company-wide announcement under a headline that included the phrase Black lives matter, and claimed that “our values are clear.” Reddit employees and users, he said, “do not tolerate hate, racism, and violence”—a statement that sparked a major revolt on the site.
Almost immediately, the post was met with backlash, including a particularly sharp rebuke from Reddit’s former interim CEO Ellen Pao, who was subject to prolonged, user-led, racist harassment campaigns during her time at the company, largely because of her attempts to curb hate speech on the platform. But the strongest criticism of all came from Reddit’s own users: On Monday morning, an open letter to Huffman was posted all over the site, urging the company to take racism more seriously. “The problem of Reddit’s leadership supporting and providing a platform for racist users and hateful communities has long been an issue,” it began, before listing demands, including the proactive banning of hateful communities and “a sitewide policy against racism, slurs, and hate speech.” (Huffman responded to the letter in the post’s comments, writing in part, “Your list and our list have a high amount of overlap.” A Reddit spokesperson declined to comment further.)
Large-scale actions from Reddit users have happened before, but this is unquestionably the largest collective action in the site’s history. So far, the moderators of 650 forums claiming to represent 200 million users have signed on to the letter, including those of various LGBTQ, feminist, and black subreddits, and those of subreddits for Android developers, pregnant people, residents of Florida, people who are physically incapable of burping, and the garlic-bread-memes subreddit. Some of the largest subreddits on the site have signed on, including r/Showerthoughts, a decade-old forum that has more than 20 million members. Even Alexis Ohanian, a Reddit co-founder who resigned from the company’s board on Friday, tweeted out a link to the letter.
The American reckoning over racism that has led to a wave of protests across the country is now unfurling on social-media platforms too. Many Facebook groups have been consumed by conflict because moderators, most of them white, have been removing posts about Black Lives Matter and condemning them as off-topic and “political.” The neighborhood social-network app Nextdoor is facing renewed scrutiny over its racism problem—which stems in large part from moderation failings. Anyone who wants to call themself an ally online is being pushed to confront the basic structural flaws of their communities.
If Reddit is at an inflection point now, it’s not because hate has left the site. It’s because a growing number of people who head to the site for conversation and friendship have reached their limit. And whether or not Reddit’s management acquiesces to each specific demand, the letter itself is making a bold claim: Social-media platforms can’t evade the scrutiny that so many other institutions in America are currently facing.
The open letter was the idea of Dubteedub, a 30-year-old moderator of the watchdog subreddit r/AgainstHateSubreddits. “It’s frankly hypocritical that Steve [Huffman] is now trying to claim that he thinks Reddit holds the value that black lives matter,” he told me. “Or that it stands against hate, racism, and violence when [it has] been well known for that for years.”
Dubteedub reached out to moderators he knew personally to build up support, and others signed on after news traveled through moderator group chats on Slack. The letter was written in response to Huffman’s Black Lives Matter statement, but posted three days after he published a longer note promising that Reddit would update its content policy to include “a statement on hate” and “a principle that Reddit isn’t to be used as a weapon,” a reference to coordinated harassment campaigns that have been organized on the site. Changes would be made in collaboration with moderators in the coming “weeks, not months,” he added.
Both of Huffman’s posts were not a substantial-enough reckoning with the site’s past, Dubteedub argues, and danced around the reality that “Reddit has been a recruitment ground for white nationalism for many years.” Dubteedub and many of the moderators in this story asked to be identified by their Reddit username or their first name only, because of a fear of harassment and doxxing.
Those concerns stem from the fact that a faction of Reddit still wants to cling to its notorious culture: R/AgainstHateSubreddits has 101,000 members, compared with the 119,000 in r/WatchRedditDie—a diametrically opposed subreddit with a single-minded dedication to “free speech” without limitation that has hosted outrage over the open letter. And there’s at least some dissent even within the subreddits that have signed on. When I messaged the moderators of r/GarlicBreadMemes for comment, one wrote back that they had been outvoted by their moderation team, that they disagreed with the subreddit’s choice to sign on, and that r/AgainstHateSubreddits was “a piece of shit.”
The company responded to the letter almost immediately, though mostly just to confirm receipt. Among the open letter’s demands was the request that the board seat left vacant by Ohanian be filled by a black person, as Ohanian had publicly requested. Huffman had already committed to do so, and Reddit announced its hire early yesterday. The letter also requested that the company hire more paid community managers to help moderators. (A Reddit spokesperson told me that this request was under discussion, but did not have a specific timeline for implementation.)
The Black Lives Matter movement has provided Reddit users with an opportunity for moral clarity—moderators who have been uncomfortable with the site’s culture for years feel compelled to speak up more emphatically than before. Brandon Wong, a 21-year-old moderator of r/malefashionadvice, told me that he’s proud of the community he’s helped build in his subreddit, but he feels embarrassed to tell his friends that he spends so much time on the site. “I worry that they might think I’m some alt-right troll,” he said. Aimee Knight, a 22-year-old moderator of r/transgenderteens, asked her subreddit to sign on to the letter because of its similarities to an open letter it published last month about raids on LGBTQ subreddits. “Subreddit moderators in general are becoming louder and more united in our stance against abusive behavior on Reddit,” she told me.
Several moderators who signed on to the letter told me that this dissent had been bubbling since the August 2017 white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, an event that made it undeniable that online radicalization causes real harm. Dubteedub said that r/The_Donald, a pro–Donald Trump subreddit that is a cesspool of white supremacy, has also galvanized moderators. It was placed behind a warning page and delisted from Google Search last year, but it’s still up on the site.
Despite Reddit’s public claim that it doesn’t tolerate harassment, moderators of subreddits that draw attention from racist trolls say they have had to make do with their own ingenuity and technical know-how for years. TheYellowRose, a 30-year-old moderator of the subreddit r/blackladies who signed on to the open letter, has spent the past eight years battling racism on Reddit nearly every day. Periods of peak harassment map to real-world events, she told me, citing the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, as a period of particularly intense harassment. The subreddit was subject to repeated “brigading”—a term for when users of one subreddit organize coordinated attacks against another.
“We were heavily brigaded by a subreddit called r/GreatApes, which is not about animals,” she told me. “We sent countless messages to the admins asking for help, over and over again.” Shortly after, her team wrote an open letter titled “We have a racist user problem and Reddit won’t take action,” which was signed by dozens of subreddits. “We heard nothing,” she said. (A Reddit spokesperson said the company is aware of that letter but declined to comment on it, citing the fact that the company was under different leadership at the time.)
Five years ago, left to its own devices, r/blackladies built its own, custom auto-moderator. It automatically bans any user who has ever posted in any subreddit that r/blackladies considers dangerous—the largest being r/The_Donald. TheYellowRose helped Dubteedub draft the recent open letter and reviewed it before it was published. Although her previous attempt to compel the company to change failed, she felt it was important to join a chorus making clear that the majority of Reddit users don’t want to use a website overrun by racists.
The current wave of protests has elicited promises of solidarity from companies in every industry—some more genuine-seeming than others, and some ridiculous. Reddit’s claim that its “values are clear” was not especially convincing, but a huge cross section of its user base has made its values quite explicit as a response. No one would suggest that moderation is a task as simple as banning some hateful keywords, or that Reddit can ever become a utopia so long as the offline world lets racism fester. But the cultural shift the letter represents may prove more important than any granular tweaks to a content policy.
Reddit is known for racism right now, but if hundreds of millions of people who use it don’t want it to be, that says something about its future—and the future of social-media platforms more broadly. Many Americans have spent months inside, on the internet, thinking about what it means to live online. Now many of them are in the streets, thinking about how to tackle racism. More than ever, it’s obvious that the internet is the real world. What happens here matters. What happens here happens out there.