The far-right playbook for weaponising free speech on Reddit

Last updated: 22 August 2018

Reddit is the world's most popular Internet forum according to alexa.com. Its success can undoubtedly be attributed to a mix of information technology prowess, free speech policies and as always, luck.

I have been casually browsing Reddit for many years although I did not join the community until 13 May 2017. In my short time as an active member, I have noticed a destructive trend, which is threatening the viability of Reddit as a productive forum for news and politics. My intent is to expose damaging behaviour of the far-right on Reddit and put it into context.

Hate speech and censorship

Subreddits have a degree of freedom to set their own posting rules and wilfully violating the rules may get a user banned by subreddit moderators. Reddit has a content policy that all subreddits must follow by default. Subreddits can adopt more restrictive rules than those set by the Reddit-wide content policy but they may not adopt looser rules.

The content policy of Reddit is straightforward. It is not permissible to post anything that violates US laws. This covers the obvious things, such as child pornography and incitation of violence. On the other hand, Reddit does not prohibit hate speech nor fake news/false conspiracy theories.

In Europe, hate speech is generally outlawed although the definition and penalties vary greatly between the states. Europeans do not typically see hate speech as something worth protecting under the umbrella of free speech as it is by its very nature destructive and unproductive, considering how it has been used throughout human history to fuel the worst atrocities.

US Americans have historically held a more absolutist view of free speech where nearly anything is permissible, except a few things such as defamation and purposely causing panic or mass-hysteria, frequently phrased metaphorically as "shouting fire in a crowded theatre". Many fear that if hate speech were banned, then the government might use such a ban to silence regular speech. I personally find the idea far-fetched and not a good example of a slippery slope. Too many US Americans theorise about future tyrannical governments and ways to fight them, but do not show up to vote on election day nor participate in the democratic process, as it exists today. Democracy is not an inanimate phenomenon nor a constant once it has been obtained. It must be actively kept alive, through civic and democratic participation, in perpetuity.

I do however not think that governments should at all undertake the task of deciding what is and is not fake news/false conspiracy theories. Only journalists, academia and the public can be trusted with the power to separate real news from fake news and conspiracies do after all take place in both the public and private sector, even though nearly ever conspiracy theory peddled on the Internet has historically been nonsensical crack pottery. I do understand the scepticism of censorship, particularly secretive and unaccountable censorship conducted by authoritarian governments. Not all censorship is equal however and Reddit does at least to a degree share that opinion. Subreddits can set their own rules on posting, which are essentially nothing more but rules on censorship.

Free speech intolerance

There are quite a few subreddits dedicated to the promotion and discussion of topics that are generally considered right leaning. On some of them, lively debates take place on a regular basis, but those are not the ones I want to focus on here. I want to focus on the ones that make hard-core right-wingers such as Milton Friedman and Ronald Reagan look like the softest of liberal left-wingers.

Perhaps the most infamous of these subreddits is r/The_Donald. This subreddit is dedicated to the worship of the 45th (and perhaps final) president of the United States. Free speech is not tolerated on this subreddit and the most benign form of criticism will result in an immediate banning. Most posts there are intended to aggrandise their Supreme Leader or God-Emperor as they sometimes call him. Very few posts appear to be grounded in observable reality and there is an abundance of lunatic conspiracy theories. When it comes to political opponents of their idol, the consensus is that they are all paedophiles involved in international child-sex abuse-rings.

There are other subreddits of similar nature, such as r/greatawakening and r/Right_Wing_Politics to name a few. They largely differ in the amount of worshipping of the 45th president of the United States and spreading of false conspiracy theories. Some tend to promote mostly white supremacy, antisemitism, Islamophobia and antiegalitarianism aside from typical right-wing ideas such as defending wealth concentration, inaction regarding gun violence, reducing civil rights protections for minorities and so on.

The right prides itself on being the defender of freedom and liberty. In actuality, this notion is about as hypocritical and false as 'family values' are for those conservatives who claim to hold them whilst they cheat on their third wife or are caught having gay sex in a public toilet somewhere. It also reminds me of those conservatives who claim to be pro-life yet think that the electric chair does not get enough use domestically and that bombers do not see enough action in faraway lands.

News and politics

In terms of user subscriptions, some of the most popular subreddits are about current events. The rules these subreddits set themselves and their moderators enforce, determine whether they allow local or international news stories, whether any specific topical restrictions apply and what sort of sources are acceptable. Typically, personal content such as blogs and social media commentary are prohibited, but others may even go as far as disallowing editorials and opinion/analysis pieces from major news outlets.

In many instances, the posting of a particular web page, whether it be entertainment or a news article, may be appropriate for multiple different subreddits. Content is generally not so rigid and well defined that it naturally belongs to a single category, or in our case, a single subreddit. A news story about a dog saving the life of a homeless veteran could belong to respective subreddits for news, veterans, dogs, homelessness and so on. In some cases, a single user posts the same content in multiple subreddits but in other cases, a user encounters a post in a particular subreddit and reposts it in another subreddit. The act of reposting is not considered spamming if done sparingly and in accordance with the rules of each subreddit.

Just as some news and politics subreddits place various restrictions on the sort of content that can be posted on them, there are a few subreddits that go the opposite route and enforce no rules whatsoever, beyond the content policy of Reddit. They aim to be havens of free speech and true market places of ideas, where the users themselves alone decide what is acceptable and noteworthy. Although users can express what they think about posts by leaving comments on them, most elect to do so simply by voting up or down. Doing so does not have any influence on whether a particular post remains or disappears, nor whether a particular user gets to continue posting on the subreddit in question. The only difference voting on posts does is that it affects the so-called karma of users, a relatively meaningless measure of users' contributions to Reddit.

Suffocation by reposting

The destructive trend that I have noticed on Reddit is taking place on the subreddits that have the laxest posting rules. Although they are intended to be free speech forums and open to all users, they end up being dumping grounds for far-right fringe content, fake news and false conspiracy theories.

The reason for this is not that such content is more mainstream and accepted by the public than I am willing to admit. It is because the content is first aggregated on the subreddits where the far-right congregates and is later reposted to other subreddits that are more general in nature and appeal to a wider demographic. The far-right subreddits do not tolerate any form of dissent nor criticism, which ensures that the content posted on them becomes more radical and extreme with the passage of time. The free speech subreddits are consequently littered by the most reprehensible filth as they accept everything that comes their way in the spirit of freedom.

The number of users who post content on far-right subreddits varies and changes over time. Some users post multiple times a day but others just a few times a year. There is however, a small group of users who, other than posting vile content on the far-right subreddits themselves, make a considerable effort to spread the content via reposting as far and wide as possible. The most prolific of these users appear to spend every waking hour reposting toxic fake news articles and insane conspiracy theories on the subreddits that exist to abide by an absolutist definition of free speech. Some of those users will also take the time to comment on their own posts to defend their imbecilic ideas and some are additionally moderators themselves on far-right subreddits.

Why should free speech subreddits tolerate this form of one-way free speech? Why should systematic reposting be allowed from authoritarian subreddits? This weaponisation of free speech by the far-right is suffocating those subreddits that stand for free speech, embrace everything, and reject nothing. An example of a subreddit that the far-right has taken over through suffocation by reposting is r/POLITIC. On the surface, it is just another free speech news and politics subreddit, but it does not take long to notice that it is nearly entirely dominated by the far-right. Another example of a subreddit that is currently under assault is r/worldpolitics. Although it has not entirely been taken over, the far-right is hard at work at driving normal rational people away from it by reposting their obnoxious content to such a degree that it drowns out everything else.

There needs to be a balance between free speech and censorship as both can be weaponised just as easily. There is no use for free speech subreddits if they can be taken over by a dedicated minority of extremists. Reddit does have some technological means to prevent abusive behaviours such as posting restrictions based on frequency but they are not enough. It may also be necessary for free speech subreddit moderators to disallow reposting from authoritarian subreddits and to limit even further the posting frequency so that a handful of users can not dominate entire subreddits.

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The Alt-Right Playbook by Innuendo Studios.