Monday, September 16, 2013

To Catch a Redditor

A while back, I posted about a conflict between two website audiences - YTMND and Ebaumsworld. There was some controversy over content ownership, which resulted in an organized movement against Ebaumsworld by YTMND's community. Participants (probably having an average age of 14) jokingly referred to the event as "World Wide Web War 1".

Of course, that was back in 2006. The Internet's changed a lot since then - communities have grown larger and more heterogeneous. You wouldn't ever expect to see a spat break out between two website communities in this day and age, right?

Click to enlarge, and learn just how wrong you are.

In 2012, members of SomethingAwful's community launched an organized effort to shut down Reddit's vilest sub-forums - and won. Here is a story of equal parts social justice, online vigilantism, and inter-community drama.

Most of this story (and article title, too) is shamelessly taken from a SomethingAwful thread that you could probably read yourself, but it would require forums registration that is not free. It's a shame, because I think watching the narrative unfold is very entertaining. Hopefully, after reading this post, you're left with a sense of amusement and moral satisfaction.

As of this writing, Reddit sits at 106 in Alexa's global website rankings, and is the 33rd most visited website in the United States. The website has been hugely successful as a content aggregation website - the site format is designed around users efficiently sharing Internet links with one another. This has allowed massive amounts of online information to spread around through Reddit, with Reddit even calling itself "the front page of the Internet".

Other website mechanisms on Reddit allow for deeper organization of these links. The upvote/downvote system allows users to vote on whether they like the content of a link. This allows for a user-regulated platform, where crowd-favored content can get pushed to the front page without any input from administrators. The subreddit system allows people to create new discussion spaces for any topic they wish. The subreddit creator would then be in charge of overseeing this new discussion space, much like how a new forums administrator would be in charge of overseeing their new forum. The subreddit system has allowed for a very diverse array of content on Reddit, and in many ways causing Reddit to succeed the traditional internet forum.

This system, of course, has its limits. It permits the creation of echo chambers and noise content. While Reddit has played a role in some interesting online phenomena, it's also played a role in reprehensible ones. This isn't to say that there aren't useful, informative, positive things to be found on Reddit - there certainly are. In fact, I'd wager to say that the majority of people on Reddit only ever interact with the good things that Reddit has to offer. However, make no mistake that there is a seedy underbelly.

Hey, if William Shatner says it, it must be true!

The ranks of this seedy underbelly included pedophiles and distributors of child pornography. In the fall of 2011, Anderson Cooper had a segment on his CNN show reporting on r/jailbait, a subreddit where community members could exchange pictures of young girls for nefarious purposes. Cooper reported that the official response from Reddit's owners was the following:
"We're a free speech site and the cost of that is that there's stuff that's offensive on there...once we start taking down some things we find offensive, then we're no longer a free speech site and no longer a platform for everyone. We're exerting editorial control. And that's not what we are..."-Erik Martin, General Manager,
A lot of Redditors were both annoyed and amused by the report, as some felt that it focused disproportionate attention to a minority of scumbags on an otherwise useful website. While that is a good point, the size of Reddit's illicit online circles was a little bigger than most wanted to believe.

Redditors had voted r/jailbait the best subreddit of 2008. The subreddit had been getting tens of thousands of unique visitors a day even prior to the CNN report. Reddit's co-founder Alexis Ohanian spoke against Anderson Cooper's report, dismissing the accusations of peddling child pornography by saying that Reddit doesn't host the content anyway, and that kids should be taught not to post things online instead. While the administrators were fully aware that their online property was being used as a means to distribute borderline to blatantly illegal content exploiting children, they refused to do anything about it in the name of "free speech".

Anderson Cooper was a bit late to the party with his coverage of r/jailbait, but shortly after his report, r/jailbait got shut down. In r/jailbait's place, other subreddits popped up distributing the same content. It was a many-headed hydra, where chopping off the first head resulted in nine more to sprout, each catering to creepier and more specific jailbait fetishes. Reddit's administrators remained inactive about the issue, and it seemed unlikely that CNN would run another segment on the subject.

So, on February 2012, members of the SomethingAwful forum community took matters into their own hands.

All in all, unlikely heroes.

A lot of SomethingAwful's content is dedicated to making fun of the Internet. SomethingAwful also houses some of the oldest forums online, and its members call themselves "goons". Goons had already bore some resentment towards Reddit for generally diverting web traffic away from other forums, but the clear racism and misogyny present in many subreddits made Reddit an ideal object of mockery. The subreddit "Shit Reddit Says" (shortened to SRS), a place for people on Reddit to make fun of terrible Redditors, is managed by goons and has grown to be a community force unto itself.

Around the time that r/jailbait got shut down, goons and SRS had taken it on themselves to reveal and make fun of the most flagrantly creepy offenders in that community. They called this reveal "pedogeddon", and may have even had a role in getting Anderson Cooper to roll the story. They had more ambitious plans the second time around.

Goons and SRS members decided to start a grassroots campaign against Reddit's pedophilia-themed subreddits. They made pre-designed messages to send out to churches, local politicians, and the press, in order to inform them of Reddit's illegal activities. They systematically took screenshots of statements by the managers of these subreddits so as to collect evidence of their awful behavior. They compiled lists of links to where you could submit stories to media outlets. Their aim was to reveal Reddit as a website that harbored blatant child pornography, to rouse outcry, and to get the subreddits shut down (if not all of Reddit shut down).

Of course, Reddit did not capitulate to this pressure right away. The process was complicated by how Reddit's administrators and the pedophilia subreddit moderators were in friendly contact with one another. Reddit's administrators would remove comments that had the audacity to suggest banning the illicit material from the site.

Violentacrez, the former leader of the jailbait subreddit and then-continuing leader of other niche creepy subreddits, would interact closely with Reddit's higher-ups. Violentacrez in particular was a very messed up individual who, paradoxically, had one of the highest karma values on all of Reddit for submitted links. To make it clear, karma on Reddit is accumulated by providing links that get lots of upvotes from other Redditors. For Violentacrez to have such high karma would mean that a lot of people - all too high a number - liked his Reddit contributions.

The downside to featuring damning screenshots from Reddit is that Reddit is really ugly.

Some Redditors jumped to the defense of their beloved website, arguing that shutting down the subreddits wouldn't actually do anything to deter the spread of child pornography. The problem with this argument is that Reddit's administrators were deliberately turning a blind eye to child pornography being linked on their website. If Reddit's administrative policy is to permit links to child pornography on their website, then that would make Reddit eligible to be treated like any other website that links to child pornography, even if Reddit simultaneously houses legal, useful, interesting content.

Others offered the token arguments of internet libertarianism, saying that these subreddits were an expression of free speech. The problem here is that Reddit is a private entity, and its owners are still accountable for its web content. Private entities aren't responsible for upholding free speech, but they are responsible for obeying the law, and their subreddit content was not even meeting that minimum requirement.

Still others argued about a "slippery slope", saying that banning one thing would only lead to banning other things. This argument is self-evidently stupid.

In less than seven hours after SomethingAwful's rallying cry was posted, Reddit made an official announcement saying that they were going to ban suggestive and sexual content featuring minors. One can only presume that the fear of total site shutdown was enough to get the administrators to rethink their policies. It took six years, and "careful deliberation" on part of the administrators, but it happened.

Even SomethingAwful will make it clear that not all Redditors are pedophiles, and that Reddit's awful subreddits are not representative of Reddit as a whole.  But the conflict represents a very interesting intersection of online phenomena.

Not even SomethingAwful's admin can resist.

On one level, you see the SomethingAwful community asserting their power in numbers in a very strategic way: by appealing to authority greater than them through grassroots campaigning aimed at public figures. This is a very unique kind of online vigilantism - it is directed mob behavior, with very well-defined goals. This was internet vigilantism at its finest, and is in sharp contrast to the garbled mess that was the Boston bombing's online vigilantism of 4chan and Reddit. It was also internet vigilantism with a stated intent that was completely noble. Thwarting the distribution of child pornography is an indisputably good thing.

On another level, you see a real spite for the Reddit platform emerge among the SomethingAwful community. While SomethingAwful doesn't really discriminate against what parts of the Internet to make fun of, Reddit has become a particular fixation for goons. The platform is basically used as a slur among goons, and making fun of Reddit is low-hanging fruit that even the least clever among Internet users can do. It's hard to say if goons were exclusively motivated by concern for children in their actions against Reddit. A lot of them seemed to revel in the prospect of getting all of Reddit shut down, even when most of Reddit is certainly not illegal.

Meanwhile, Redditors who know about SomethingAwful's role in Reddit's policy change have gone on to make conspiratorial claims about goons, accusing SomethingAwful members of planting illegal material on Reddit in order to condemn the website. This claim went completely unsubstantiated, and is more representative of Redditors' anger than it is of any actual event. This event didn't necessarily bring people on Reddit together as "Redditors" or SomethingAwful members together as "goons", but it did make people on Reddit harbor spite for an entire forum community, and it did empower goons to make general statements about another entire forum community.

Of course, it's worth noting that Reddit is a far larger website than SomethingAwful. Most Redditors probably don't even know about Pedogeddon, or even of the existence of SomethingAwful. There's a population imbalance at work here. It's a testament to a way the size of the Internet has evolved, as compared to the YTMND/Ebaumsworld conflict. Also note that the tactics used have evolved in sophistication since then.

As far as individuals involved are concerned, ViolentAcrez was eventually unmasked by a reporter on Gawker, was publicly shamed, and eventually lost his job. As we come to expect from Reddit's nutty libertarian wing, a lot of people came to his defense, saying that this was unnecessary. Personally, I'm pretty okay with the unmasking.

Even now, we can see inter-community conflicts emerge online, and they can be very large in scale. What the next "internet war" we see online will be, I do not know, but it's clear that they can still happen.

1 comment:

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