In the battle of the Internet, the trolls are winning

The Takeaway
Reddit HQ

The former interim CEO of Reddit, Ellen Pao, appears to be a casualty in the battle between free speech and hate speech on the internet.

During her tenure at Reddit, Pao tried to rein in harassment, bullying and hate speech on the online forum. In response, as she puts it, she found herself in the middle of “one of the largest trolling attacks in history.” After Pao tried to implement the new rules, more than 200,000 people signed a petition demanding that she be ousted.

"The trolls are winning”, Pao wrote in a Washington Post op-ed after she resigned earlier this month.

Reddit, which is owned by Condé Nast, has become the town hall of the Internet. Every month, more than 170 million users visit Reddit, which is dedicated to the principle that you can say virtually anything about anything, to anyone at anytime.

Dubbed the “front-page of the internet,” Reddit hosts a variety of organized areas of interest that are known subreddits, including disturbing ones like “Watch People Die,” “Pics of Dead Kids,” and “Rape is Fun,” along with several others that cannot be printed here.

Where is the line between trolling and expressing a distasteful or even hateful opinion? And are companies that host online discussions really obligated to protect free speech or the feelings of potential users?

“I think it depends on what your definition of trolling is,” says Manoush Zomorodi, host of the tech podcast Note to Self. “I think that people who are on the ‘Rape Philosophy’ [subreddit] board don’t consider themselves trolls, but they have a place to go to discuss those issues. There are lots of other subreddits that also have incredibly offensive comments and discussions. I would consider them trolls, but maybe they don’t consider themselves trolls.”

Zomorodi thinks that online users are reaching the limit of their tolerance for offensive content.

“I think we’re coming to a point on the Internet, which was founded on free speech, where people are saying, ‘Wait a minute, we need to have boundaries,’” she says.

It appears that Reddit's new CEO, Steve Huffman, who is also one of the company’s founders, is working to take some kind of a stand, though one that’s not quite as aggressive as Pao’s.

“[Huffman] has said that anything that looks like outright harassment, bullying, or abuse is now banned,” says Zomorodi. “But, as Huffman put it, they are banning behavior — not ideas. So just plain old offensive content can still exist, although there will be new boundaries for these ‘offensive forums,’ as we’re calling them. Users will have to opt-in and and Reddit will not make money off of them with advertising.”

Turning web traffic into cash is a persistent problem, even for some of the largest websites, like Reddit. As a company and a community, how far should the site go to rein in speech deemed offensive or hateful in order to make it a friendlier environment for a wider audience and for advertisers?

“That’s the big issue for Reddit — how do you hold onto a vast amount of traffic that keeps your business afloat while not scaring away advertisers with don’t feel OK with having those things?” says Zomorodi. “They haven’t figured it out yet. They’re going to lead the way, I think, for a lot of these other forums. Or this could bring them down — there are other sites popping up that are siphoning some of the traffic because [users] don’t want to have restrictions placed on them.”

As of now, Zomorodi says Reddit will remain in a gray area as it balances revenue demands and user desires for a totally uncensored platform.

“That’s where the Internet is right now — [balancing] competing interests, corporate interests, questions of how do we survive and how do we stay true to the original principles?” Zomorodi says. “I don’t think anyone has figured it out, which is why the Reddit case has been so fascinating. Whether it wants to be or not, it’s going to have to forge the way in terms of figuring out what the laws are of this new online society.”

This story first aired as an interview on PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.