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The Curious Story of Reddit, Heinous Content & Free Speech
Last week Gawker uncovered one of Reddit’s most notorious users, Violentacrez. This user was a man known for creating vile, hateful, and illicit Subreddits on the site that sometimes displayed unlawful content. Reddit has always been a site that allowed users to mainly act out with little to no filtration other than from individual moderators of any given Subreddit. The outing of this Reddit monster brings to light the legal & moral issues that any site can run into when inmates are running the Asylum and the conundrum that Reddit is facing.
You see, Michael Brutsch, aka Violentacrez, would find a topic of interest (typically racist, gory, extreme porn-y content) and simply build a sub-section (known as the Subreddit.) His most famous Subreddit, “Jailbait,” featured young, underage children and was shut down last year on the grounds of child pornography. Brutsch continued to create tasteless, hateful Subreddits (for an uncensored list, see Gawker) and Reddit continued to allow it under the stance of free speech.
The interesting thing about this story is that Reddit allowed this behavior to continue, and even encouraged it. According to CNN, Brutsch received a gold-plated bobblehead doll from Reddit for “for making significant contributions to the site.” Additionally, Brutsch won an award (sent by Reddit) for starting the “Worst Subreddit. Despite having won awards and growing these demented Subreddits, the Violentacrez account had been banned multiple times by the social networking site. Reddit told CNN that in the case of Brutsch, they “regret(s) not taking stronger action sooner.”
So Reddit was facing a decision where either side chosen is a very slippery slope. By filtering distasteful, grotesque content Reddit would be limiting free speech, something that the site is vehemently against. If they don’t filter content the hateful, disgusting posts will freely remain.
Yesterday Reddit CEO, Yishan Wong told CNN that Reddit would not begin censoring the vile Subreddits:
“We stand for free speech… we are not going to ban distasteful subreddits.”
He went on further to state:
“We also think that if someday, in the far future, we do become a universal platform for human discourse, it would not do if in our youth, we decided to censor things simply because they were distasteful.”
Not everything that is merely legal is necessarily reasonable. And while we certainly don’t want laws infringing unnecessarily on free speech, we also must accept the fact that we need to take responsibility for our speech and actions. If we don’t do so, we are playing directly into the hands of those politicians who would very much like to make examples — such as the one under discussion here — the basis and excuse for draconian legislative crackdowns on free speech that would be disastrous.
Ultimately, it appears to me that both Brutsch and Reddit made the same kind of fundamental error. They behaved as if they were operating in a parallel universe, a place where normal concepts of ethics and responsibility simply didn’t apply, didn’t matter, didn’t have any actual impact on the real world.
To put it simply, user-generated content without a fundamentally sound guidelines can be very dangerous. If you ever decide to implement a forum, create a community or allow UGC on a site, a strict set of rules from the beginning is a must.
Did Reddit make the right decision by letting heinous (but legal) Subreddits remain? Should they have squashed them while trampling on users’ free speech? Well, it all depends who you ask.