Reddit shows that democracy on the internet is fraught with challenges

Throughout history people have formed new governments for all sorts of reasons: to cement alliances, expand empires, or secure individual freedoms.

Marc Beaulac had a question about sweaters.

Specifically, it focused on the centuries-old debate in offices between men who want to turn on the air conditioning and women who want it to be turned down. "What I thought is that in the next phase of this argument, I should say," Why aren't you wearing a sweater? "

But Beaulac, a daytime photographer in New England, knew it was a sensitive subject and was cautious when it came to mansplaining. In 2013, he went to Reddit, the vast network of interest-based discussion forums, and started a new group (or "subreddit") to get outside opinions on whether it would be impolite to actually ask someone their sweater question.

Or, as the name he gave his new found community put, "Am I the asshole?"

"I am very sorry to have chosen this term," said Beaulac. But now that "AITA", as it is called, is the size of a small country – with 2.6 million members it has a slightly larger population than The United States did it in 1776 – "I really can't rename it."

In the early days, the community lacked formal rules, Beaulac said. But when the sweater ethics shifted to other everyday moral dilemmas, the membership grew to several thousand people and Beaulac called in a small team of moderators to ensure that everything went smoothly.

Over time, this team developed a sophisticated legal system, adding new rules and tweaking old ones as their vision for the community evolved. Today, 14 basic rules regulate behavior in the forum (rule three: accept the judgment of your colleagues; rule seven: only posts about interpersonal conflicts; rule 14: no coronavirus posts). Meanwhile around 30 moderators – classified in a strict hierarchy, with Beaulac at the top – remove posts and ban users according to the forum's custom rules and Reddit Terms of Service.

Beaulacs is a familiar narrative on Reddit, in which much of the rule-making and enforcement is bottom-up and varies between subreddits. Company administrators occasionally ban forums where hate speech and violent threats get out of hand, but for the most part, people like Beaulac are free to create and rule new communities at their own discretion.

This quasi-democratic approach to content moderation sets Reddit apart from most other major social media platforms. Competitors like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and Tick ​​tock Rely on artificial intelligence programs and paid moderators to enforce a single (albeit often very complicated) set of corporate site-wide policies. Even Facebook's recent efforts at outsource some of the toughest decisions to a third party did not hold the users responsible.

Reddit's decentralized model offers flexibility, allows different communities to set their own standards of acceptance, and puts decisions in the hands of people who understand the context and are involved in the outcome. But it's not without its drawbacks.

Don't do the 6 o'clock news

Self-governance issues are embedded in the Internet. A do-it-yourself open access hacker ethos drove early technical innovations. John Perry Barlow's influentialDeclaration of Independence of CyberspaceArgued for cyber libertarianism during the dot-com boom of the 1990s; Recent experiments in encryption, crowdsourcing, and distributed networks have tried to inject democratic values ​​directly into the architecture of new platforms.

But the rise of hegemonic platforms has destroyed part of the early Internet mind. A handful of companies monitor large parts of online communications and give them the ability to do so censor politically charged news, push alternative platforms offline and one-sided users step – even presidents – from America's de facto public forum. Since the march of violent conspiracy theory into the US Capitol on January 6, the volume of demands for crackdown on the platforms has increased.

A mob surrounds the US Capitol on January 6th

President Trump's loyal insurgents climb an inauguration platform on the Western Front of the US Capitol.

(Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press)

Founded in 2005 and recently valued at $ 6 billionReddit has evolved around the interests and customs of its users, but hasn't always been able to avoid top-down interventions. In response to public pressure, it has banned subreddits, including one for "CreepshotsOr non-consensual nudity and attending Trump's post-Jan. 6 Deplatforming through prohibition the subreddit "Donald Trump". (The company had also banned a previous pro-Trump forum. "The_Donald.")

But for the most part, company administrators are hands-free and choose to delegate moderation to users instead.

"It's kind of a trope or cliché among Reddit moderators that the admins don't really do anything until it's on the news," said Chris Wenham, who hosts "Aww," a subreddit trade of cute pictures of animals and babies. "You have to wait for the six o'clock news to appear and then Reddit will do something."

That means he and Beaulac can form very different communities within the same Reddit infrastructure. A representative post on “Aww” shows a tiny cocker spaniel holding a spoon with the caption “This is Baxter. He is 11 weeks old and discovered peanut butter today. “A representative post on“ AITA? ”Asks whether it is the user's fault“ for threatening to put my daughter's puppy up for adoption ”.

A mob in the Capitol pulled down barricades on January 6th.

Rioters attempt to break a police cordon in the Capitol on January 6th.

(John Minchillo / Associated Press)

Unpaid moderators Write rules for each subreddit Then use tiplines, automated filters, and manual monitoring to enforce them. While other platforms usually only remove posts that fall into certain categories – threats, misinformation, hate speech – a subreddit can override something just because it doesn't align with the community's self-selected topics and norms.

The extent to which this process is democratic varies depending on the subreddit. Some rules result from discussions in the back room and votes only for moderators. others are the product of open referendums.

"From time to time you get a suggestion from the regulars on the submarine that sounds like a good idea and we will implement it," Wenham said. But that's rare: "We don't want the rules to keep changing. It makes it even more difficult to enforce what we have."

The selection process for moderators themselves is also different, but looks less like a democracy than a benevolent, self-sustaining oligarchy. Older moderators choose new ones for their community contributions or other attributes.

Wenham didn't even use "Aww" when he was selected to run it. Instead, while hosting the Pics subreddit for photography, he'd gotten good at identifying fake “sock puppet” accounts whose owners would repost viral photos to increase engagement before selling the accounts to scammers who use them to bypass anti-bot filters. "It's very lucrative, apparently," Wenham said.

As Harrison Ford in "Blade Runner", Wenham became a pro at finding out the real "Pics" users of the "Account Farmers". He used reverse image search to identify recycled or archive photos and developed a keen eye for mass-produced usernames (sequences such as "ASDF" or "JKL", for example, showed a "keyboard smash" approach to quickly generating legions of new accounts ).

Despite his lack of community ties, "Aww" was impressed with Wenham's work on "Pics" and recruited him to help them tackle similar issues. He is now the most senior member of the forum.

"I wasn't trained for it"

Volunteering as facility manager For a website that calls itself the "home page of the Internet", this isn't always nice.

From the 10 Reddit moderators The Times spoke to this article, many described their work as rewarding and often spoken of in public service language or emotional support. However, the majority also refused to offer their real names, often for fear of being "doxed" or sharing their personal information online and harassing them.

Those concerns speak for a darker side of Reddit's model.

On Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the likeProfessional contractors are paid to sift through the worst things people post online – snuff movies, Holocaust denial, animal abuse – so they can delete them before too many users see them. The work leaves many of them traumatized.

However, Reddit's model means that if similarly disruptive content is posted on a subreddit, it may be an unpaid community moderator to deal with it first. And according to Rob Allam, a moderator on the slurping comedy subreddit RoastMe, they do so without proper training or assistance from Reddit.

"I had an experience that I think I'll die if I remember," Allam said. “We actually got child porn … and then we were spammed with it everywhere. We had to involve the FBI. "

Working as a moderator meant seeing "blood and death and blurring and sexism and racism" every day, but that was something completely different.

"That was really damaging to my sanity," said Allam. Before the incident was his one of the most productive reports on Reddit; By his estimate, he moderated 60 million users in over 100 subreddits. But a month or two later he stayed away from the site. "I didn't sign up for this (stuff), dude. I wasn't even trained to deal with it. "

Reddit eventually stepped in to remove the images and Allam gradually came back online but never returned to his previous engagement. Reddit has presented him with valuable opportunities – he met his partner on a comment thread and said he owed his career marketing skills that he improved on the platform – but he remains skeptical that the platform is worth moderating.

"So much time to invest in volunteering at the expense of your own mental health and actual safety … it's not a logical equation," he said. "You are literally the buffer between all the noise – and usually the noise is not positive – and the company."

Even moderators with a more positive outlook raised concerns about how much support Reddit was giving them. Some were frustrated with sexism on the platform or unclear expectations about whether and how to review misinformation. Others complained about the lack of basic security tools.

A recent Reddit run on shares in the video game retailer GameStop Take a look at those concerns when the subreddit behind the rise, "WallStreetBets," saw its moderation tools Buckle for increased traffic.

A Reddit rep asked for comment The times too a new report from the company about the status of his work with voluntary moderators; written down recent efforts Provide moderators with psychological support; and cited several additions made to the moderators' tool belts over the past year.

However, the bigger question that makes Reddit a major case study in the broader debate about moderation is whether it is possible to give online communities that level of self-determination without activating their worst impulses.

That means: can democracy or at least something like that work on the internet?

Other online collaborative projects – Wikipedia; Creative Commons Licensing; Crowdsourced scientific research – has shown that the Internet is able to concentrate large volunteer forces on common projects. However, social media goes one step further and lets everyone create their own community. Sometimes the results are as funny and harmless as "AITA". Sometimes they are as toxic as "Creepshots" and "TheDonald".

Reddit's decentralized approach to moderation can promote free speech and self-government, said Sharon Bradford Franklin, policy director at the New America Open Technology Institute. "This approach means niche communities specific to certain cultures or interests can thrive. But that includes creating a space for communities devoted to hate, conspiracy theories and other harmful content," she added via email .

The responsibility for outsourcing moderation also means that the company "may have less responsibility for responding in real time to situations where malicious content proliferates on the platform," Franklin continued.

Similar problems can arise on other platforms where users can organize sub-communities. far-right militias and the QAnon conspiracy have used Facebook groups, for example, to organize themselves and communicate with one another.

Of course, democracy in the real world can, under the right (or wrong) circumstances, empower white supremacists. This suggests that these issues aren't unique to social media. Rather, they fall back on much longer-lasting questions of freedom, security, and power that political philosophers have grappled with for millennia.

Ultimately, anyone trying to build the perfect online society has to grapple with the question: AITA?

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