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Reddit’s Moral Dilemma

Last week, hackers stole and distributed nude celebrity photos to Reddit forums. These pictures circulated the website for days before they were finally removed by moderators, citing copyright challenges. Those introduced to Reddit by this scandal were shocked that such blatantly illegal content could stay online so long—but for those familiar with Reddit, this was nothing new.

On paper, Reddit is only a bulletin board, a kind of catalog for the Internet. But in practice, it is an intricately layered community, organized by users into 482,988 separate “subreddit” forums on various interests and activities. The site boasts an average of about 150 million views a month. It claims to be an open platform for free speech, leaving almost all content management and moderation to users along a few simple guidelines. This openness is Reddit’s greatest asset, as it garners massive amounts of traffic. However, it is also the site’s greatest weakness: the celebrity nude photo hack is only the latest in a series of scandals involving illegal, often explicit content distributed through Reddit.

Last Saturday, Reddit CEO Yishan Wong issued an official response to the celebrity photo hack in a post loftily titled “Every Man Is Responsible for His Own Soul”:

…We consider ourselves not just a company running a website where one can post links and discuss them, but the government of a new type of community. The role and responsibility of a government differs from that of a private corporation, in that it exercises restraint in the usage of its powers … Actions which are morally objectionable or otherwise inappropriate we choose to influence by exhortation, emphasizing positive examples, or by selectively highlighting good content and good actions.

He expands on the moral philosophy behind these decisions:

You choose what kind of subreddit to create and what kind of rules you will enforce. We will try not to interfere – not because we don’t care, but because we care that you make your choices between right and wrong. Virtuous behavior is only virtuous if it is not arrived at by compulsion.

Wong’s admonition was not well-received by many Reddit users, who criticized its patronizing tone and inconsistent enforcement of already-vague policies. Their outcry amply underlines Reddit’s inadequate conception of ethics and responsibility.

While linking to illegal material (as opposed to hosting it) does not make Reddit culpable in the eyes of the courts, it should not expunge them from the fact that criminals can and do regularly use its services to promote illicit material. Despite complaints, subreddits dedicated to misogyny, bestiality, and racism (to name a few) still exist. One user points out that while Reddit took down the celebrity photos after the outcry, it still hosts a subreddit dedicated to stolen photos of non-celebrities, posted with the tagline “they should know better.”

At Forbes, Sarah Jeong noted that even though the First Amendment doesn’t apply to private platforms, Reddit invoked it anyway. In order to legitimize its “anything goes” policy, the privately-owned website claims to be a kind of government, even as it fails to protect “citizens” that are routinely and unjustly victimized by its content. Timothy Lee at Vox fears that the ultimate result of the debacle will be that, from now on, Reddit must be legally challenged before it will remove harmful material, putting those who can’t afford adequate legal representation at greater risk.

Reddit insists that its policies exist to cultivate virtue in its users. But its actions (and lack thereof) speak otherwise. The website’s rules are enforced reactively, when public protest becomes too clamorous to ignore, as when media pressure finally forced Reddit to close “r/Jailbait,” a forum for sharing sexually provocative pictures of minors.

Reddit says it wants to build a moral community, then hides behind a claim to pseudo-government status to justify its free speech jargon.  Ultimately, it won’t protect those it claims to govern. Wong’s statement regarding moral responsibility does little but highlight the hypocrisy behind it.

Stephen Gibbs is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative.


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