Reddit, “The Front Page of The Internet,” was once referred to as the web’s “Wild West.” For years, the site remained a non-user-friendly interface where one could share “dank” memes, start debates, form communities and occasionally look for advice on hiking gear. In 2011, Reddit’s reputation tanked when its bad side was exposed for the perp clubhouse it was, with subreddits like r/jailbait and more dark web-level content.
In recent years (while still housing r/The_Donald and r/TheRedPill), Reddit has risen higher on lists of the most frequented sites and downloaded apps in the U.S. This is probably thanks to the sweet dollars being raked in by increased ad space and the major overhaul the site underwent beginning in 2017.
To experienced Redditors, the site isn’t what it used to be. Many claim a new form of moderation has taken over, different from the censorship of things like violence-inciting hate speech, child pornography and other dangerous or criminal content that’s already been implemented. This is virtually true. When the media platform funded by advertisement began to morph into an advertising platform supported by media, there became more reason than social good to monitor site content.
Reddit’s makeover, in hopes of increasing engagement, did predictable things. They changed the site’s appearance and increased ad space, which almost everyone hated. However, the overhaul had more to offer. It now also protected “brand safety” from “user generated content” by doing things like blocking comments on advertisements and spying on your content to figure out which tailored ad to bombard you with.
“Astroturfing,” the new term being thrown around to describe corporations generating fake grassroots support in the media, has also become prevalent. Unsurprisingly, I have yet to read a good review of this on Reddit.
This is definitely not the first or only case of profit-driven content control. Objectionable content often creates backlash, which means bad press. If a site is in the spotlight, to stay alive it has two choices: remove the content or choose to adhere to the principle of free speech and hope they chose right. We’ve seen this time and again from Google, Google-owned YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Reddit was never a platform of “ultimate freedom,” but that was a key component of its individuality from more “mainstream” sites ─ besides just being worth less.
Regardless, Reddit and most big internet destinations are privately owned and are technically under no obligation to grant users the ability to speak freely. Although Reddit’s moral compass for managing content is somewhat existent (and partly user-run), an increased emphasis on the bottom line is not likely not improve things. Google recently showed us what it would do for a few more Google-bucks with Dragonfly, the censorship program it developed to help make China’s repressive authoritarian regime even more repressive and authoritarian.
Sure, Google is fun and quirky, just like “The Internship,” but they act as if Tiananmen Square just never happened. (While we’re on this topic, TikTok has apparently been removing content covering protests in Hong Kong.) When under fire, head Googler of Global Policy, Karan Bhatia, claimed to have discontinued Dragonfly but couldn’t promise not to basically keep doing the same thing.
Reddit has not ─ and might not ─ go this far but has long been deleting political threads and posts with keywords from “Tesla” to “Snowden” on the 5 million subscriber channel, r/technology. We continue to be brought back to discussions of the ethics of internet censorship and anonymity that began on the site with r/jailbait in 2011, and that’ve been around since the word “terrorism” came on the scene.
Although it’s the Right’s turn to feel personally victimized by tech companies, in a time when data has apparently “surpassed oil in value,” the information gap poses a potential threat to us all. Reddit “astroturfing” will likely be playing an increasing role in 2020 political campaigning as the site becomes part of the new era of social media marketing, where information is not only harvested from users, but kept from them. Technically speaking, a “Front Page of the Internet” never existed, but even as a moniker, the phrase applies less to Reddit than it once did. Developers say Reddit has finally “grown up.”