Reddit Co-Founder Alexis Ohanian on Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban,’ Deleting the Alt-Right, and the Internet’s Future

The internet entrepreneur and bestselling author discusses his viral open letter criticizing Trump’s immigration ban, the decision to delete several alt-right forums, and much more.

Issei Kato / Reuters

The “Mayor of the Internet” has spoken. And he is deeply unhappy with President Trump—namely, with the commander-in-chief’s recent executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, a controversial decision that has sparked protests at airports around the country, and led to the unprincipled detainment of the elderly, infirm, and even children.

On Feb. 1st, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, who sits on the board of the aggregation and discussion site boasting approximately 280 million users, posted an open letter to the Reddit community about Trump’s immigration ban.

“President Trump’s recent executive order is not only potentially unconstitutional, but deeply un-American,” the letter read. “As many of you know, I am the son of an undocumented immigrant from Germany and the great grandson of refugees who fled the Armenian Genocide…Without them, there’s no me, and there’s no Reddit. We are Americans. Let’s not forget that we’ve thrived as a nation because we’ve been a beacon for the courageous—the tired, the poor, the tempest-tossed. Right now, Lady Liberty’s lamp is dimming, which is why it’s more important than ever that we speak out and show up to support all those for whom it shines—past, present, and future.”

Ohanian’s post soon went viral, attracting over 1 million unique visitors and 1 million votes, making it one of the highest-scoring Reddit blog posts ever. The 33-year-old wrote the letter after returning from witnessing his fiancée, sports legend Serena Williams, win the Australian Open. And then, after generating headlines for his letter and dedicated performance as sideline cheerleader, the popular site created plenty more when it chose to ban three alt-right forums for violating their content policy. Though the site calls itself the “front page of the internet” and is home to many positive forums (or subreddits), it has also served as a breeding ground for the so-called alt-right: a community of lonely-boy shitposters turned white nationalists.

The Daily Beast spoke to Ohanian about these recent developments.

What inspired you to share your story and speak out against President Trump’s executive order on immigration? I was out of the country for the last two weeks [at the Australian Open] so I missed the inauguration, and I missed the first couple of weeks of the presidency. I felt pretty disconnected. I’d been talking to friends, family, and consuming social media, but it was when I was lying back that I really thought about the country I was going back to. And with all the news around the immigration ban, I just felt like I would be such a hypocrite if I did not say something. On my father’s side I’m descended from immigrants, one of whom was a Syrian refugee from the Armenian genocide, and my mother was an immigrant from Germany whose visa had expired and, for a year and change, was undocumented here in the U.S. I’m grateful that she was not deported, and I’m grateful that this country opened its doors to my family, and it’s the reason I’m here, and it’s the reason Reddit can be here. I knew that, and I knew that I wouldn’t be okay with myself if I didn’t say something.

When I landed—this was one of those international flights where you get excited because there’s Wi-Fi, but the Wi-Fi is so bad that you can’t actually use it—and started catching up on emails, the executive team at Reddit was talking about a post on Monday (this was now Sunday), and I suggested that perhaps mine could work in addition to an official Reddit statement. Everyone seemed pretty excited about that. I suppose I could have published it other places, but Reddit is the home of conversation online. There was a suggestion by one of our other execs that posting it and making a call to action for other stories would generate a ton of people telling their own story or their family’s story, and sure enough thousands of people came through and delivered on this. It was really heartwarming. And those stories from the comments have been shared, and reposted, and talked about. There are stories that are far more inspirational, moving, and even funnier than mine, and they are American stories.

They truly are. This is a country of immigrants, founded by immigrants.

It is the story of this country: people who came here for some reason, and were able to make the country as great as it is. Tech, as an industry, has obviously benefitted from so many immigrants over the years, and so many amazing companies have been founded by immigrants—or the children of immigrants—so we know how important this is, as an industry. In the face of what seems like a daily dose of something new that catches us off-guard, it’s been really heartening to see. All of us now, just a couple of weeks in, are still very curious to see where this goes, because it really doesn’t seem like there’s a precedent for this. That’s why it’s going to be so important for people to talk about these things. If this election taught us anything, it’s that we need more discussion—and not within echo chambers, but in communities where we don’t normally venture. We’ve learned some things about this executive order. The Trump administration has tried to talk around it, but as Rudy Giuliani confirmed, this does seem to be a Muslim ban, and there’s been quite a bit of disinformation concerning it. The administration initially said it only affected 109 people, but now we’ve learned that anywhere between 60,000 and 100,000 visas were affected. How troubling is that, for you? The deluge of misinformation coming out of the administration thus far?

It all seems very frenetic, and I think that’s where it’s going to be more important for us to use technology, as we have it, and obviously the media has a really important role to play here—to make sure that we’re finding out and getting to the bottom of what is happening. This has become such a polarizing time in our country, and I want to believe—I really, really want to believe—that this experiment will continue to improve and continue to evolve (this experiment being our country). And even when there are times that I feel like we are making steps backwards, I do feel that the trend overall is forwards. I think we have to be vigilant right now, and I think that technology can really help us. All of us who are here are trying to figure out how we can keep this trending in the right direction, and it just comes down to more discussion, more understanding, and hopefully more empathy.

What are your thoughts on the #DeleteUber campaign in the wake of Trump’s executive order on immigration that resulted in Uber CEO Travis Kalanick quitting Trump’s advisory council, as well as an estimated 200,000 people deleting the app?

Every company is going to be taking a different approach to these issues. Overall, I’m really proud of how the tech industry has been aligned in defending the very people who have built this industry, and one of the benefits of the age we live in now is your users—your customers—have a platform to help them let you know in real time how they feel. I know what our priorities are with Reddit, and as I said in my letter to the community, Reddit would not exist without immigrants. Apple, Intel, Tesla, etc. as well. As a nation it’s been our unfair advantage, and I hope that it continues to be.

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OK but Uber did break a taxi strike. What do you actually think about Uber’s actions in the wake of the executive order? They turned off surge pricing about midway through the strike, but did not honor the strike.

You know, I missed a lot of that as it was happening in real time, but I have seen Travis [Kalanick] resign, and that right there, like I said, is a reflection of audience, or is a reflection of a community and a user base whose voice was clearly heard by it in response to everything that [Uber] was doing.

Let’s discuss the shutting down of three “alt-right” forums on Reddit. I enjoy browsing Reddit, but I recognize that at the same time, this is a place where the “alt-right” organized. Why did you choose to delete the forums, and how do you feel about the presence of what many would consider a hate group in the “alt-right” on Reddit?

One of the first things that Steve [Huffman, co-founder] and I did when we came back a couple of years ago was update the content policy. This provides rules of the road for the whole site. There are hundreds of thousands of communities, those communities are managed by volunteer moderators, and then once we had the rules of the road, we created a trust and safety team of Reddit employees who would then enforce them. So when moderators or users run astray, we have a whole policy that decides how we would temporarily ban them, or if we outright ban them there’s a whole set of procedures that are in place. And at what point would we eventually shut down a community for violating the policy? What happened last week is an example of that all working. This is our trust and safety team enforcing a violation of our content policy regarding personal information—doxxing is the shorthand for it—but basically, these communities continue to violate our policy, and we shut them down.

Now, there are communities among the hundreds of thousands that I find awful, that I disagree with. We’re having monthly policy reviews to make sure that we’re continuing to trend in the right direction overall with the policies we have, and how to enforce them. There’s never been a platform of 280 million people all sharing hundreds of thousands of communities, and many, many discussions and conversations. So we are constantly looking to make sure to be the way we want to be. The best metric that we have right now is, any piece of content on Reddit can be reported by another user for being a violation, an infraction, harassment, etc., and that is every message, every comment, every post. That user base of 280 million, 99.98% of the time, has no reports by another user. We’re constantly trying to push that 0.02% of reports down to zero, but that’s one of our strongest barometers to see the temperature of the content across the platform.

Where’s the line between free speech and hate speech? There are many positive groups on Reddit, of course, but there’s also r/Nazi, r/altright, and other subreddits that primarily deal in hate speech. So where do you draw the line?

Well, our goal here is for Reddit to be a global home of conversation. What makes Reddit special is that people feel free to express themselves. Where we want to draw the line is where that feeling of being able to express oneself freely starts to infringe on someone feeling like they can express themselves. This is not a bright and clear line; this is something we’re continuing to look at, and continuing to discuss internally, because at the end of the day, our goal is to be worldwide. Our goal is to have anyone on this planet feel like they can find their homes on Reddit for whatever their passions, hobbies, or loves are, and to find people with whom they share common ground—and then hopefully learn a few things about people with whom they don’t. That’s what guides us.

One of the more bizarre—and fascinating—characters in the Trump administration is Peter Thiel. Have you had any interactions with this guy, and what do you think of his role within the administration?

I’m probably the worst Silicon Valley insider ever. I don’t hang out with Silicon Valley people. I’m in a long-distance relationship [with Serena Williams], so I usually spend my weekends wherever my fiancée is. I don’t run in Peter Thiel’s circles, and I have shockingly little insight into his role within the administration. Everything I know is just based on what I read on Reddit.

Another figure is Steve Bannon. I’m sure you’re familiar with Breitbart. It’s concerning to many that Bannon, who ran a site like Breitbart, which he’s called a “platform for the alt-right,” is the president’s right-hand man. And then you have Infowars, which the president’s appeared on—and has repeated several of its unfounded conspiracy theories. These bogus sites seem to be gaining legitimacy because of Trump, and now people don’t know where to turn for “real” or “fake” news.

Well, I grew up walking by checkout lanes and seeing racks and racks and racks of what people would consider “fake news”—about UFOs abducting werewolves—and I think the difference now is, in a digital age, any resource, whether it’s some random blogger’s musings and clickbait-y headline or a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, they all are on essentially a level playing field in a sense that anyone can access them in an open internet as equally as any other. I think this is an overall positive thing—that information can be accessed equally—because there are many people for whom knowledge used to be a giant barrier where people who had it kept it away. The challenge now is providing those tools and those resources for people to make the best decision possible. I do genuinely believe that, when given and presented with all the information and all the actual facts, the vast majority of people will make the right choice. That’s why right now it’s really, really important for us to be pushing on those facts. So far, the administration seems to be playing it fast and loose with a lot of things. The hope is that all the folks who voted the president into office—and all the folks who didn’t—all equally appreciate truth. I think that’s a pretty reasonable assumption. And for the folks who want to muddy that, that’s where we have to shine our lights of truth even brighter.

Are you worried, given how corporate this administration is and how much of a fan of censorship it appears to be, about the freedom of the internet—net neutrality—under the Trump administration?

Yeah. You know, the new FCC head definitely has my eyebrows raised. But you know what? This is just now one part of a lot of things that we have to be paying attention to. Even back when we defeated SOPA and PIPA, and even back when we got that victory for Title II, we knew this was a consistent, ongoing thing. A lot of it, frankly, is education. A lot of it is the fact that there are digital natives and digital non-natives—not the best word for it, admittedly—and we have a lot of people in office who are not digital natives, and historically our industry has not done the best job of educating about technology. I think that’s our opportunity. We have a lot of people who are very well-intentioned, and I’ve seen it firsthand: when you sit down with them and take time to explain to them why an open and free internet is good for American society and American business, once they see that presented to them, and we’re doing it as people who just genuinely want to help explain the situation, things ended up going pretty well. With the new administration, no matter who’s going to be taking over, there was going to have to be a new dialogue, and a new discussion. And this is the new one.