‘Own Dysfunction’

Reddit Rises Up Against CEO for Hiding Russian Trolls

He ‘fessed up days after The Daily Beast confirmed a Russian troll farm had used his platform, and on the same day that Senate investigators asked for new information from the site

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

Reddit users rebelled en masse against the site’s CEO for concealing Russian troll activity the site now admits it knew about, and for not working fast enough to ban dangerous and extremist communities.

Reddit’s CEO Steve Huffman admitted the site has been targeted by at least “a few hundred” troll accounts in an announcement to Reddit users on Monday, four days after a Daily Beast investigation confirmed for the first time that Russia’s troll farm used the platform.

Reddit has not responded to repeated requests by The Daily Beast for comment about The Daily Beast’s investigation, which showed Russia’s Internet Research Agency used American proxies to access the site.

Based on that reporting, Senate investigators are looking into opening up probes on the troll farm’s use of Reddit and Tumblr, according to The Washington Post.

Huffman’s answers to questions from users were voted down so heavily on the site’s rating system, they were quickly buried beneath further criticism of the company’s handling of extremism on the platform.

The CEO was asked by a Reddit user why he won’t ban Reddit’s r/The_Donald, a pro-Donald Trump subreddit that is known to disrupt other communities, ban dissent, and glorify hate speech.

“Banning them probably won't accomplish what you want. However, letting them fall apart from their own dysfunction probably will,” he wrote. “Their engagement is shrinking over time, and that's much more powerful than shutting them down outright.”

That post received an already historic number of downvotes, nearing almost -6,000 points at press time.

While r/The_Donald’s status is complicated by its direct ties to a political figure, academic research specifically shows that banning disruptive Reddit subreddits that degrade the larger community can have a chilling effect on harassers on the rest of the platform.

Eshwar Chandrasekharan, a doctoral student at Georgia Tech, worked with two other researchers at Georgia Tech, plus researchers at Emory University and the University of Michigan, on “You Can’t Stay Here: The Efficacy of Reddit’s 2015 Ban Examined Through Hate Speech” in 2015.

Chandrasekharan, who had already been studying extremism in online communities, tracked Reddit’s ban of hate speech communities r/FatPeopleHate and r/Coontown in 2015. He determined that, after the ban, users didn’t move their racism or hate speech to other parts of the web, and some stopped participating in harassment entirely, rendering their accounts inactive.

“It creates a fear in their mind. If they do it again, they get banned,” Chandrasekharan told The Daily Beast. “In the new communities they go to, they are careful about this. Some stop doing this. There’s fear.”

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Chavrasvkharan said that, while “it totally depends on what the userbase is” for a specific subreddit, Huffman’s comment that “banning (communities) probably won’t accomplish what you want” is not in line with the research.

“You can’t really state this unless you have some evidence that this is the case,” he said.

Reddit’s r/The_Donald has become a home to wild, incorrect conspiracy theories about everything from Pizzagate, the debunked claim that Hillary Clinton had been running a pedophile ring in the basement of a pizza shop that has no basement, to the death of DNC staffer Seth Rich, who many in the community claim without any proof was murdered by the Clintons.

The troll farm’s websites, like BlackMattersUs.com, frequently served as conspiracy content generators for r/The_Donald and the r/conspiracy communities.

Lane Davis, who went by the username Seattle4Truth, was a regular on r/The_Donald, sometimes posting conspiracy theories several times a day. Davis, also a former intern of Milo Yiannopoulos, killed his father last July after accusing his father of being a pedophile, according to his mother in a harrowing 9-1-1 call.

“He’s mad about something on the internet about leftist pedophiles and he thinks we’re leftist and he’s calling us pedophiles. And I don’t know what all,” Davis’ mother Catherine told the operator.

“He just lives on the internet and he gets really worked up about everything that’s going on. He needs an intervention of some kind here.”

Minutes later, Davis stabbed his father, killing him.

Davis later told detectives the fight started when he asked his father “whether toddlers could consent to sex or not.” Davis said his father called him a Nazi and a racist.

The user Kerovon, who received over 11,700 upvotes, claimed Huffman was “carrying on the Reddit Tradition of only taking action after the media notices a problem,” in regards to the coordinated trolling problems on the platform.

In another post that was downvoted thousands of times, Huffman admitted in a comment that the company had been “cagey” about the open investigation

“As I mentioned in the post, we've been taking action for a long time. We have been cagey about it publicly I know, which frustrates us as well, but it's an active investigation, and it's difficult to share specifics without undermining it,” he wrote. “I know this isn't a satisfying answer, but I promise you this is something we are deeply focused on.”

Users, according to the voting system, weren’t buying it.

“Spez, Best case scenario you are limited in what you can say or do, and i wouldn’t be surprised at all if the FBI is asking reddit to not ban /r/T_D specifically, and telling you that you cant say that publicly,” user from_dust wrote in response.

The post received over 1,800 upvotes.

“Had you (the admins collectively) enforced the rules you setup and listened when people made noise about it, you wouldnt be roped into this. So, the least you can do to keep your userbase is grow a spine and stop worrying about the impacts of standing up for what’s right, because as it stands you now have to worry about the impact of NOT standing up for whats right. Is the only thing that will move you to action a decline in your userbase?”

Huffman didn’t respond.