The African-American Experience on Reddit
Social media is an incredibly powerful force in our modern world. Social media is where most persons get their information and news about daily political, social, and economic developments in the world from. Social media can effectively assist or destroy a government and has become seriously influential in many ways. While many are familiar with such social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok, not many are familiar with one called Reddit.
Reddit is a social media site that, as of December 2020, had 52 million daily users according to The Verge; over half of these users come from the United States. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, “2% of U.S. adults get news [from] Reddit”.
With this user base, one can also see that Reddit is predominantly male and “white non-Hispanic, coming in at 70 percent of Reddit’s users in the United States” while “Black non-Hispanic users [are] 7 percent of Reddit’s base in the US”. From a political perspective, “47% [of Reddit users] identify as Liberal, while only 13% are conservative” a significant difference from modern U.S. politics in which only “a quarter [say] they are liberal”. In essence, based upon the available data, Reddit is largely White Male and dominantly Liberal. Despite this political preference, the site has encountered extreme problems with racism.
When Reddit was founded in 2005 by two white and male graduates of the University of Virginia, Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman, the site was built upon more laissez-faire, Libertarian principles of having “communities (or subreddits) self-police…[with] volunteer moderators [being] guided by rules defined by each individual subreddit, but also a set of values authored and enforced by Reddit itself”. While Reddit does have an arm that does enforce the Content Policy (the Anti-Evil Operations (AEO) team), this larger policy of self-policing and self-moderation of content effectively bred hatred and racism on the site.
In 2015, the Southern Poverty Law Center identified multiple subreddits which showcased African-American men being killed in a variety of ways, virulent language against Blacks and other hateful, racist content which “[offered] a window onto just how awful some of the darkest corners of the web really are”; these were later removed the same year (though most users found other locations on Reddit to congregate and continue their activities).
In 2018, when asked pointedly if “obvious open racism” was against Reddit’s standards and rules, Reddit’s CEO and co-founder, Huffman, replied “It’s not”. It would only be two years later, in June of 2020 (coinciding with the height of the George Floyd Protests), before Reddit finally openly stated that the platform “[does] not tolerate hate, racism, and violence”.
This statement resulted in hundreds of moderators of multiple subreddits penning an open letter to Reddit “calling on the company to ban hate speech, shut down racist and misogynistic subreddits and offer better support to moderators by doing things like hiring more community managers”. Reddit responded by releasing a new content policy in addition to appointing Michael Seibel, the Black CEO of Y Combinator, to Reddit’s board of directors.
According to a Reddit spokesperson, “[The] Content Policy prohibits content, users, and communities that promote hate based on identity or vulnerability. We introduced our policy against hate in June 2020 and subsequently banned nearly 7,000 subreddits under that policy” while also stressing they had “an 18% reduction in users posting hateful content”.
They further emphasized working to “elevate and support minority voices on our platform” by arranging calls with the moderators who raised concern about Reddit’s policy “to help us understand what would best serve these moderators’ communities, what they hope to see on Reddit, and to get feedback on products” along with adding “several of these moderators to the Reddit Moderator Council to ensure we continued to hear their perspectives”.
Seemingly, the company was taking a stand against racism online. However, how much of this truly came to fruition?
Reddit and Racism Since 2020
In interviews with Redditors of varying races, including some who were moderators, I gained their opinions of Reddit overall and how well the site has done in policing racism and inappropriate content on the site.
Speaking to one Redditor, “…I was not aware of this AEO team, nor have I seen any evidence of Reddit taking action to moderate and remove racism…Also, as a mod on an alt[ernate] account for a much smaller sub than this one, I don't see Reddit offering mods any special tools, support, or guidance on racism…my perception is Reddit will not take meaningful action until it hits their bottom line, and then only just enough to quiet the media back down”. Another Redditor voiced similar concerns, writing that, while their interaction with AEO had been minimal, they “[did] not see AEO as effective… I would have more thoughts on them if we got a warning of why a comment was removed, but we just have to guess”.
Other Redditors have also pointed out lapses in Reddit’s hate speech and anti-racism/violence policies since June of 2021. Interviewed for a Time magazine piece in January of 2022, multiple moderators from r/Portuguese, r/sino, r/chodi, r/India, and r/genzedong (among others) have recounted anti-Black comments and posts being quite prevalent on their respective subreddits. They testify, “I have tried to report these comments 20 or 30 times, easily. I’ve tried to collate these slurs and send them the translations, but it was never even replied to…It’s very clearly a white supremacist symbol, but the admins will just say, ‘that seems fine to me,’ and they’ll ignore it…Anything outside the anglosphere is pretty much ignored, to be honest. It’s hard to convey to the company what’s racist and what’s not when the admins are so far from the details and the cultural differences”.
The issue at hand, with non-English Reddit reports is a rather significant oversight and poses problems for overall moderation on Reddit and who exactly is in charge of moderating content. According to the management consulting firm Great Place To Work, most of Reddit’s workforce are Millennial aged and increasingly white. Given the fact that most as well are well-versed in more technical fields, like computer science and information technology as opposed to history or other liberal arts, there will naturally be a disconnect between how these reports are looked at by the moderating team given there is little to no cultural, ethnic, or general relationship to the comments made.
In response to questions about the racial and ethnic makeup of the company, Reddit’s spokesperson replied, “We are also evolving our processes and exploring new ways to enhance community, belonging, and diversity for our employees…We know we have more work to do, but we have seen progress. In 2021, the overall numbers of Black and Latinx employees at Reddit increased by more than 2.5x year-over-year”.
Another Redditor also sympathized in response to one Black female Redditor’s venting about the state of racism on the platform, commenting “i use this app for entertainment and venting but theres always gotta be a racist post that reddit of course has to reccomend to me and this makes me very angry causing me to destructive irl. im so sorry you have to see these kind posts too, i understand how you feel”.
For many Redditors, at least in their respective experiences on the site across multiple subreddits of various kinds, racism still is quite prevalent on the site after the George Floyd protests of 2020 and, in spite of the adjustments made, reporting such content is just as difficult. The question that remains is why is little progress in creating a racism free space when Reddit seems to have made substantial strides.
According to Reddit’s spokesperson, “We use a wide variety of resources to detect and action hateful content, including automated technology, third-party tools, and human review…We constantly work to understand and prevent bias within our products and automated tools. We build every machine learning system with the best interests of our Reddit communities in mind, testing many variants and measuring impact across many metrics and different subreddits”. Some researchers have found, however, that these AI and machine learning practices can be ineffective against non-English language reports.
While Reddit has stated they realize there are gaps in their reporting venues and that they do need to continue with the changes they have made towards a progressive and inviting company, many of the everyday Redditors and moderators seem to be inundated with racism and calls to violence against minorities which has been further exacerbated by automated responses.
This has led to many moderators simply discontinuing their reporting habits, with one moderator saying, “We mostly stopped reporting stuff, since we don't have any feedback”.
Reddit and Race
Naturally, removing racism or violent calls for racism from a social media site will be impossible. There will always be racism, extremism, and, sadly, calls for violence against those of different ethnicity, creed, sex, or race on any site or in any organization in which people are at the center of it. However, this is not an excuse or defense.
It is apparent that Reddit still has issues in dealing with race and, while they have made some strides internally within their own organization (making an effort to be more diverse, opening up lines of communication with moderators), there are still problems with the overall understanding of reports and how they are viewed.
Increased communication and perhaps more reliance upon in-person assessments of reports, as opposed to utilizing machine-learning or AI programs would be better suited to determining if these reports are truly indicative of racist, violent, or otherwise content breaking behavior. While the amount to which Reddit relies upon human review to determine content breaking behavior is unknown, given how prevalent new technologies are at increasing the ability to which reports are processed, it is likely that Reddit predominantly relies upon technical programs meant to process reports faster.
Reddit has a long way to go, but certainly they do appear dedicated to the task. It requires working with the community, listening to the moderators, and the minorities who frequent the site. Taking their input and suggestions and implementing them into the company’s reporting and moderation methodology would prove invaluable to the company If the company truly desires to make the site a safer space for all peoples.