News & Politics

Reddit CEO Explains Policy on 'Hate Speech': 'We Are Not the Thought Police'

8 November 2017; Steve Huffman, CEO, Reddit, on Centre Stage during Web Summit 2017 at Altice Arena in Lisbon. Photo by Cody Glenn/Web Summit via Sportsfile

A Reddit user who asked CEO Steve “spez” Huffman about the social media platform’s rules on hate speech was given a week-long suspension this past weekend. The user — who goes by “whatllmyusernamebe” sent Huffman a “direct message,” to which the CEO responded. The user shared that message, and found his account suspended.

Huffman told him, “We are not the thought police,” shortly before his account was suspended on Reddit. The biggest irony is, the CEO was the one defending free speech.

On Monday, a Reddit representative confirmed to Ars Technica that the conversation shared by the user was legitimate. The spokesperson declined to confirm whether the user’s suspension was related to the public sharing of these direct messages, however. The user, whose real name is Zachary Swanson, shared a screenshot of the suspension notice, which said he was suspended “for harassment.”

In the messages, Swanson asked Huffman, “Why do you admins not just ban hate speech?”

The CEO responded, “Our violent speech policy is effectively that.”

Unsatisfied, Swanson pressed, “I’d argue that hate speech should be banned with its own rule, separate from the violence policy. But thank you for replying.”

Then came a rare breath of fresh air from a social media CEO. “Hate speech is hard to define,” Huffman responded. “There’s a reason why it’s not really done. Additionally, we are not the thought police. It’s not the role of a private company to decide what people can and cannot say.”

Can I get an “Amen”?

Sadly, it is simply not true that seeking to define hate speech “is not really done.” As Ars Technica’s Sam Machkovech explained, “many major online platforms in the West inform their users of firmly defined hate-speech rules, including Google (and its subsidiaries), Facebook (and its subsidiaries), and Microsoft (and its subsidiaries).”

Furthermore, Huffman’s response seems to contradict Reddit’s own history. The platform has a long history of closing channels in the wake of controversies, especially warning in 2015 that any channels violating “harassment” rules would be shuttered. It closed five immediately after the announcement.

Swanson took Huffman’s response at face value, and pushed the CEO to crack down on hate speech. “But it *is* the role of a private company to decide what people can and cannot say *on [its] own platform*,” he responded.

“I know what you’re asking, but it’s a nearly impossible precedent to uphold. It’s impossible to enforce it consistently,” Huffman responded.

On this Huffman is correct, and it is indeed tragic that Reddit, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft do not agree with his expressed hesitation. The scandals surrounding the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) powerfully demonstrate how difficult it can be to avoid bias in defining what constitutes “hate.”

The SPLC has tarred mainstream conservative and Christian organizations as “hate groups,” listing them along with the Ku Klux Klan and sending out their list of “hate groups” to tech companies like Google, Apple, and Amazon. This list is taken seriously despite multiple retractions and despite the fact that the list inspired a terrorist attack in 2012. Almost 50 nonprofit leaders considering a defamation lawsuit against the SPLC warned CEOs that they are “complicit” if they use the SPLC’s “hate group” list.

Huffman should take his own words to heart, and learn restraint on the issue of “hate speech.” Social media companies should not be “the thought police.” The Internet would be more free as a result.