Online Hate, Misogyny, and Racism: A Defense of Reddit’s Effort to Clean Up the Internet

I’m usually the first person to mount some sort of a defense on reddit’s behalf. When people mention the misogyny, the racism, the various strains on online hate and digital bullying, I’m quick to point out that the large majority of redditors are fairly decent people, that on a site with something like nine million daily users, it’s unfortunate that a vocal minority of losers are granted a megaphone with which it can spew a steady stream of garbage, tarnishing reddit’s reputation as a whole.

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Yesterday the reddit admins made the long-overdue decision to ban several of its more toxic subreddits, most prominently, a group called /r/fatpeoplehate. As its title suggests, /r/fatpeoplehate served as nothing more than a petri dish of body-shaming and name-calling. And much like reddit’s infamous cardboard-boxed collection of various bodily fluids, /r/fatpeoplehate thrived in the darkness, amassing an army of followers who relished in the opportunity to share embarrassing photos and regurgitated hate-speech, all from the cowardly confines of their homes.

I spend a lot of time on reddit, but recent events have made it harder to say anything positive. If you were online yesterday, you know what I’m talking about. Instead of its usual stream of mildly interesting gifs and dank memes, reddit’s front page was filled with outrage, directed at the admins and especially at reddit CEO Ellen Pao. As we speak, some of the site’s most upvoted content is nothing more than insults to Pao, calling her a Nazi, the c-word, you name it.

What went down yesterday requires a little bit of backstory, which, even if you’re familiar with the front page of the Internet, it might not make too much sense. Like I said, I’m on reddit all the time, and I’m still trying to figure out where all of these lunatics came from.

I guess it’s important to state that the hate was always there. Maybe you won’t see its more overt face on mainstream web sites, but try typing even the most depraved fringe ideas into Google and you’re guaranteed to find a shadow Internet of likeminded bloggers and trolls. It’s there because it exists in the real world, it’s amplified by the anonymous nature of the Internet, and when you throw in a massive content aggregator like reddit, founded on the tenets of free speech, it’s natural that those venomous ideas will unfortunately find a place to multiply and be heard.

The hate exists on reddit. It’s not just /r/fatpeoplehate. There are the blatantly racist subreddits. There are dumb movements like The Red Pill or Men’s Rights which serve as a violent backlash against feminism. And then there are the more insidious hate groups, subs like /r/cringe or /r/punchablefaces, community boards that offer nothing more than a place to post a picture of a person thought to be ugly or different, all while the rest of the group spews out its vomit, unfortunately elevating its most upvoted content to reddit’s front page.

That’s how these groups get attention. Every once in a while the hate will whip itself into an especially frothy frenzy, and due to the nature of reddit’s system of upvoting and downvoting content, it’s possible for massively popular posts to break out of their respective subs and onto the front page.

/r/fatpeoplehate had been garnering more and more attention recently. The only reason that I became aware of its existence was because I’d increasingly see the wreckage of its diarrhea-like content spilling over into the more general, default subs. The mods of some of the larger defaults did a pretty good job of banning and deleting offensive users, but eventually the problem became so pronounced, the reddit admins took the unusual step of banning the entire sub.

The reaction was swift. Almost immediately after /r/fatpeoplehate was deleted, /r/fatpeoplehate2 sprung into existence, the same 150,000 users picking up exactly where they had left off. Only now they felt provoked, justified in their own nonsensical belief that they were the victims of censorship. “Free speech!” became the self-righteous rallying cry under which the scummiest of reddit’s slime lashed out against the admins, and against Ellen Pao in particular.

People might see the resulting hate and its prominence on reddit’s front page as proof that reddit was never anything better than a sugarcoated version of its bad reputation. And when you click onto the front page and see nothing but top post after top post celebrating the violent denigration of its woman CEO, it’s hard to make an argument otherwise.

I’m seeing arguments online like, “This is what you get when you poke the bear!” I guess the logic here is that it’s better to have the racism, misogyny, and hate all cordoned off in its own field. But all I can say is, I don’t think the hate on reddit is a bear as much as it is an infestation of cockroaches. Just like when you have a house overrun with insects, as soon as you try to confront the problem, as soon as you drop a bomb right in the heart of its nest, you’re going to see the bugs scatter everywhere. Sure, they’re going to crawl out of the woodwork and everything is going to look gross, and no, you’re not going to be able to kill every last bug. In fact, it’s only a matter of time before they crawl into some other dark hole and start the repopulation process once again. But just because the hate will always be here doesn’t mean that we have to stand idly by and honor its desire to exist. Reddit made exactly the right move in trying to clean up a long overgrown mess.

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