Reddit and Censorship: On the Ellen Pao Fiasco

ellen pao, former CEO of Reddit

Reddit has been called many things: a news aggregator, a social networking service, and even a platform for free speech. But while the first two descriptors ring true, the certainty of the last one is up for debate, especially in the wake of recent events. For the unaware, the site has recently been involved in a bit of controversy. Following the prohibition of several contentious Reddit communities, users have been up in arms over the seeming “demise” of the service, citing issues such as censorship of free speech as a cause for their grievances. A petition calling for the resignation of Reddit CEO Ellen Pao (the ostensible root of all evil) was apparently effective, gathering over 200,000 signatures just before Pao announced her resignation. While the drama appears to have blown over, questions still remain regarding whether the actions of Reddit’s administration were truly antagonistic towards free speech… and whether that was truly the issue at all.

While the latest blow-back was the result of community banning, CEO Ellen Pao has been the target of distrusting Reddit users since she joined the company in 2013. At the time she took Reddit’s helm, Pao had been involved in a gender discrimination lawsuit against her former employer, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. While Pao claimed she had been victimized by the firm’s male-dominated culture and denied rightful bonuses and promotions due to her gender, the firm claimed that she was merely bad at her job. Reddit communities were lukewarm about her arrival, with distaste for her reaching an all-time high during her suit’s trial earlier this year.

Last month, Reddit was involved in the so-called “Fattening” (named in reference to last year’s highly-notorious celebrity nudes leak, “The Fappening”), during which a number of provocative communities (or “subreddits”) were banned on grounds of harassment. These communities included r/fatpeoplehate, a very prominent subreddit in which users gathered to discuss (you guessed it) their hatred toward overweight people. Those responsible for the banning of r/fatpeoplehate explained that users’ harassment of outside subreddits and Internet communities led to r/fatpeoplehate being shut down. Many redditors were outraged, tossing around claims of hypocrisy, especially given the existence of equally-appalling subreddits that had not been banned. “We’re banning behavior, not ideas,” said Pao.

Redditors are given a pretty generous amount of room to practice free speech, with multiple subreddits existing solely to promote anti-black racism, among other things. While the content of these communities is downright disgusting, in the spirit of Reddit’s commitment to allowing freedom of expression, they have every right to exist. However, the subreddits banned during “the Fattening” were not banned due to their content: they were banned because of disruptive conduct.

Reddit users were quick to jump to accusations of censorship, with poorly-Photoshopped images of Pao as a Nazi and as Mao Zedong flooding the site. Users called for her removal, oftentimes using sexist and racist remarks about Pao to voice their discontent. Anti-Pao sentiments grew stronger following the termination Victoria Taylor, the Reddit employee in charge of organizing popular “Ask Me Anything” public interviews of celebrities. Communities across Reddit went offline in protest.

While some users continued to voice their long-held disapproval towards the site administration, many redditors were also (very) obviously taking advantage of the situation to voice  prejudices against Pao disguised as distaste at perceived Internet censorship. The irony was delicious as, at the same time as users protested the supposed dismantling of free speech, the front page of the site filled with anti-Pao content. Following Pao’s resignation and the return of one of Reddit’s co-founders as CEO, it became clear as day to me what the source of so many users’ objections really was.

While some users had valid complaints — the needs of community moderators had been long ignored — for many, this wasn’t a cry for the protection of free speech. In the eyes of some users, Pao the ultra-feminist had invaded Reddit, bringing her social justice warrior mindset and the political correctness so richly illustrated in her gender discrimination lawsuit.

Once the dust had settled, users began realizing that Pao wasn’t to blame for many of the issues the site had: the beloved employee who was fired had been terminated as a result of Pao’s superior and the community bannings were the product of a group decision by administrators. While the news was public, nobody seemed to care. The narrative of Ellen Pao the Dictator had played out and she was gone.

Ellen Pao has had a pretty prickly past – any Google search will tell you the same. But to say the hate towards her was motivated solely by a fear of Internet censorship would be completely false. Redditors who mocked her claims of oppression from a male-dominated culture and then went on to spew sexist remark after sexist remark did nothing to prove her wrong. Now she’s resigned and it remains unclear if the policies enacted under her administration – the policies so unpopular that they sparked site-wide protests – were even hers to begin with. I have to say, it’s a good thing Reddit is a platform for free speech. Otherwise, Ellen Pao’s tyrannical reign would have never ended.

 By: Daniel Dell-Cornejo

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