Reddit has banned QAnon – The VergeSeptember 13, 2018
Reddit has finally banned r/greatawakening, the main QAnon subreddit, and then it banned /r/The_GreatAwakening, the backup subreddit where users fled. QAnon, the web of conspiracy theories — which involve Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and politicians and government officials stretching all the way back to Kennedy era — originated on 4chan through Q, an anonymous person purporting to have a high-level security clearance. It then quickly spread to Reddit, Facebook, and eventually offline.
A spokesperson confirmed to The Verge that r/greatawakening was banned for violating Reddit’s policy against “inciting violence, harassment, and the dissemination of personal information,” while r/The_GreatAwakening was taken down for inciting harassment.
The takedowns come on the heels of banning of r/MillionDollarExtreme earlier this week, the community belonging to alt-right comedy troupe of the same name led by Sam Hyde, Nick Rochefort, and Charls Carroll. r/MillionDollarExtreme and associated subs /r/BillionShekelSupreme and /r/ChadRight were banned from the site on Monday night, a Reddit spokesperson confirmed to The Verge, citing violations of the company’s most recent content policy update. Per the postings left in the place of the subreddits, MDE and ChadRight were banned for violating the forum’s violent speech guidelines, while BSS was taken offline for ban evasion.
While previous Reddit bans have come about mostly as a result of external pressure, these are the first higher-profile bans directly tied to Reddit’s new, more explicit content policy, which was rolled out in October 2017. After years of inconsistency from the company’s leadership, the site’s handling of this set of bans suggests a more codified strategy being implemented across the board for policing toxic users.
Reddit’s MDE ban follows a similar decision by YouTube in May to ban the group for content violations. Their comedy is what some would describe as edgy: racist, sexist, and homophobic. Adult Swim, which hosted the group’s first show, Million Dollar Extreme Presents: World Peace, reportedly had to strip out swastikas and coded racist messages before the show aired. Likewise, the QAnon community is well-known for its connection to high-profile figures like Roseanne Barr, the former star of her eponymous show who lost her job after she tweeted a racist remark about former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett in the context of a larger Q-related conspiracy.
Since its founding in 2005 as a home for interesting links, Reddit has long defined itself as a space that values nearly absolute freedom of speech and expression. “We’re a free speech site with very few exceptions (mostly personal info) and having to stomach occasional troll reddit like picsofdeadkids or morally questionable reddits like jailbait are part of the price of free speech on a site like this,” then-general manager Erik Martin said in one of the site’s popular Ask Me Anything threads in 2011.
The /r/Jailbait and /r/PicsOfDeadKids subreddits have since been banned, along with many of their worst compatriots, but each ban has more or less been a one-off response to lengthy campaigns from users, media, and the general public. (Research suggests these bans are actually working to decrease the platform’s share of awful content.) As Reddit has grown more popular, it’s become increasingly obvious that the norms and implied protections the site has offered are inadequate. Despite CEO Steve Huffman’s continued waffling in his resolve to ban Reddit’s worst actors, a change seems to be afoot.
The week after last year’s violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and two months before it would implement its current content guidelines, Reddit banned the subreddit /r/Physical_Removal. A reference to former Chilean president Augusto Pinochet’s habit of murdering his enemies by throwing them out of helicopters, the subreddit revolved around the idea that liberals and leftists specifically deserved “to get a helicopter ride.” As The New Yorker’s Andrew Marantz reported in March:
“This is a good thing,” the top post on Physical_Removal read. “They are mockeries of life and need to fucking go.” Reddit had a rule prohibiting content that “encourages or incites violence,” and this was a violation of that rule. Huffman said, “We’d had our eye on that community for a while, and it felt good to get rid of them, I have to say. But it still didn’t feel like enough.”
The New Yorker’s reporting implies that Reddit does, in fact, have a list of subreddits it considers borderline — areas of the site likely to violate its new(ish) guidelines that it might need to take action against one day. A list like that is a smart thing to have: certain areas of the internet are simply more violent and offensive than others, and if a site like Reddit is really serious about how it polices violent and offensive content, it makes sense to keep a careful eye on how those areas operate on its own servers.
The fandom around the alt-right comedy troupe Million Dollar Extreme has long been one of those spaces. Two years ago, Adult Swim ordered Million Dollar Extreme Presents: World Peace to series, only to cancel it five months after its premiere, thanks to pressure from Adult Swim talent like Tim Heidecker and Brett Gelman, who referred to the show as “an instrument of hate.”
Hyde claimed to be confused about why the show was canceled. “It’s not the craziest stuff that’s ever been on TV here. And we came under fire — I don’t know why,” he told The Hollywood Reporter shortly after the cancellation. “Probably because we aren’t anti-white.”
The MDE and BSS subreddits reflected Hyde’s attitude, and they frequently employed racial slurs and anti-Semitic memes. (Even though their subreddit is down, you can pretty easily re-create the experience by browsing @new_engine, which is, according to Hyde’s Facebook, MDE’s new Twitter account.) Meanwhile, a number of believers in Q conspiracies have turned up to places referenced in the online community. These new bans reflect Reddit’s more explicit attitudes toward its most virulent subreddits, including an emphasis on “ban evasion” — ensuring that a banned subreddit doesn’t simply reform under a new name.
The way Reddit approaches the problem internally is a bit more engaged, according to a source within the company familiar with the process. After a subreddit is banned for violating Reddit’s content policy, site admins can follow where the banned users go. And if another like-minded subreddit decides to host the fleeing community, admins ban those communities, too. Earlier this week, an official Reddit spokesperson told The Verge that “as of September 10th, r/milliondollarextreme and associate subreddits have been banned for violating our violent content rules,” which suggests that those associate subreddits, r/BillionShekelSupreme and r/ChadRight, were where the newly banned MDE community went next. The same thing appears to have happened to users of r/greatawakening and r/The_GreatAwakening.
It’s an effective strategy for making sure the site’s most toxic users don’t replicate the behaviors that got them banned in other subreddits. It’s also a smart way to figure out which subreddits are hosting similar kinds of content. Think of it in terms of viral replication: viruses spread inside an organism by taking over the host cell’s machinery in order to replicate millions of copies of themselves; afterward, they trigger their host into bursting, and those copies flood the rest of the organism looking for more cells to infect.
In this case, the explosion is a site-wide ban, and Reddit’s admins are simply following the new viruses and stopping them before the next host is infected because they’re attempting to protect the whole organism. Contain a virus, and it doesn’t spread. The bans seem to indicate that Reddit has finally figured out how to enforce a speech policy. All that remains to be seen is whether they’ll continue to enforce it in the long-term.