The Pizzagate gunman is an IRL symptom of Reddit’s worst problems
A popular pizza joint in Brooklyn, New York, has become the latest victim this week of a conspiracy theory that simply won’t quit: that a child prostitution operation connected to the Clinton family is being run out of another pizza spot in Washington, D.C.
The bogus theory first jumped from internet forums like Reddit, its birthplace and incubator, to the real world when an armed man went to Comet Ping Pong, a D.C. pizza parlor, to “self-investigate.” Police confirmed Wednesday that employees at the Brooklyn haunt Roberta’s have received multiple threatening phone calls as well.
The persistence of what’s come to be known as “Pizzagate” captures a problem Reddit has wrestled with throughout its existence: how to live up to its motto of being “the front page of the internet” while keeping the worst parts of the platform from infecting everything else. It’s a tension creating difficulty in the site’s quest to become a “real” business that’s able to consistently attract big-name advertisers.
The Reddit forum devoted to “Pizzagate” was banned before Thanksgiving, but the conspiracy theory remained popular on Reddit’s largest pro-Trump forum, The_Donald, which, in addition to hosting Trump fandom, has become a volatile stew of fake news and white supremacy. Just four days before the incident in D.C., Reddit CEO Steve Huffman announced that the company would issue warnings and permanent bans to some of the most “toxic” The_Donald members and that all Reddit users could now filter The_Donald posts from r/all, which is effectively Reddit’s front page.
Days before that, Huffman acknowledged in a comment that he had screwed up when he edited user comments in an attempt to troll The_Donald trolls.
Even before Pizzagate, Reddit found itself at the center of several other scandals, including a stunning leak of nude celebrity photos, the Gamergate scandal, and years of bad behavior from a core group of racist and misogynist trolls. Shortly after Huffman joined last year, he said that Reddit would make changes to mitigate abuse and harassment and give unpaid Reddit moderators more tools for support.
But the community hasn’t been convinced. On Monday a popular Reddit post took aim at Huffman and his colleagues: “The_Donald’s pizzagate has officially created terrorism. Admins, it’s time for you to deal [with] them, or breed more terrorism.”
Many would characterize the changes as too little, too late. Moreover, Huffman’s surreptitious editing of posts written about him makes it hard for moderators to trust his motivations when he says he’s serious about cleaning up Reddit’s latest mess.
One of Reddit’s long-standing issues has been managing the large army of unpaid moderators who oversee the forums and keep Reddit running. The_Donald users frequently swarm other sections of the service with harassment and abuse, making it difficult for the moderators and small group of paid admins to maintain control.
A moderator of one subreddit with more than 10 million subscribers told VICE News that she “does not have faith in [Huffman’s] leadership,” particularly when it comes to dealing with The_Donald and its freewheeling moderators.
“No admin (less the CEO of Reddit) should be able to openly edit comments like that or even think that is acceptable,” she said in an email. “I have a lot of faith in the more active admins who work with us regularly, as they see what it is like to deal with these issues day-to-day. The leadership seems too concerned about image to see what is really going on.”
The mod, who requested anonymity because she feared retribution by The_Donald, added that while “a moderator’s job is to contain a community and promote civility … The_Donald manages to defy admins near hourly at this point.”
For years, Reddit has struggled to “contain” its community. Last year, a moderator revolt ended in the ouster of interim CEO Ellen Pao. On Huffman’s post admitting to editing comments last week, Pao replied to a Reddit comment by saying that she “would have immediately fired anyone who did” what he did.
“[Reddit] still hasn’t developed a coherent and transparent vision of what kind of site it wants to be.”
“Reddit is awful with community and has no sense with community,” said Randi Harper, founder of the Online Abuse Prevention Initiative, who has worked with Silicon Valley companies on internet harassment and abuse. “They put all of their energy and their focus into engineering, and not community …. 4chan has better community management than Reddit at this point. People there, the mods shut stuff down better.”
Though Reddit has pledged in the past to implement better fixes to deal with toxic elements of its community, University of Miami law professor and Cyber Civil Rights Initiative policy director Mary Anne Franks said the company “still hasn’t developed a coherent and transparent vision of what kind of site it wants to be.”
“The_Donald is only the latest iteration of the internal contradiction at the heart of Reddit: how easy it is for an allegedly no-holds-barred, radically free forum for ideas to be repeatedly monopolized by narrow-minded, censorious mobs,” Franks said in an email. “Reddit’s leadership needs to confront this reality and consider whether it is compatible with their vision for the site. If it is, then it needs to drop the pretense of having any principled commitment against harassment and abuse — and indeed any commitment to actual quality of discourse.”
Video game developer Brianna Wu — who was targeted by the Gamergate online hate mob that originated on Reddit and 4chan in 2015 — said that “if Reddit is serious about combating the toxic elements of their community, they need to reach out to some of the people routinely targeted,” which both Franks and Harper stressed as well.
When reached for comment, a Reddit spokesperson directed us back to Huffman’s post from last week. Under his tenure as CEO — he’s a co-founder who left Reddit to launch a travel startup then came back to replace Pao last year — the company has talked a good game about cleaning up the toxicity and building a real, lasting business. Earlier this week, Reddit took steps to prevent programmatic ads from showing up in places on the site where Pizzagate-like content is discussed.
That may be a Sisyphean task for Huffman and the Reddit leadership. Harper said that fixing Reddit’s community won’t be possible without “completely redoing” the site’s architecture.
Though Reddit has a large audience — according to figures provided by ComScore, Reddit had 46.6 million unique visitors in the U.S. alone last month, a 26 percent year-over-year increase — concerns about its seedier and more hateful elements have given advertisers and ad buyers pause. And because Google and Facebook soak up so much of the ad money spent on digital marketing, Reddit is feeling the same pain as everyone else in digital publishing. In the first quarter of this year, Google and Facebook reportedly collected 85 cents of every new dollar spent on online ads.
Ian Schafer, founder and CEO of the ad agency DeepFocus, said in a message that while he “believes in Reddit,” he doesn’t think it has yet “built a reputation as a brand-safe environment for the biggest spenders.”
After 11 years, Reddit is still waiting to turn its first profit. And as one former Reddit executive pointed out, time spent fixing the Reddit community is time not being spent on making Reddit a better business.
“Managing the Reddit community is hard, because any action to prevent harassment is viewed as an attack on free speech,” the former exec said. “You don’t have much influence on the moderators other than by changing the rules, and the community is resistant to rule changes. At some point, you need to build a sustainable business.”