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Only sustained public pressure can end Reddit hate speech

Americans are reluctant to take Reddit seriously. They see the website as primarily populated by mid-twenties male losers living in their parents’ basements, typing racist rants while covered in Dorito dust. Americans don’t want to associate themselves with this part of their society and so they refrain from discussing the site’s important, and sometimes disastrous, political influence. Despite the widespread silence, Reddit is the sixth most popular American website by page views, just behind Wikipedia, and more popular than Amazon, according to Alexa digital traffic rankings. During the 2016 election, many Americans, particularly young Americans, deferred to Reddit as a form of alternative media to voice their political opinions.

Reddit is divided by topic into subreddits. The most politically relevant subreddits serve as an echo-chamber to spread false information, violent rhetoric and bigoted ideas. Most notably, r/the_donald, a pro-Donald Trump subreddit with over 500,000 subscribers, is famous for frequently posting racist and antisemitic memes and fabricated news stories about violent crimes by Muslims, African Americans and leftist groups. For many subscribers to the infamous r/the_donald, the subreddit is their most trusted news source. Like Trump himself, these redditors see the mainstream media (and alternative left wing media) as corrupt and biased. Their entire worldview is built on the violent and bigoted posts they see on Reddit. Reddit’s administrators have the power to completely shut these subreddits down. However, they have thus far refused to restrict many of the subreddits based on false justifications regarding freedom of speech. The only way to fight these hateful subreddits is by making it financially unjustifiable for Reddit’s administrators to keep the subreddits intact.

Many Americans see the bulk of subscribers to r/the_donald as the archetypical Reddit losers with little power to influence politics outside of the internet. Though evidence supports the demographic makeup of reddit users, stereotyping the site’s users only hurts the fight against hate speech. According to a 2016 Pew survey, 42 percent of Reddit users have a college degree, compared to 24 percent of American adults. Additionally, Reddit users are 70 percent white and 67 percent male, indicating that they are a disproportionately privileged group and relatively young, with 64 percent of users under 29 years old. According to these statistics, at least some of r/the_donald’s 500,000+ subscribers are wealthy and influential, people with political capital to spend. Assuming they are disempowered basement-dwellers impairs the country’s ability to work against the subreddit’s potentially influential subscribers.

The stereotypes of Reddit users are also a way for white Americans to conveniently ignore the prevalence of racism in American society. Americans can tell themselves anyone that violently racist must be some sort of loser who they can freely look down upon. In reality, the racist “losers” on r/the_donald are also white. They are their friends, coworkers and family members. In order to fight the racism of subreddits like r/the_donald, white Americans have to face the fact people they know might be taking part in the hate speech.

Reddit’s administrators have been pressured numerous times to shut down the more offensive or violence-provoking subreddits. This pressure comes partially from the online media and partially from anti-hate speech subreddits specifically dedicated to disempowering hate-based subreddits. The Reddit administrators justify their refusal to shut down these subreddits via “free speech.” This justification makes no sense. Reddit is a privately owned website with no legal obligation to allow all types of speech. Speech that explicitly advocates for violence is not protected by the Constitution. Reddit’s administrators are not actually stopping the hate speech posted to their website, they are just removing a convenient platform for its expression.

Another false justification for the sustainment of the hate subreddits is the argument that bigoted Redditors will simply find somewhere else to post their hate speech. Reddit is a uniquely convenient, consolidated and legitimate forum for hate speech. As a mainstream, popular website, Reddit pushes the content of its subreddits into the center of popular culture. Without sites like Reddit, online bigots might have to resort to far less mainstream personal blogs or fringe Neo Nazi forums to express their hate.

The real reason Reddit refuses to restrict these subreddits is the increase viewership and ad revenue the subreddits provide. Without bigots, Reddit might not be the sixth most popular American website. It also might not make the amount of money that it makes from advertisements. No amount of pressure from anti-hate subreddits or alternative media will motivate Reddit to restrict such a lucrative form of bigotry.

The only way to stop this type of hate speech is to counteract the financial worth of hate subreddits. This can be done through widespread public attention to Reddit that persuades internet users not to create Reddit accounts, and by advertisers pulling their ads from the site. If hate subreddits are shown to cause a net loss in revenue, we might see the massive hate subreddits like r/the_donald be restricted or shut down.

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