‘Spezgiving’: How Reddit’s CEO Tried And Failed to Troll the Trolls

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Image: Eva Blue / Flickr

Opening with the acronym for the phrase “Today I Fucked Up,” what follows is an apology written by Reddit’s co-founder and current CEO, Steve Huffman.

Posting to the “Announcements” subreddit, Huffman explained that he interfered with posts made eight days ago on /r/The_Donald, the community dedicated to Donald Trump. Attacked by trolls tagging him by his username, “spez,” he replaced his name in posts with “/r/The_Donald mods,” directing a torrent of insults their way.

Hoffman’s attempt to “troll the trolls” didn’t go very well: after cries of censorship and bad practice, he switched the names back within an hour and issued the apology, adding: “Our community team is pretty pissed at me, so I most assuredly won’t do this again.”

However, a bitter resentment remained. “Spezgiving,” the name assigned to the incident, did not come out of nowhere: Hoffman cited /r/pizzagate as one of the reasons he’d had “a long week,” referring to a conspiracy theory subreddit, originating in /r/The_Donald, which linked the Clintons to an apparent pedophile ring run from a Washington, DC-area pizza shop. (The accusations are significantly more labyrinthine than this, involving Bill Clinton, a private jet, and use of the word “pizza” as a codeword.)

The conspiracy gripped Reddit users then mysteriously died down. Soon after, moderators of /r/The_Donald were criticized when they admitted that the Pizzagate subreddit had been censored along with posts about the rumored disappearance of Wikileaks’ Julian Assange. The mods justified this by saying that these topics, often planted by “shills and trolls,” derail the subreddit and sew discontent within the community:

This strain of trolls have successfully created a narrative or idea that we are censoring these topics… we also have to consider that The_donald is not about these things, and while they will always have a home here, we cannot allow them to dominate our sub.

Pizzagate was consequently shut down (it continues on Voat, an alternative news aggregation site favored by censored Reddit communities). It seemed, for a time, that Trump’s supporters had successfully drained their own swamp.

But as with all conspiracy theories, the more they are suppressed, the more they take root and multiply. Faith in Reddit had been lost, and Hoffman added insult to injury in his follow-up post: he promised not to ban /r/The_Donald outright, but would keep tabs on its most “toxic” users and issue bans on an individual basis. In addition, “stickied” posts at to the top of /r/The_Donald will no longer appear on the site’s /r/all listing, a popular roundup of the news.

What does it mean that Reddit openly intervened, and acted against Trump supporters? In recent weeks Facebook has announced its plan to investigate fake news sources, and Twitter has introduced the option to filter out trolls. Should Reddit, too, move to protect some of its users at a cost to what others call “free speech”?

On Reddit at least, Trump supporters come from a place of permanent aggrievement. They are the persecuted patriarchy; slandered and maligned, they wage a noble war with their shitposting. Was this a political intervention against them, or just a social media platform policing their own ground?

Few would debate the role of social media in this year’s election. Research published by Pew in early November indicated that 20 percent of social media users have changed their stance on political issues due to online content, mainly consumed via social media. Currently the seventh-most popular website in the United States, Reddit is now recognized by politicians as as a barometer, and a communication tool.

Trump’s own use of social media has already spawned a library of thinkpieces–aside from his Twitter rants, he hosted an AMA on Reddit in the run-up to the election, and Brad Parschale, Digital Director for the Trump campaign, even tweeted that he visits /r/the_Donald daily. With over 314,000 subscribers, r/The_Donald prides itself as the unofficial online home of the Trump campaign, and now the Trump presidency. It’s where Trump fans go to self-congratulate, to rally against journalists, and to hatch plans to bombard the New York Times’s offices with bags of salt.

It might appear one of the last old-fashioned, free speech-friendly forums, complete with pseudonyms and user-nominated mods, but Hoffman himself wrote in a post a year ago that “Neither [fellow co-founder]Alexis (Ohanian) nor I created reddit to be a bastion of free speech.” The site does not pretend to allow uncensored posting—in the same post, Hoffman alluded to a future where Reddit would be moderated more closely. “We haven’t had the tools to enforce policy, but now we’re building those tools and reevaluating our policy.”

Reddit is a mainstream site composed of niches; its primarily caters to the mainstream, which is why I find it hard to sympathize with the /r/The_Donald’s users. Their smugness far outstrips anything attributed to liberals: they applaud their own heroism in the ongoing “Meme War,” complaining of marginalization even as their candidate enters the White House.

And persecution suits the hatemonger well; taking up where Gamergate left off, /r/The_Donald are now promoting the hashtag “#equalrightsonreddit” (it hasn’t exactly trended so far). They feature hilariously dismal, hypocritical use of civil rights quotes– “We as a community shall overcome!”, along with smarmy, inevitable quoting of Niemöller’s “First, they came for them…”

Though they might like to believe otherwise, users of /r/The_Donald are not the underdog. They never were. For now, it’s worth asking if this is as much of a big deal as /r/The_Donald are making it, and whether this counts as censorship at all. Nobody will be kept from accessing the /r/The_Donald. It just won’t be as visible, anymore, to casual users.

Think of it as a wall. A big, beautiful wall, built right around /r/The_Donald’s community.

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