Reddit's Confusing Response To The Distribution of Nudes

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Last week, I wrote about reddit's confusing and arbitrarily applied rule against sharing "personal info," asking how it applied to the cache of celebrity nudes that has been disseminated chiefly through reddit and a few other sites. Reddit is a largely unmoderated site with few rules but "don't post personal information," is one of them. Even so, it didn't put much effort into curbing the spread of the celebrity nudes that leaked last week. This weekend, reddit clarified its position. Sort of. 

On Saturday, Reddit CEO Yishan Wong wrote a post on the reddit blog called "Every Man Is Responsible For His Own Soul," outlining how it planned to respond to this hack and others like it in the future.

...reddit’s platform is structurally based on the ability for people to distribute, promote, and highlight textual materials as well as links to images and other media. We understand the harm that misusing our site does to the victims of this theft, and we deeply sympathize.

Having said that, we are unlikely to make changes to our existing site content policies in response to this specific event.

The reason is because we consider ourselves not just a company running a website where one can post links and discuss them, but the government of a new type of community. The role and responsibility of a government differs from that of a private corporation, in that it exercises restraint in the usage of its powers.

He goes on to say that the company will continue to moderate "actions which cause or are likely to cause imminent physical danger" or "damage the integrity or ability of the site to function," but that morally reprehensible behavior like posting nudes will be "influence[d] by exhortation, emphasizing positive examples, or by selectively highlighting good content and good actions." In short, "be good, but if you're bad, it's not our problem."

But then, a curious thing happened. At almost the same time that this blog post went up, reddit banned the subreddits that were expressly devoted to sharing these pictures. Reddit sysadmin Jason Harvey wrote a long post explaining the reasoning behind this decision, which seemed to fly in the face of the blog post that had just dropped.

The answer is probably not satisfying, but it's the truth, and the only answer we've got. The situation we had in our hands was the following: These subreddits were of course the focal point for the sharing of these stolen photos. The images which were DMCAd were continually being reposted constantly on the subreddit. We would takedown images (thumbnails) in response to those DMCAs, but it quickly devolved into a game of whack-a-mole...Additionally, many nefarious parties recognized the popularity of these images, and started spamming them in various ways and attempting to infect or scam users viewing them. It became obvious that we were either going to have to watch these subreddits constantly, or shut them down. We chose the latter. It's obviously not going to solve the problem entirely, but it will at least mitigate the constant issues we were facing. This was an extreme circumstance, and we used the best judgement we could in response.

Basically, dealing with the legal issues of these subreddits (pictures of underage women being posted, DMCA requests for the pictures to be removed) that it was easier to shut down entire subreddits than hunt for individuals behaving badly. Later, in that same thread, Harvey attempts to define what reddit means when it says "don't post personal information."

The personal information rule exists to ensure that individuals cannot be identified and as a result harassed or attacked. This is an issue that came up repeatedly on reddit in the past. Someone would get angry about something someone else did, a mob would form, their address / phone number / real name would be found, and then the target would start getting harassed in real life. This pattern repeated itself so often that we had to make a rule preventing it in response. One important piece of this is that we don't even allow someone posting their own personal information, as we have no way of verifying that the info they're posting is actually theirs. As such, the personal information rule is not something we find to be applicable to this incident. This is a tad extreme, but I imagine if we applied it to images the same way we applied it to personal information, we wouldn't allow anyone to post any potentially private image of themselves anywhere on reddit.

I get what Jason Harvey is trying to say. And, sure, I guess that we're all "responsible for our own souls." Last week, I received a response from a reader about my article, saying "remember Redditors aren't monolithic group; lots of high minded users and mods and some creeps." That's certainly true. There are a lot of interesting and engaging subreddits out there. I mean, there are more than 6,000. But the existence of subreddits devoted to things like beating and raping of women and pictures of corpses, and Yishan Wong's affirmation that reddit will do little or nothing to moderate away stolen, sensitive images, is unsettling. People tend to keep to their own subsections of the site, but no subreddit is impermeable, and if a site allows that kind of behavior, my chances of interacting with someone propagating those images increases exponentially. 

If reddit thinks of itself as a government, as Yishan Wong said in his blog post, then the userbase should have some input into how it is governed, including whether it continues to exist as a platform for these kinds of images. I simply don't buy that there isn't a way, either technically or simply through the brute force of moderation that reddit couldn't become a place that is more hospitable, especially to women. But reddit has deliberately chosen to continue to allow this kind of thing to happen, so long as it doesn't leave the site legally liable.