What It's Like When Redditors Ban Your Website

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UPDATE, 11/4: Mother Jones is unbanned. But just Mother Jones.

/R/ politics is one of Reddit's most popular subreddits, with over three million accounts subscribed. On Monday, its moderators added a bunch of websites to their banned list. The ban means that those sites' work is completely barred from being linked to on /r/ politics. 

The list includes outlets from across the ideological spectrum: Alternet, Drudge, The Huffington Post, Mother Jones, National Review, Reason, Salon, Vice, and Twitter (!). I spoke to Mother Jones co-editor Clara Jeffery about how the site found out about the ban, and how it's affected them. 

So when’d you find out you guys were banned?

That’s a good question. One of our editors who is on Reddit a lot on his own time brought it to our attention first. But also, users of the subreddit started tweeting at us to tell us we’d been banned.

The decision to ban a site gets made by volunteer moderators. They have a criteria that describes why a publication could be banned, but they don’t tell you why exactly you were, do they?

No. We’ve not heard from the /r/ politics mods directly. They give three possible reasons. One is spam. We have a strict “Don’t Spam Reddit" policy. They’ll also ban sites for sensationalism and low quality posts.

As for quality, we’ve won a lot of National Magazine awards, the Polk awards, Online News Association award. I think our quality’s high. We’re a reported shop, not an opinion-driven shop. We do investigative journalism. All our articles are fact-checked. Kevin Drum, in particular, does some news analysis, but I don’t think anyone would call him sensationalistic.

So I don’t know. It’s mystifying. I appreciate that mods are trying to manage their community. But to ban a fairly haphazard list of publications that do really great reporting around politics, from left right and center, is mystifying.

I was trying to read between the lines of what they’d banned and it seemed like they were targeting places they see as inflected. As a reader, my understanding of Mother Jones has always been that you guys have an outlook, but your reporting is really solid. 

We report from all side of an issue. We do investigations into things that people on the left or the Democrats wish we wouldn’t. And all of our journalism is fact-checked, sourced, and linked through. Facts are what we do, and statistical data analysis journalism is a big part of what we do. So I don’t see that part either. And we don’t really lace our reporting with opinion. It’s more, we’re a shop that cares about the little guy and inequality. So that informs some, but by no means all, of our story selection.

The ban isn’t Reddit-wide, but the politics subreddit has 3 million users. Is this hurting your traffic, or are you just annoyed on principle?

A little of both. Reddit is a spike traffic driver for us. I’m sure we’re losing a little traffic overall. It hasn’t been so huge and noticeable that we’re freaking out.

But it’s more on principle. This is the internet’s premier user-driven discussion forum. We feel we add to the conversation. If Reddit users want to post our high quality, fact-led journalism, we think they should be able to do that. And if they have an issue with our journalism, they should be able to engage with it. That’s what good journalism should do, inform the debate.

And I feel just as strongly about the other publications that have been banned. It’s not so much, "just let Mother Jones back in." It’s more, what is this policy? Because it doesn't make sense, to the people who’ve been banned or, frankly, to tons of journalists at places that haven’t been banned.

It feels like it’d be crazy for a news outlet to say, we don’t like the general tenor of this other outlet’s journalism, so we’ll never acknowledge their existence again. We’ll never refer to their work. They don’t exist in the world of our site. It’s a very strange policy.

Particularly for something that’s entire ethos is about openness and user-driven conversation, right? It’s not something you expect in a free society, and especially for something that prides itself as being at the bleeding edge of user driven content and First Amendment principles.

Is there a formal appeals process? What happens next?

Our philosophy has been that it should be worked out within the Reddit community. We know folks at Reddit, but this is amongst their moderators, who are volunteers. And there’s a vigorous discussion about this going on in the subreddit. One would hope this would lead to a realization that this policy is flawed and contra to what Reddit is supposed to be about. I don't understand when or how the moderators are changed out, so I can’t speak to if that's a possible solution. I would hope just that enlightened moderators would come to a discussion that this isn't what they should be doing.

It’s not clear to me if the reason they ban sites is because they know Reddit's important to web traffic and it’s meant to be punitive for bad behavior, or if it’s because they’ve decided those site’s content is just so toxic to their discussion that they don’t want it in there.

I know they have banned places before in a temporarily, penalty-box waything. When they found out staffers of a  publication are sending story after story to a subreddit. Blogspam, as its called. But we respect user-driven communities. We know they don’t like it. So we don’t do it.

So then, you’re left with the other two supposed criteria. [Outlets that are banned for their low-quality posts or sensationalism] And I think that’s false on its face. Our journalism has been recognized for being internationally really important. So I don’t think it’s about quality or sensationalism.

I’ll tell you something interesting. We had a story going up this morning about bombastic speeches that Ted Cruz’s father has given, that’ve been up on YouTube for years. They won't let users post our story, but at least for a good long time today the top story on the /r/ politics subreddit was a Talking Points Memo summary of our story.

Now, it’s not that TPM just aggregates, by any means. But why are you going to let someone post an aggregation of our story when you wouldn’t let your users post the story itself?