Reddit’s /R/Technology Censorship Fiasco

By Joelle Renstrom | 6 years ago

redditThis morning I went on Reddit to look for some breaking tech news. I was on a public computer, so I didn’t sign in — I just went to select “technology” from the default list of subreddits, but it wasn’t there. Sure, I could search for the subreddit, but at over 5,000,000 subscribers, why was the subreddit missing from the usual scroll? Then I learned about the controversy surrounding Reddit’s technology sub, which has resulted in its disappearance from the default subreddit list, as well as raising serious questions about Reddit’s credibility and policies.

It turns out that the technology subreddit has been heavily censored for months. An observant redditor figured this out by searching for terms that one would expect to find in the subreddit, such as “NSA” and “bitcoin.” There were no instances of those terms, which is impossible. Thus, the user, creq, developed a list of other words that were suspiciously absent. The list is mind-boggling — how could one expect to discuss technology without using terms such as “spying” or “net neutrality” or “FCC”?

NSA techsubreddit
Redditor SamSlate created this graph that shows the appearance of headlines on r/technology with the word “NSA” in them. The spike in the middle spans June through August of last year.

Any word with a political connotation (including “Obama,” “Congress,” and Condoleezza”) flagged a bot programmed by the subreddit’s moderators, which then deleted the post. Any words or phrases that tend to piss people off were also flagged. Isn’t that the point of Reddit? A moderator who goes by agentlame admitted that they “don’t have enough active mods and posts that break our rules can make it to the front page in less than an hour, so we’re stuck using a bot.” Apparently, half of the r/technology moderators have gone AWOL for the past few years (without actually removing themselves as moderators), leaving a measly five redditors to moderate posts from five million people. Yeah, I can see why they’d resort to bots to weed out spam, but obviously there were some flaws with that plan. I suppose we could take heart in the fact that humans couldn’t be replaced by bots here?

Maxwellhill, a senior Reddit moderator, started to feed links with banned words and used his status to get them around the bot. He then started booting and replacing moderators, designed to highlight the dysfunction and self-serving intentions and “petty squabbles” of the moderators and which led to a Reddit war described in detail by the Daily Dot.

This isn’t the first time Reddit has censored submitted posts or dealt with in-fighting among moderators — it happened before in the politics and the atheism subreddits, both of which were subsequently removed from the default subreddit list. The similar censorship of the technology forum is particularly problematic — how are people supposed to share information and discuss the consequences of, say, the NSA leak? The NSA surveillance has infringed upon citizens’ rights, and we certainly have the right, if not the responsibility, to discuss that. Censoring those discussions delivers a double whammy, and hurts the credibility of a site founded on the sharing of information and opinions regardless of how popular or tasteful they are.

In a message to readers, the technology moderators apologized and acknowledged the failure on their part. They also admitted that they have a “disaster” on their hands and said that respecting their community is more important than filtering spam. I guess Reddit reform is on the way.

Redditors who want to discuss technology have moved to the /r/TECH subreddit. Some have opted for the rather optimistic /r/futurology subreddit too. I wonder when /r/censorship will pop up as a subreddit — of course, if it did, it would probably be deleted.

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