A row over a Gawker journalist’s investigation into extreme adult content on Reddit has highlighted issues of free speech versus privacy and the publication of offensive material on the content sharing and recommendations website.
One Reddit politics forum has banned links to Gawker after what the moderator described as “an attack on the site and its users”.
The focus on Reddit’s less salubrious content will be an embarrassment for owner Cond Nast, publisher of Vanity Fair and Vogue, which bought the site in 2006.
Gawker journalist Adrian Chen began investigating one prolific Reddit user, Violentacrez, who has set up hundreds of sub-forums where users post links and images including bestiality, rape fantasy, under-age porn and upskirt photos.
Violentacrez most recently joined “Creepshots”, a forum of stalking-style pictures of women taken without their consent. The forum was taken down on Thursday and has now been banned.
The same user posted last week’s email exchange with Chen on a Reddit forum seeking advice, but was apparently so concerned that his identity would be revealed that he later deleted his account. Gawker published Chen’s article, identifying Violentacrez as a 49-year-old employee of a financial services company in Texas, late on Friday.
In response, the Reddit forum’s volunteer moderator PoliticsMod on Thursday published a statement about Gawker’s “intolerable” behaviour, characterising Chen’s investigation as an attack on the site’s users.
“We volunteer our time on Reddit to make it a better place for the users, and should not be harassed and threatened for that. We should all be afraid of the threat of having our personal information investigated and spread around the internet if someone disagrees with you. Reddit prides itself on having a subreddit for everything, and no matter how much anyone may disapprove of what another user subscribes to, that is never a reason to threaten them.
“As a result, the moderators of /r/politics have chosen to disallow links from the Gawker network until action is taken to correct this serious lack of ethics and integrity.”
The post triggered thousands of comments on the site and a slew of lengthy defences by PoliticsMod, who claimed that Gawker has previously attempted to reveal the identities of Reddit posters, undermining their safety.
The Guardian has asked Reddit for comment and to clarify its user guidelines for content posting. It has deleted previous sub-forums including r/jailbait.
The Creepshots controversy has triggered a backlash among Reddit users defending the right to post freely, and those who object to offensive, invasive and threatening content objectifying women.
Jezebel has reported that Creepshots included content posted by a teacher of “a hot senior girl in one of my classes”.
It is not the first time Chen has riled Reddit’s users. In March last year a user called lucidending claimed to be a teen dying from cancer, spending his final moments on Reddit. Seemingly demonstrating the gullibility and herd mentality of its users, Chen joked on Twitter that he was lucidending.
“It hit the front page: User RT100 posted a screenshot of my confession, along with some critical tweets I’d written about Reddit and its dealings with Maya Gilsey, the implication being I’d faked the whole thing to prove a point about Reddit’s double-standard Reading my @replies on Twitter right now would be enough to make a normal person seek out their own lucid ending,” Chen said.
Reddit’s general manager Erik Martin told Buzzfeed on Thursday that the site has more than 100,000 sub-forums of which 10% are currently active. All are set up and moderated by users.
“We’re always adjusting our approach, we’re always following the lead of our users and community, and we always have to adjust things. We’re also trying to maintain this as we want Reddit to be as open a platform as possible. “
Reddit has been the subject of controversy before. In September 2011 the site was pushed to remove r/jailbait, and a few months later r/Photobucketplunder, which hosted pictures copied from compromised accounts on the photo-sharing site.
The site has only five basic rules, which include not posting personal information and no sexually suggestive content featuring minors, though the latter was only added in February this year after a campaign from the website SomethingAwful.com, which claimed that content from r/jailbait had simply been reposted elsewhere on the site.
Under Reddit’s guidelines, publishing sexually suggestive covert pictures of women would be acceptable, but identifying Violentacrez by name would not be.
“Journalists are different in that they’re accountable,” said Martin, referring to their use of real names and susceptibility to lawsuits. “That system on some level works. On Reddit, when someone is anonymously posting someone’s information, it’s our policy to remove that and one we enforce pretty strongly.”
Social software consultant Suw Charman-Anderson said internet communities are self-selecting, so people are drawn to groups expressing shared interests and shaped by age, gender and experience, also known as an “ingroup”.
“Predominantly young, male communities such as Reddit are fairly common simply because there are a lot of young males online and people naturally congregate with people they identify with: as soon as you have a community of young males, more young males will join,” Charman-Anderson added.
“Ingroups tend to become more polarised and strongly favour members over non-members. This leads to the exclusion of people with differing opinions (outgroups) and then not just the marginalisation of dissent, but also vehement attacks on dissenters.”
In a group dynamic, people will take a more extreme position than they would as an individual, she explained.
“Ingroups are common online, and although many of the biggest and most extreme are dominated by young males, by no means are they the only type of ingroup. Mumsnet, for example, is an ingroup with an entirely different demographic and attitude to content, but the same forces are at play,” Charman-Anderson said.
Google Trends data indicates that Reddit has dramatically replaced Digg as the internet’s favoured boys’ locker room, with four times the level of search traffic than the latter achieved at its 2007 peak.
Traffic tool Alexa lists Reddit as the 65th most popular site in the US. Some of its mainstream sub-forums, such as r/funny, have reached peaks of 9m impressions in one day. Alexa characterises Reddit’s user base as predominantly male, between 18 and24, with no children and still in education.
In August, President Obama triggered a surge of traffic to the site when he joined a late night Q&A on internet freedom.
“We will fight hard to make sure that the internet remains the open forum for everybody,” Obama wrote. “Sure thing,” replied a user. “Do you like cats?”
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