The challenge with how Reddit is shutting down violent speech

Reddit clarified its policy to ban speech that “encourages, glorifies, incites, or calls for violence or physical harm.” Sounds great, but as always with free-speech issues, the lines between acceptable and awful are fuzzy.

Reddit has a challenging history to deal with. Among mainstream public social platforms, it has been the most tolerant of extreme speech. Not coincidentally, it’s also historically been a haven for hate groups. Since Reddit cracked down on some of its most offensive forums two years ago, there’s been an issue on where to draw the line.

Here’s the recent Reddit statement.

Hello All–

We want to let you know that we have made some updates to our site-wide rules regarding violent content. We did this to alleviate user and moderator confusion about allowable content on the site. We also are making this update so that Reddit’s content policy better reflects our values as a company.

In particular, we found that the policy regarding “inciting” violence was too vague, and so we have made an effort to adjust it to be more clear and comprehensive. Going forward, we will take action against any content that encourages, glorifies, incites, or calls for violence or physical harm against an individual or a group of people; likewise, we will also take action against content that glorifies or encourages the abuse of animals. This applies to ALL content on Reddit, including memes, CSS/community styling, flair, subreddit names, and usernames.

We understand that enforcing this policy may often require subjective judgment, so all of the usual caveats apply with regard to content that is newsworthy, artistic, educational, satirical, etc, as mentioned in the policy. Context is key. The policy is posted in the help center here.

This sounds fair. But does it ban any of the following?

  • “I like sparring in my karate class.”
  • “The police should identify violent criminals like the Las Vegas shooter and take action first. If they’d arrested and roughed him up as soon as they’d realized he was bringing guns into the hotel, we’d be better off.”
  • “In the wake of a storm or power outage, looters emerge. They should be shot.”
  • “Maybe it’s time to drop a bomb and wipe out the whole nation of North Korea.”
  • “I’m glad Hitler shot himself.”
  • “The NFL has gotten sissified. It’s time to get back to players hitting other players hard — including the quarterback.”
  • “I’m OK with punching Nazis.”
  • “On Veterans Day we revere our veterans, who kept America safe by hunting down and killing terrorists and other enemies of America.”
  • “Here’s something I learned in my self defense class. If someone grabs you from behind, elbow him in the stomach as hard as you can.”
  • “Charge!”

You might or might not agree with these statements. Some of them bother me. But they don’t bother me so much that I’d ban them or the people who posted them.

The policy says “context is key” and “enforcing this policy may often require subjective judgment” (that’s a nice string of weasel words). The problem is that word “context.” Am I allowed to make jokes about violence? It’s certain that some will find them funny or ironic, but others will find them offensive. Can I quote someone else’s violent statement to decry it? The challenge about context is that it is always subjective.

What the Reddit statement teaches us about speech

Child pornography is always wrong.

Reasoned discussion of difference is always right.

Everything in between is subjective. The political correctness (or is it social justice?) movement on college campuses that has caused them to block speeches by Milo Yiannopoulos, Chelsea Manning, Richard Spencer and other controversial figures is part of this debate. So is Twitter, which at times has suspended both Trump ally Roger Stone and sexual harassment critic Rose McGowan.

Here’s where I come down:

  • Remember that the First Amendment applies to laws, not platforms. The Bill of Rights says that the government cannot make laws that infringe on freedom of speech. It says nothing about what rules social media platforms can make. Facebook and Google are corporations, not a government entities, and can set and follow whatever rules they want.
  • Think twice before you cheer someone being banned from a platform. Denouncing such speech is a lot more effective than the blunt policy of banning it. Social media is full of debate — that’s one of its best features. Banning people will drive them into private spaces that embrace such speech, and where open debate is impossible.
  • Do not imagine that there is a simple policy here. Every policy has nuances. Every decision is subjective. There is no simple black-and-white definition of hate speech or violent speech. Be wary of people who say they have the right to choose.
  • Suspect your own motives. Do you want to ban people who disagree with you and allow those who agree to speak their minds? Imagine for a moment that the person or remark you are banning were aimed a group you detest — would you still want to ban it?

I wish Reddit luck rooting out violent speech. But I’m still wary of any suggesting problems like this have simple solutions. Once the muzzle comes out, I worry whether I’ll be the next one prevented from speaking my mind.

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