Social Media: Walking the Tightrope between Over-Intervention and being a Bystander

“Reddit’s CEO regrets trolling Trump supporters by secretly editing their posts”

“There goes Facebook again with its fake news, when will they learn how to filter that stuff out…” I grumbled.  I did a double take and realized that the article was from the Washington Post and clicked on it to verify its validity.  Lo and behold a picture of Reddit’s CEO Steve Huffman plastered the screen on Washington Post’s website.

reddit-picture

WP’s image at the top of the article, Reddit’s CEO explaining his mistake

 

(WARNING: the following is a reflection of my personal feelings towards this situation, it is not necessarily all factual or logical, here’s a link to the post I’m referring to).  CEO Steve Huffman was caught switching his name with a pro-Trump leader’s in any comments that criticized him on the sub forum /r/The_Donald.  The absurdity of this situation is actually beyond belief on multiple levels.  The first issue is the precedent this incident sets on social media platforms and forums in general about power boundaries and what is considered the abuse of power.  The fact that a CEO of any company has the ability to go and change content or a product / service at his own discretion is unbelievable.  On top of that, it was done secretly without the knowledge of the general public (this is a whole separate can of worms).  Secondly, the biases from this incident have been made beyond apparent as all of the changes were altered to slander Trump and his supporting leaders.  As a “free posting” forum, this puts a lot of negative pressure for conservatives and Trump supporters as a whole, creating a divide and influencing the content posted on the site (people might be less prone to post positive conservative information).  Lastly, this just makes Steve Huffman look like a weak CEO.  His quote, “I abused my power to give the bullies a hard time” really emphasizes how much criticism affects him.  As a CEO of any company, you’ll always get criticism as it is impossible to please everyone.  However, Huffman took this into his own hands and “trolled” his critics instead of ignoring them or trying to improve.  (End reflection).

donald trump.png

/r/The_Donald in all its glory

Although this was an extreme case of intervention, the tightrope that companies have to walk between moderating their product vs free reign is something that still has not been clearly established today.  This is not Reddit’s first debacle with intervention, as it also occurred during the last CEO’s tenure.  Reddit’s policy on moderation is that content is allowed as long as it does not “allow their communities to use the subreddit as a platform to harass individuals when moderators don’t take action”.  Under Ellen Pao, the previous CEO, Reddit banned five subreddits, including /r/fatpeoplehate and four other subreddits that contain expletive slurs in the title.  In the /r/fatpeoplehate subreddit, people would post picture of overweight people and criticize them in the comments.  However, there was an uproar after the five bans were issued and many were petitioning for Ellen Pao to step down (one of the subreddits banned was as big as 150,000 users).  Following that incident, Pao continued to receive flak when she was largely attributed to firing a moderator on one of the biggest subreddits, “Ask Me Anything”.  The lack of communication about the firing with the other moderators and with the community in general was the last nail in the coffin as the protests grew exponentially.  Eventually, Pao stepped down from the CEO position and issued apologies to the community.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have companies like Facebook and Twitter who state that their job is not to moderate or show biases towards a side but instead have algorithms in place that promote homophily and in turn are subconsciously influencing their user base.  One famous example that has been talked about in recent months is the different results that show up in Google when a user searches “Arab Spring”.  Google bases its results on multiple factors including previous searches, device used, geographic location, and Google Adwords present on the page.

What is the correct amount of moderation for a social media or forum website?  Why does banning subreddits that harass individuals and groups have more controversy then some of the search algorithms created by other social media companies?  At the end of the day, the line is drawn based on the users of the platform, not a moral obligation to monitor certain things or to let information be spread freely.  In the case of Facebook and Google, people enjoy homophily as they have more negative connotations towards people with different opinions.  Thus, changing the algorithm accordingly is acceptable.  On the other hand, Reddit thrives on the freedom and say users have in their small subreddit communities, so infringing on their rights becomes a very difficult task to accomplish, even when considering the moral high ground involved in Ellen Pao’s case.  As long as social media platforms remain a private business (private as in not government owned, IPOs are fine) they will cater the most towards their users / main revenue source.  If their goal is to keep users on their website for longer so they are exposed to more advertisements, then the company will continually strive towards that.  The only question pending in the future is how far companies are allowed to go.  Is Google allowed to change organic search results to gear towards advertisers?  Only time will tell.

5 comments

  1. finkbecca · ·

    I just saw the article in the Washington Post you are referring to a few days ago as well, and while I was shocked at first, I couldn’t help but find it hilarious. Sure, it is certainly not ethical for a CEO to change people’s posts, especially without them knowing, but it’s also just really funny that he did. It undoubtedly will cause a lot of people to question how much they can trust not only Reddit, but other sites where your comments are monitored. Reddit acknowledges that they are a monitored site and that there are restrictions, so shutting down some of those subreddits seemed appropriate to me. Interesting post!

  2. I think moderation is key, but doing it in an unbiased way is important. Of course, these companies are private businesses (media companies, even), and they can write whatever they want, just like Brietbart, FoxNews, MotherJones, and MSNBC. Your only recourse is to tune out and not use their site.

  3. vicmoriartybc · ·

    Honestly, I’ve always considered Reddit to be a completely unreliable site, almost to the point of where it’s unbelievable that people even use it. The fact that the CEO edited content to “troll” people seems laughably predictable. Even though I’m anti-Trump and pretty much everything conservatives stand for, I think doing this was a horrible idea. As you said, it makes Huffman and the site itself appear biased, and many conservatives already feel that the media is biased against them. It’s probably only a matter of time before Trump tweets about this and how “unfair” or “sad” this is.

  4. dabettervetter · ·

    I remember when the Ellen Pao scandal went down and already feeling betrayed by someone in such a powerful position. In this case, no matter your political opinion or opinion of the responsibility and promise or honesty that Reddit makes to its consumers, a CEO abusing his or her power is disappointing. I do not have a strong opinion about what a social site should publish whether the news is real or fake, but I do feel that CEO’s and others of high power should be held to a high standard of integrity.

  5. This brings to mind the well known phrase “with great power comes great responsibility”. I think this is a managerial takeaway that should be looked at by other executives that have huge social media companies. If this action was not caught, Huffman may have continued to think this was acceptable. I think Reddit is extremely unique because it allows freedom of expression without the repercussions people see on other social media websites. The fact that the CEO himself would not allow this kind of freedom of expression gives the company a bad image that can be hard to recover. Great post – thanks for sharing!

%d bloggers like this: