For the first 20 minutes of our conversation, Steve Huffman, CEO of Reddit, the sixth most-visited website in the US, does a good impression of a 2020s tech executive. “Our mission,” he says at one point, “is to bring community belonging and empowerment to everyone in the world.”
But then I ask Huffman about regulation. The US government is increasingly looking for ways to rein in the extremist content, viral falsehoods, and conspiracy theories that have breached the thin boundaries from social media into meatspace, leading to violence and a political discourse that’s inflected with the language and narratives of 4Chan. A case before the US Supreme Court is testing the protections afforded to Big Tech companies as platforms, rather than publishers. Social media companies face attacks from the political right, which accuses them of censoring conservative views, and from the left, which says they’re doing too little to prevent the erosion of democratic norms.
Huffman, who has been tensing up for a while, leans in. “Government, elites—whatever you want to say—will always blame somebody else before they blame themselves,” he says. His handler from the public relations department—Reddit has one of those—interjects to give a three-minute warning for the end of the interview, but Huffman is just hitting his stride. “It’s something I’m really scared about. Not just because of the company I work on. But for democracy,” he says. “The irony is that people complaining about the death of democracy are likely going to be the killers of democracy, taking power from people and centralizing it in government.”
Later, he’ll talk about the spread of “memory holes” and prison states, his belief that theories dismissed as misinformation often turn out to be true, and how any government attempt to control what’s published online is tantamount to authoritarianism. US government proposals to regulate social media platforms, Huffman contends, would shut down free speech.
“Literally, we’re talking about state-controlled media,” he says. “There’s no state that controls media thinking they’re not being noble. They always say it’s for your own good—‘We’re making things more safe’—And they probably believe it.” He pauses for a long time. “State-controlled media,” he says finally, “is state-controlled media.”
Happy to Block
Huffman cofounded Reddit in 2005 with his college roommate Alexis Ohanian and Aaron Swartz, a net freedom icon who died in 2013. Now, Huffman looks back with amusement at the site’s early innocent days, when the founders’ first two moderation quandries were whether users were allowed to use swear words or to criticize Reddit. “They seem like such easy decisions right now,” Huffman says. “There were, like, three racist posts during those first two years, and I just deleted them.”
Aside from an occasional intervention by the founders or the volunteer moderators who create and police subreddits, Reddit let pretty much anything go on its platform during its early years. There were only a handful of rules, or principles, that all Redditors were expected to abide by: Doxxing was not OK, and incitement to violence was eventually banned. But for much of the next decade, Reddit was a rare popular platform that didn’t show even rhetorical interest in getting rid of its darkest spaces. In 2006, the founders sold the site to Condé Nast, which also owns WIRED, and Huffman left in 2009. (Reddit later became an independent company, with Condé Nast parent Advance Publications remaining a shareholder.)
It’s hard to pinpoint Reddit’s nadir, but by the time Huffman returned as CEO in July 2015, it was a place where white supremacists openly used racial slurs in the names of their subreddits; QAnon adherents had thriving homes; and misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia weren’t just common, but ideas around which users organized large communities. True, these cesspools coexisted with massive subreddits for players of Pokémon Go, houseplant enthusiasts, and people in moral quandaries asking the internet “Am I the Asshole?” But while Reddit wasn’t quite 4Chan, it was 4Chan-adjacent.
Huffman came back to Reddit in the midst of a firestorm. The previous CEO, Ellen Pao, had tried and failed to clean up the site, and her departure helped draw mainstream media attention to the platform’s grimmer spaces. Within weeks of his return, the site began quarantining the worst subreddits, making them harder to find and adding warnings that they included offensive content. Communities where threats of violence were common, including r/rapingwomen, were banned, but some large, openly racist forums, including r/coontown, were not. “The content there is offensive to many but does not violate our current rules for banning,” Huffman said in an Ask Me Anything at the time. A month later, the rules changed again, and r/coontown was removed from the site, along with several other openly hateful subreddits.
In the years that followed, Reddit became progressively tougher in acting against communities that pushed the boundaries of acceptability, even where it meant making decisions that were politically controversial. In 2016, Reddit banned r/PizzaGate—a QAnon-driven subreddit that propagated the conspiracy theory that a cabal of pedophiles led by Hilary Clinton performed Satanic rituals in the basement of a Washington DC pizzeria—for breaching its policies on doxxing.
Then, in June 2019, Reddit quarantined r/TheDonald, which since its founding when Donald Trump announced his presidential campaign had become a focal point for Trump supporters but also attracted conspiracy theories and white supremacist content—including support for the murder of Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand, by a far-right terrorist in 2019. Moderators habitually promoted posts supporting white supremacist causes, including for the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. The subreddit peaked at just under 800,000 users but was banned in 2020. (Leaked documents from a Russian intelligence agency would later show that Russia had attempted to boost divisive content on the Trump subreddit.)