Reddit Bans /r/Coontown For All the Wrong Reasons

By Annalee Newitz on at

The community site Reddit has finally banned several controversial forums, including /r/Rapingwomen and the racist forums associated with /r/Coontown. The problem is that CEO Steve Huffman did it by putting a terrible set of policies in place.

At the root of the problem is a basic issue Reddit’s leadership has with what constitutes a bannable offence on the site. When former CEO Ellen Pao was in charge, she instituted the idea that the company should ban subreddits that “threaten” other Redditors, or that encourage violence. Those rules led many people to call for the banning of the site /r/rapingwomen, which clearly calls for violence against women.

But it wasn’t until today that /r/rapingwomen was banned, after Huffman formalised the new Reddit content rules. In an update today, Reddit now says that content or an entire subreddit may be banned if it (and this is a direct quote from Reddit):

There are also three categories of “behaviour” that Reddit has prohibited:

These declarations all seem fairly non-controversial. Clearly, they explain why /r/rapingwomen should be banned. The problem? Reddit’s executives didn’t believe these rules would cover racist subreddits, such as the notorious /r/Coontown. Even though pretty much everyone agreed that it deserved to be banned.

That’s why Huffman decided to come up with a vague rubric that would let Reddit ban /r/Coontown. In last night’s announcement of the new rules, which included the announcement that /r/Coontown was banned, he wrote:

We are banning a handful of communities that exist solely to annoy other redditors, prevent us from improving Reddit, and generally make Reddit worse for everyone else.

There are two issues here. First, this language is so vague that it could lead to banning pretty much ANY subreddit. I mean, I am deeply annoyed by /r/thebigbangtheory. Does that mean I can get it banned under Huffman’s new rule? What about all those fascinating subreddits like /r/science that suck me in for hours and prevent me doing things to improve Reddit? My point is that these are a lousy set of rules to use to ban racist subreddits.

And that brings us to the second and more profound issue. Why couldn’t /r/Coontown’s set of sites have been banned under the far-more-legitimate content rules above? The last two years in the US have been eye-opening for anyone who believes that racist rhetoric doesn’t incite violence. One of the most powerful arguments against keeping the Confederate flag flying was that it had become a symbol of hatred that encourages violence against blacks. Reddit could easily have argued that it was banning /r/Coontown for the same reason. It encouraged violence against blacks just as much as /r/rapingwomen encouraged violence against women.

But for some reason, top brass at Reddit can’t recognise the obvious connection between communities devoted to racism and violence. In this way, the Reddit community lags behind every single US state government that took down the Confederate flag in June.

Huffman could have banned /r/Coontown under the original set of rules, which state that Reddit can ban forums “that incite harm against others”. But because he wasn’t willing to admit that racism incites violence, he wound up inventing a crappy new rule – based on whether subreddits are “annoying” or “make Reddit worse” — that will actually do more harm than good.