Ellen Pao Has Spoken Out Against Her Abusers As Reddit’s New CEO Unveils Big Content Bans

"I’m rooting for the humans over the trolls. I know we can win."

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Last week, following the redundancy of the site’s chief AMA co-ordinator Victoria Taylor and the immediate internet shitstorm it provoked, Reddit’s CEO Ellen Pao chose to resign. Or, more accurately, the unrelenting hoards of Redditors furious with Taylor’s dismissal pushed her to breaking point.

After making the decision to ban non-consensual pornography and shut down sub-Reddits exclusively devoted to hate speech, Pao was attacked by users who felt she was undermining the free and open ethos of the website. After months of petitions calling for her dismissal, outright threats, and misogynistic and racist abuse, Pao stepped down asking everyone to remember she is “just another human”. “I have a family, and I have feelings,” she wrote in a somewhat disheartening parting post.

Now, Pao has chosen to speak out about her experience and contextualise it in a larger culture of online abuse. “I have just endured one of the largest trolling attacks in history,” she wrote for The Washington Post. “[But] what happened to me … is important to consider as we confront the ways in which the Internet is evolving.”

“The Internet started as a bastion for free expression. It encouraged broad engagement and a diversity of ideas. Over time, however, that openness has enabled the harassment of people for their views, experiences, appearances or demographic backgrounds. Balancing free expression with privacy and the protection of participants has always been a challenge for open-content platforms on the Internet. But that balancing act is getting harder. The trolls are winning.”

Breaking down the stats which suggest around 40 percent of people have experienced some kind of harassment online (a number which incidentally jumps to 70 percent if you’re aged between 18-24), Pao suggests we’re now at an important crossroads. As the initial optimism of the internet as a free and democratic medium of public debate subsides for a more cynical reality of douchebags and death threats, how do we negotiate our way forward? Will people ever really change, or must we now we rely on the censorship mechanisms of online platforms? Moreover, how do we universally decide on the standards for acceptable behaviour?

“[We] want to see the bad with the good, so it becomes harder to get rid of the ugly,” Pao says.

After some insightful contemplation on this, Pao comes to no real conclusion. “It’s left to all of us to figure it out, to call out abuse when we see it,” she says. “In the battle for the Internet, the power of humanity to overcome hate gives me hope. I’m rooting for the humans over the trolls. I know we can win.”

It’s an inspiring idea, but it’s still far from becoming a reality. When Clementine Ford spoke out against the trolls who had made innocent Australian women the target of revenge porn last month, she was not only met with more threats and abuse, but punishment from Facebook — one of the online corporations which outwardly stands against such conduct.

Importantly, this is just one story among the millions which don’t get told. The trolls are still very much in the lead.

Meanwhile, At Reddit…

Despite Pao’s newfound skepticism about censorship and corporate action, Reddit’s new CEO Steve Huffman has taken this opportunity to lay down the law. In his first post in the position, he’s raised the possibility of prohibiting a bunch of content including “spam”, “anything illegal”, “publication of someone’s private and confidential information”, “anything that incites harm or violence against an individual or group of people”, “anything that harasses, bullies, or abuses an individual or group of people” and “sexually suggestive content featuring minors”.

Understandably, this comes with a whole load of stipulations and the definitions are far from being official. For example, “anything illegal” would include sharing copyrighted material, but it wouldn’t include talking about illegal activity like drug use. He also used the example that it’s okay to say “I don’t like this group of people” but not acceptable to say “I’m going to kill this group of people”.

As Reddit has around 170 million monthly users and this was plastered on the front page all day, there are unsurprisingly an onslaught of questions and clarifications in the responses as well.

Importantly, most of this was actually already forbidden by the site’s current user agreement and the point about harassment and bullying is almost exactly what Pao had suggested earlier this year. As Huffman told one Redditor in the comments, “This isn’t different from what we have right now, but we really need to enforce it better”.

“We cannot turn a blind eye to it like we have in the past,” he told The New York Times. “Our responsibility is to our community so they can express themselves … I want the world to be proud of Reddit.”

It all sounds very noble, and his statement about the company’s growth on the issue is worth reading in full. Here’s a hefty section of it:

“We started Reddit to be — as we said back then with our tongues in our cheeks — ‘The front page of the Internet’. Reddit was to be a source of enough news, entertainment, and random distractions to fill an entire day of pretending to work, every day. Occasionally, someone would start spewing hate, and I would ban them. The community rarely questioned me. When they did, they accepted my reasoning: ‘because I don’t want that content on our site’.

As we grew, I became increasingly uncomfortable projecting my worldview on others. More practically, I didn’t have time to pass judgement on everything, so I decided to judge nothing.

So we entered a phase that can best be described as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. This worked temporarily, but once people started paying attention, few liked what they found. A handful of painful controversies usually resulted in the removal of a few communities, but with inconsistent reasoning and no real change in policy.

One thing that isn’t up for debate is why Reddit exists. Reddit is a place to have open and authentic discussions. The reason we’re careful to restrict speech is because people have more open and authentic discussions when they aren’t worried about the speech police knocking down their door. When our purpose comes into conflict with a policy, we make sure our purpose wins.

No company is perfect at addressing these hard issues. We’ve spent the last few days here discussing and agree that an approach like this allows us as a company to repudiate content we don’t want to associate with the business, but gives individuals freedom to consume it if they choose. This is what we will try, and if the hateful users continue to spill out into mainstream Reddit, we will try more aggressive approaches. Freedom of expression is important to us, but it’s more important to us that we at Reddit be true to our mission.”

However, many have doubted both the effectiveness of this move as well the new CEO’s commitment to the cause. The fact that openly discriminatory content that isn’t explicitly violent will be tagged ‘NSFW’ rather than banned has been a big sticking point for some. For example, in the comments of his original post, Huffman clarifies that under these rules the subreddit “/r/rapingwomen” would be shut down, but one of the site’s most infamous white supremacist boards would be reclassified. If you’d like to subject yourself to some horrific celebration from members of that community, please head on over to Gawker.

As someone regularly made the target of online threats and harassment, games critic Anita Sarkeesian has been one of the most vocal to criticise the CEO’s decision. “Reddit isn’t obligated to provide space for racists and misogynists to congregate, organise and recruit,” she said on Twitter. “The company is choosing to do that.”

And, whether you agree with that or not, it’s clear that Ellen Pao’s war on trolls is far from being over.