Latest posts by Brooke Noonan (see all)
- The Dark Side of Reddit: Misogyny, Racism, and Hate - March 20, 2017
- Is the Ethical Choice to Delete the Uber App? - February 22, 2017
- Calling Out the Sexism of Startup Culture - February 4, 2017
Recently, this post graced the front page of Reddit with the title “Why work when you can try riding the pussypass everyday?” It features this screenshot of a (questionably real) Facebook conversation:
I am pretty outspoken about why I think there aren’t more women in STEM (spoiler alert: sexism). But, against my better judgement, I decided to read some of the 865 comments on this post. Beyond the predictable misogynistic vitriol (which seemed to make up at least two-thirds of the comments), I saw some responses that gave me pause for different reasons:
From Reddit user UnnamedNamesake:
I’m also a woman in the STEM field, and I disagree with her. There are more women in universities than there are men, and they are shown special exception due to the fact that they have a vagina. But it’s these women’s own fault they’re underrepresented in the STEM field, since they thought a degree in sociology is more valuable than one in engineering, or because child development is easier course work than geology.
From Reddit user boogswald:
I don’t think we’ll see a step change in women entering the STEM fields, rather I’d say it’ll be a slower progression like most cultural changes are. Overall, I’m glad that women are more openly being inspired to pursue whatever field and career they’d like.
From Reddit user childofmalcav:
In fairness she could have been rubbish at STEM subjects. I wouldn’t want to be a hairdresser as my hands shake like Marty McFly.
I will address these comments in a bit, but first let’s put them in context.
The Front Page of the Internet
Reddit, if you don’t already know, is a content aggregation website. Articles, photos, and forum posts are organized in “subreddits” which users can then subscribe to. Subreddit topics range from feminism to do-it-yourself projects to solo travel to bad taxidermy. If you’re into a weird hobby, no matter how obscure, chances are you’ll find a fellow enthusiast on Reddit.
As of 2016, the Reddit user base was 67% male. This is important to keep in mind when understanding how subreddits like r/ChangingRooms (photos of women trying on bathing suits and other clothes in changing rooms) and r/GirlsInYogaPants (pretty much exactly what you imagine) exist – and boast 67,000 and 214,000 subscribers a piece.
While the photos in these subreddits are not necessarily taken without consent – most are mirror selfies or gym photos – it seems likely that most are being used without consent. While some women voluntarily post pictures to these subreddits (and should not be shamed for doing so), captions like “More women like her should wear yogashorts” and “What a waist” act as disturbing reminders of who is submitting content.
Equally troubling is that in 2016, 70% of Reddit users were white. This is the context in which hyper-racist subreddits formed over the years. One such subreddit was devoted solely to videos of black men dying. Graphic videos like these have at times been used to memorialize victims and agitate resistance against police brutality. But instead, users on this subreddit watched the videos for sick gratification, calling them “[v]ery educational and entertaining.”
That particular section of the site has been shut down, but unsurprisingly, it still exists under a different name. Which raises the (internet-) age-old question: how do we stop these people?
As with most websites that rely on user-submitted content, Reddit has had a long-standing identity crisis over moderation.
For years r/RevengePorn thrived on the site – you guessed it, a subreddit devoted to photos of women uploaded without their consent. In 2015, after public calls from Kernel and other media outlets, Reddit finally announced a policy that “people who find ‘involuntary pornography’ media of themselves can report it to Reddit to have it removed as quickly as possible.” Confusingly, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian tweeted shortly after the announcement: “It’s still true: people, businesses, govt’s should all default assume ‘digital = public’.”
r/RevengePorn was not the first subreddit to be shut down, however reluctantly, by Reddit administrators. In 2012, the subreddits r/Creepshots and r/jailbait were shut down after 6 years of activity. In a horrifyingly passive statement, Reddit administrators wrote: “Today we are adding another rule: No suggestive or sexual content featuring minors….We…do not make this policy change lightly, or without careful deliberation…”
Women, unsurprisingly, are not the only victims of Reddit’s apathy. In 2015, several news outlets reported that due to lax moderation, Reddit had surpassed white supremacist forum Stormfront as a “Black Hole of Violent Racism.” Keegan Hankes, a research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Stormfront investigator, explains in an excellent interview with Salon that “based on the structure of Reddit, you can get these … white supremacist views, and put them in context of less offensive views and make them much more palatable.”
In response to the question “How do you feel about hosting what may soon be the biggest white supremacist forum on the internet?” Reddit co-founder Steve Huffman responded: “Horrible, actually, but I don’t think you can win an argument by simply silencing the opposition.” In other words, for Huffman, racism is just one side of a debate that is not only worth having – but worth protecting.
Advocates and decent human beings have decided to take action in the face of Reddit’s apparent indifference to human dignity. Back when r/CreepShots was still active, anonymous Redditors began collecting the personal information of users submitting content and forwarding it to the police.
In one case, 35-year-old substitute teacher Christopher Bailey was fired after posting photos of his students to r/CreepShots with one caption reading “Hot senior girl in one of my classes.” A search warrant was issued thanks to information provided by an anonymous Reddit user.
However, with about 2 million comments per day and just 22 employees, it is safe to say that the vast majority of content goes unmonitored. Volunteer moderators oversee subreddit activity, but with notoriously abhorrent users like Violentacrez acting as moderators, it is hard for women, people of color, or anyone for that matter to expect a safe experience on Reddit.
Defending the Indefensible
Let’s revisit the women in STEM post above. This is the most disturbing part about the comments I reproduced: even problematic statements like these are frequently derided on Reddit as misandry.
This post and its comments live on the subreddit r/PussyPassDenied which, if you can’t already tell, is a feminist’s worst nightmare. However, because this post has gained so much popularity, it can now be seen on Reddit’s front page aka www.reddit.com.
I am no longer a Reddit user. I was active on the site for about 2 years. Since deleting my account I occasionally visit the front page, mostly out of habit but also to get the temperature of the Reddit community these days.
It pains me to say that if you sent me this post 2 years ago, I may have actually defended Reddit. Reddit users are almost universally defensive of the site, and I was no exception.
I may have cited r/TwoXChromosomes (“a subreddit for both serious and silly content, and intended for women’s perspectives”) or r/xxstem (“To encourage, empower, and retain women in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields”) as proof that Reddit can do some good.
But, as we all know, it is difficult to succeed within a system that has set you up to fail. And, through lax moderation in the name of “free speech”, Reddit’s administrators have set women, people of color, and other vulnerable populations to fail. The fact that rampant misogyny is not only common but expected on Reddit proves that systemic changes to the site must be made.
More than that, it is past time for us, culturally, to call out Reddit as a hub for sexism, racism, and every other ideology that thrives in its predominantly white male user base.
This view is surprisingly unpopular. If you challenge your friends on it I do not doubt there will be backlash. However, maybe the next time they are scrolling the front page and see a post like this one, they will vote it down. In the end that can make all the difference.