Reddit administrators’ decision to “quarantine” r/The_Donald, a subreddit forum for fans of President Trump and Reddit’s largest conservative community, is a recent and egregious example of social media sites meddling in political affairs.
It’s no secret that Silicon Valley is overwhelmingly left wing. For every $1 that employees at the world’s biggest technology companies donated to Donald Trump, they gave $60 to Hillary Clinton.
But tech CEOs assure conservatives that their company’s overwhelming partisanship somehow has no effect on the content they publish. They claim that because their sites are run by algorithms, not people, they’ve managed to uphold a Spockian political impartiality. What a bunch of baloney! Many of tech companies’ editorial decisions are made by people, and ultimately their algorithms were created by a group 99% opposed Donald Trump’s election. Tech CEOs may imitate Spock’s empty gaze, but they’ve strayed far from his actual disposition.
The original r/The_Donald “quarantine” was put in place for what site administrators described as “repeated rule breaking behavior.” Some of r/The_Donald’s 770,000 users commented “encouragements to violence” after Oregon Gov. Kate Brown called on state police to corral Republican representatives back to the statehouse following a skipped global warming vote.
The comments in question were reprehensible and clearly violated Reddit’s rules. The problem is that Reddit, with its 330 million users, was and is rife with similarly disgusting rhetoric. After the controversy in Oregon, a commenter in the liberal subreddit r/Politics had the following to say about Republican legislators: "Shoot these f*ckers. In the knees. For running like pieces of sh*t.” I’m not going to belabor my point and list the thousands of unaddressed, rule-breaking comments on left-wing subreddits. The point is, when such comments are posted in apolitical or left-wing subreddits, nothing happens. Reddit has a responsibility to ensure that it applies its rules equally to all political content.
Reddit’s decision to quarantine r/The_Donald is not just unfair — Reddit’s size ensures that it will have far-reaching political effects. Although CEO Steve Huffman touted his small staff during a recent House Energy & Commerce Committee hearing, the truth is that Reddit is an online behemoth. It is the third biggest social media site in the U.S. based on overall web page visits, with a larger reach than Facebook. Reddit’s political forums are important hubs of discussion, debate and organization.
An obvious instance of real-world political effect is the July 27, 2016 question-and-answer session then-candidate Trump held with his supporters on r/The_Donald. Conversely, before the 2016 election Trump’s staff closely monitored the subreddit’s political temperature. Reddit has now intentionally blocked off an avenue of communication between the president and his supporters ahead of the 2020 election.
Other political subreddits, such as r/SandersForPresident, have seen their political efforts uninterrupted. Sen. Sanders hosted a Q&A session there this past June. During the 2016 campaign, in addition to rallying support for Sanders, the subreddit served as a place to coordinate campaign activity. In 2016, a moderator of r/SandersForPresident posted that he had “just got off a conference call with the Bernie 2016 national staff” and relayed instructions for effective political volunteering.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stated that the Internet Research Agency (IRA) played a central role in the “most aggressive or direct campaign to interfere in our election process” that he’d ever seen.
Evidently, this was before Reddit quarantined r/The_Donald.
According to a Senate Intelligence Committee report, over a year-long period the 3,900 IRA-connected Twitter accounts posted 600,000 tweets regarding Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Well, researchers from the University of Alabama calculated that from July 2016 to February 2017 r/The_Donald was responsible for an estimated 2,771,030 tweets linking to news stories.
To recap, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman is set to influence conversation about the 2020 election on Twitter 4.5 times as much as Vladimir Putin influenced the 2016 electoral conversation. This doesn’t account for the much larger effect of the quarantine on Reddit’s own political discussion, which is comparable in scope to Twitter’s. I look forward to the Intelligence Community’s soon-to-be-announced special investigation.
During a 2018 interview with Andrew Marantz of the New Yorker, Reddit’s CEO said, “I’m confident that Reddit could sway elections,” followed by “we wouldn’t do it, of course.” Of course, that wasn’t true.
Republicans need to start speaking out about the treatment we’ve received from technology companies. We need to understand that nobody else will stand up for us. It’s time to start exploring legislative solutions to big tech’s bias. The alternative is accepting a status quo where enormous corporations use their publishing power to favor Democratic presidential candidates.