Corrupting User Moderated Web Sites: Reddit – r/Technology bans Tesla stories?

reddit bannerAn interesting meltdown happened this weekend on social news site Reddit. The popular site is divided into different categories, and the subreddit dedicated to Technology let slip they had banned stories related to the electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla.

Reddit’s reputation is based on an almost obnoxiously user-generated democratic etiquette. On the ground level, users submit stories, and other users vote up or down for those stories to become more or less visible. With each subreddit, users also comprise the “governing bodies” responsible for maintaining order. This allows the people who actually own Reddit and keep the servers running to have a somewhat hands-off approach to Reddit’s daily operations. It also paints Reddit as being “pure”, a meritocracy, not owned by a corporate interest pushing some kind of commercial or political narrative.

Of course people are fallible and corruptible.

Reddit user canausernamebetolon posted that he had discovered an odd quirk in r/Technology, that stories with the word Tesla in the title were not showing up on the subreddit. Asking a moderator why that was, he was told “Battery cars aren’t ‘technolgy’ any more than normal cars are” [sic]. After pushing for more clarification, the user was banned from r/Technology with the following reply:

Car stories should be submitted to car-related subreddits. Please inform your supervisors in the Tesla Motors Marketing department.

It’s a flippant response characteristic of some of the more sarcastic and snide users you can find when individuals become “powerful” in a community and can hide behind internet anonymity, but the subreddit’s uncharacteristic lack of Tesla related stories seemed unreasonable. Tesla stories weren’t being down-voted by the community. They were completely gone. There had been no announcement by the thirteen moderators of r/Technology. No word about what content was being filtered, and the FAQ for what posts would be allowed had not been updated to reflect any change in moderator policy.

As is often the case when “injustice” is detected on the site, all of Reddit kinda freaked out a little. Stories focused on Tesla flooded the subreddit to demonstrate the ban. Moderators were inundated with personal messages, and other subreddits spread the story like wildfire. If r/Technology had been corrupted, this would’ve been a big deal for the entire Reddit community, as this particular subreddit is a default. 

When a new user signs up for the service, to prevent that user from just seeing a blank page on their account, Reddit populates new registrations with popular subreddits. These defaults tend to be fairly broad topics like News, Music, Movies, and Technology. It lends a subreddit a great deal of credibility, and it mostly guarantees that the subreddit will continue to flourish with all new users encountering it at least once. It gives that sub a distinctive edge over smaller more focused topics as a significant number of Reddit users are likely casual in their reading habits, rarely digging deeper into the various communities available.

Accusations started flying that one, or several moderators on r/Technology were benefiting from their positions. Reddit doesn’t pay any of their users, it’s all volunteer work, but if you control a popular community’s filter, that could be valuable to other outside interests. r/Technology all by itself has a subscriber base of almost 5 million Reddit users.

tesla-logoToday, r/Technology moderator Skuld addressed the controversy with a post which outlined the moderator process of filtering stories on the subreddit. In the explanation he specifically stated that “Tesla Motors is not a banned topic”, yet later in the comments when asked point blank if posts with the word “Tesla” were now unfiltered, he replied “Yeah”, suggesting that the word “Tesla” alone had been a banned word for some time now. The users of r/Technology are now asking for further clarification on what other words or terms might be “shadow banned” from the subreddit.

Witch hunts?

Skuld also summarized the event with a plea for calm and group discussion:

There’s a screenshot floating around of one of our moderators making a flippant joke about a user being part of Tesla’s marketing department.

This was a poor judgement call, and we should be more aware that any reply from a moderator tends to be taken as policy. We will refrain from doing such things again.

A couple of people were banned in relation to this debacle, they’ve now been unbanned.

I am however disappointed that this person has been witch-hunted in this manner. It really turns us off from wanting to engage with the community. Ever wonder why we rarely speak in public – it’s because things like this can happen at the drop of a hat. I don’t really want to make this post.

Many replies to this asking if these moderators have nothing to hide in how they conduct themselves, why are decisions like banning made quietly without the community’s knowledge, and if this is a case of a single moderator “going rogue”, why is that individual still a moderator for the subreddit. Is airing dirty laundry now a “witch hunt”?

Popular comments on the post are not positive regarding the situation or the response, and some take it as further proof that the core mission of Reddit as a whole has been compromised.

DearMrSuperComputer:
This is just a poor attempt at damage control. If the wider community hadn’t found out about this censorship you would have let it continue.

gilq:
Unsubscribed. Really I think it would be time to leave Reddit if there were an alternative.
With the blatant mod censorship scandals on /r/politics/r/news, and /r/worldnews , and now /r/technology too, all the major places on Reddit for the discussion of current happenings in the world have been compromised.

duffman03:
I don’t trust the mods there at all. Here’s a perfectly valid post that was tagged as the wrong subreddit without any explanation:http://www.reddit.com/r/technology/comments/20qmgo/level_3_blames_internet_slowdowns_on_isps_refusal/
I seriously believe those mods are getting paid to filter content.
*Edit: Other people are noticing too

Rogue moderator or systemic corruption. Reddit might just be cresting that popularity curve where they have more users and interaction than humans can responsibly manage. Where a handful of negative encounters can be amplified by an enormous echo chamber fostering cynicism and paranoia. 

Regardless if the accusations of corruption are true, we could be witnessing the beginnings of Reddit’s collapse under the weight of its own popularity.

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