Reddit matures, and apologises

The site's general manager has apologised for its conduct during the Boston crisis.

Reddit's general manager , Erik Martin, has apologised for the site's role in creating and spreading misinformation related to the Boston Marathon bombings:

Though started with noble intentions, some of the activity on reddit fueled online witch hunts and dangerous speculation which spiraled into very negative consequences for innocent parties. The reddit staff and the millions of people on reddit around the world deeply regret that this happened. We have apologized privately to the family of missing college student Sunil Tripathi, as have various users and moderators. We want to take this opportunity to apologize publicly for the pain they have had to endure. We hope that this painful event will be channeled into something positive and the increased awareness will lead to Sunil's quick and safe return home. We encourage everyone to join and show your support to the Tripathi family and their search.

The apology is interesting, because it reflects how the rest of the world views Reddit far more than how the community views itself. The decentralised nature of the site means that almost everything that Martin is apologising for is actually the fault of its users, rather than the company which runs Reddit and which Martin is in charge of. The subreddit, r/findbostonbombers, was set up by, and moderated by, normal users; it was Reddit's users who posted personal information, and Reddit's users who led the witch hunts. Viewed from that angle, blaming "Reddit" for this tragedy seems like blaming "Twitter" for naming rape victims; a useful shorthand, but not something we'd expect the head of the company to apologise for.

But the Reddit community is still centralised in a way that Twitter isn't, and that has repercussions. Go to the front page of Reddit without being logged-in, and you'll see the same list of content that everyone else will - and the same that many logged-in users see, as well. Hit up Twitter, on the other hand, and the site doesn't show you a thing until you've told it who you want to follow.

In other words, Twitter is a communications medium through and through, but Reddit – while not a publication in a traditional sense – has elements that we recognise from more conventional news sites. That means the site walks a fine line between trying to enable as much freedom for its users as possible, and having to deal with their mistakes as though someone on a salary made them.

Previously, the administration has been pretty unambiguous in declaring that it is not responsible for its users actions, beyond the site's "park rules":

A small number of cases that we, the admins, reserve for stepping in and taking immediate action against posts, subreddits, and users. We don’t like to have to do it, but we’re also responsible for overseeing the park. Internally, we’ve followed the same set of guidelines for a long time, and none of these should be any surprise to anyone…

  1. Don’t spam
  2. Don’t vote cheat (it doesn’t work, anyway)
  3. Don’t post personal information
  4. Don’t post sexually suggestive content featuring minors
  5. Don’t break the site or interfere with normal usage of the site for anyone else

Those rules are not particularly restrictive, and #4 was only strengthened from the incredibly laissez-faire "no child pornography" last February. Beyond that, the admins have tended to stay silent in the face of what would seem to be noteworthy controversies, like the outing of Violentacrez by Gawker's Adrien Chen and the subsequent widespread banning of Gawker media links from the site.

So it would have been easy for Reddit to respond to this latest problem in much the same way. Blame its users, point out that it has rules to prevent the worst of it and that it is deliberately laissez-faire about the rest, and wash its hands of the whole deal.

That it hasn't is a sign of maturity from the administrative team. But it also means that there's going to be a lot more controversies which they'll be expected to have a view on in future, unless the Reddit community matures at the same time. The chances of that happening soon remain slim.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Forget fake news on Facebook – the real filter bubble is you

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that reinforces their beliefs, there is little that can be done.

It’s Google that vaunts the absurdly optimistic motto “Don’t be evil”, but there are others of Silicon Valley’s techno-nabobs who have equally high-flown moral agendas. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who responded this week to the brouhaha surrounding his social media platform’s influence on the US presidential election thus: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let’s go work even harder.”

To which the only possible response – if you’re me – is: “No we aren’t, no we don’t, and I’m going back to my flowery bed to cultivate my garden of inanition.” I mean, where does this guy get off? It’s estimated that a single message from Facebook caused about 340,000 extra voters to pitch up at the polls for the 2010 US congressional elections – while the tech giant actually performed an “experiment”: showing either positive or negative news stories to hundreds of thousands of their members, and so rendering them happier or sadder.

In the past, Facebook employees curating the site’s “trending news” section were apparently told to squash stories that right-wingers might “like”, but in the run-up to the US election the brakes came off and all sorts of fraudulent clickbait was fed to the denizens of the virtual underworld, much – but not all of it – generated by spurious alt-right “news sites”.

Why? Because Facebook doesn’t view itself as a conventional news provider and has no rubric for fact-checking its news content: it can take up to 13 hours for stories about Hillary Clinton eating babies barbecued for her by Barack Obama to be taken down – and in that time Christ knows how many people will have not only given them credence, but also liked or shared them, so passing on the contagion. The result has been something digital analysts describe as a “filter bubble”, a sort of virtual helmet that drops down over your head and ensures that you receive only the sort of news you’re already fit to be imprinted with. Back in the days when everyone read the print edition of the New York Times this sort of manipulation was, it is argued, quite impossible; after all, the US media historically made a fetish of fact-checking, an editorial process that is pretty much unknown in our own press. Why, I’ve published short stories in American magazines and newspapers and had fact-checkers call me up to confirm the veracity of my flights of fancy. No, really.

In psychology, the process by which any given individual colludes in the creation of a personalised “filter bubble” is known as confirmation bias: we’re more inclined to believe the sort of things that validate what we want to believe – and by extension, surely, these are likely to be the sorts of beliefs we want to share with others. It seems to me that the big social media sites, while perhaps blowing up more and bigger filter bubbles, can scarcely be blamed for the confirmation bias. Nor – as yet – have they wreaked the sort of destruction on the world that has burst from the filter bubble known as “Western civilisation” – one that was blown into being by the New York Times, the BBC and all sorts of highly respected media outlets over many decades.

Societies that are both dominant and in the ascendant always imagine their belief systems and the values they enshrine are the best ones. You have only to switch on the radio and hear our politicians blithering on about how they’re going to get both bloodthirsty sides in the Syrian Civil War to behave like pacifist vegetarians in order to see the confirmation bias hard at work.

The Western belief – which has its roots in imperialism, but has bodied forth in the form of liberal humanism – that all is for the best in the world best described by the New York Times’s fact-checkers, is also a sort of filter bubble, haloing almost all of us in its shiny and translucent truth.

Religion? Obviously a good-news feed that many billions of the credulous rely on entirely. Science? Possibly the biggest filter bubble there is in the universe, and one that – if you believe Stephen Hawking – has been inflating since shortly before the Big Bang. After all, any scientific theory is just that: a series of observable (and potentially repeatable) regularities, a bubble of consistency we wander around in, perfectly at ease despite its obvious vulnerability to those little pricks, the unforeseen and the contingent. Let’s face it, what lies behind most people’s beliefs is not facts, but prejudices, and all this carping about algorithms is really the howling of a liberal elite whose own filter bubble has indeed been popped.

A television producer I know once joked that she was considering pitching a reality show to the networks to be called Daily Mail Hate Island. The conceit was that a group of ordinary Britons would be marooned on a desert island where the only news they’d have of the outside world would come in the form of the Daily Mail; viewers would find themselves riveted by watching these benighted folk descend into the barbarism of bigotry as they absorbed ever more factitious twaddle. But as I pointed out to this media innovator, we’re already marooned on Daily Mail Hate Island: it’s called Britain.

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that constantly and consistently reinforces their beliefs, what are you going to do about it? The current argument is that Facebook’s algorithms reinforce political polarisation, but does anyone really believe better editing on the site will return our troubled present to some prelap­sarian past, let alone carry us forward into a brave new factual future? No, we’re all condemned to collude in the inflation of our own filter bubbles unless we actively seek to challenge every piece of received information, theory, or opinion. And what an exhausting business that would be . . . without the internet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile