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24 November 2016

Reddit’s CEO edited comments on a pro-Trump thread and everyone should care

Even those who don’t frequent “the front page of the internet” should worry about the implications of this act.

By Amelia Tait

Reddit CEO Steve Huffman has publicly admitted to editing comments on the pro-Donald Trump subreddit r/the_donald in a move he has described as “trolling the trolls”. Huffman – who goes by “spez” on Reddit – deleted comments from the pro-Trump community on the site, and also altered comments that insulted him. He replaced comments reading “fuck u/spez” with those of the users who moderate the thread. This meant the criticism directed towards him appeared to be attacking the thread’s own moderators.

Users of r/the_donald had taken to insulting Huffman this week after he removed the subreddit r/pizzagate – a place for people to go to share updates on the conspiracy theory that a Washington pizzeria is a front for a child abuse ring led by Hillary Clinton. “It does get old getting called a pedophile constantly,” Huffman wrote to explain why he moderated the comments.

“I messed with the ‘fuck u/spez’ comments, replacing ‘spez’ with r/the_donald mods for about an hour,” he wrote. “As the CEO, I shouldn’t play such games, and it’s all fixed now. Our community team is pretty pissed at me, so I most assuredly won’t do this again.”

Yet although this might seem like a small and temporary lapse in judgement, the implications are huge.

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Normally when a comment is edited on Reddit – by a user or a moderator – a small asterisk will appear after the time stamp to indicate that it has been changed. In this instance, no such asterisk appeared, meaning Huffman ostensibly has the ability to edit comments without a trace. This is crucial because two months ago, a Redditor was taken to court for comments he left on the site. Huffman’s editing powers could clearly be abused to cause trouble for individuals.

Beyond this, however, Huffman chose the wrong Reddit community to anger. Those on r/the_donald are already deeply convinced by conspiracies, and, in a way, Huffman has now validated their claims. It is not yet clear how they will retaliate or whether Donald Trump, who did an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on the subreddit earlier this year, will comment. 

Should the users of r/the_donald leave the site, however, the implications could be huge. Since many right-wing users were blocked from Twitter, they have flocked to the social network Gab – which is currently closed off to new members. The ability to see what Trump supporters are planning – most recently, on 4Chan, they are attempting to hijack the TIME Person of the Year in favour of Julian Assange – is important, and it is a worrying to see the censorship of those we disagree with rendering them invisible, and therefore increasing their potential impact. 

It is also not yet apparent how Reddit as a whole will move forward from this, but many Redditors appear to have already lost faith in the site and its CEO. “This legitimately should result in him being fired,” wrote ItsMeCaptainMurphy to the tune of – at the time of writing – 203 upvotes. “If it doesn’t then we know reddit as a whole is no longer trustworthy and should abandon ship.”