Reddit and Twitch suspended Trump-related accounts for violating policies on hateful conduct. Their decisions stand in contrast to that of Facebook, which repeatedly declined to police Trump’s content. Candy Chan weighs in on what’s at stake in the debate for free speech v.s. safe space.
Reddit and Twitch, two social media platforms, chimed in on the debate of whether tech companies should police and moderate their content. Their response? A firm ‘yes’.
On Monday, Reddit banned its biggest community dedicated to President Trump, while Twitch suspended the President’s channel. Both companies cited usage of hate speech and hateful conduct as reasons behind their decisions.
The “subreddit” banned was “The_Donald,” a forum with more than 790,000 users who posted memes, videos, and supportive messages for and about Trump. However, the forum repeatedly broken the platform’s rules by allowing users to target and harass others with hate speech, according to Reddit executives.
“Reddit is a place for community and belonging, not for attacking people,” Steve Huffman, Reddit’s chief executive, said in a call with reporters. “‘The_Donald’ has been in violation of that.”
Twitch, a livestream platform owned by Amazon, suspended Trump’s channel after two of its recent streams violated company policies. Both videos were replays of Trump at campaign events, one back in 2015 and one from a recent rally in Tulsa. In these videos, Trump made disparaging comments about Hispanics.
“In line with our policies, President Trump’s channel has been issued a temporary suspension from Twitch for comments made on stream, and the offending content has been removed,” a Twitch spokeswoman said in a statement.
What counts as hate speech?
Reddit, once the hub for some of the Internet’s darkest content, faces a moment of reckoning in response to nationwide protests supporting Black lives. Many condemned the platform in the past for its lax policies around racist and hateful speech, with several popular Reddit forums going dark temporarily as a form of online protest.
Their efforts paid off. Three weeks ago the company updated its content policy to more explicitly ban hate speech, disabling more than 2000 online communities in the process. These communities were not all far-right; they also banned “Chapo Trap House,” a popular left-wing podcasting group. Reddit’s decisive action is a radical change for the tech company whose commitment to free speech was so strong it previously allowed users to post stolen nudes freely on the site.
While it is unclear just how long the suspension would last, Twitch is notably the first platform to go after the President directly for his account activity, instead of flagging or labeling his posts. Like Reddit, the ongoing protests and dialogue surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement sparked Twitch’s move to take hateful conduct more seriously. For Twitch, however, a more pressing concern was the frequency of users who reported sexual harassment and assault on the platform.
As a livestream platform popular among gamers, some say Twitch is a male-dominated space. Dozens of streamers, most of them women, came me forward about their experiences receiving hate and abuse from their community. These streamers demand that Twitch take action against perpetrators of violence and protect female users from such behavior.
Across the Internet, social media platforms reevaluate their priorities, whether it lies in creating a safe community for users or in protecting free speech. Many companies clamped down on their policies concerning hate speech — content that promotes or facilitates discrimination or violence on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and other identity markers.
“I have to admit that I’ve struggled with balancing my values as an American, and around free speech and free expression, with my values and the company’s values around common human decency,” Huffman said in a call with reporters.
Reddit’s revised policy urges users to “remember the human.” The policy states, “Reddit is a place for creating community and belonging, not for attacking marginalized or vulnerable groups of people. Everyone has a right to use Reddit free of harassment, bullying, and threats of violence.”
Sites like Reddit, YouTube, and Twitter, were historically firm in their commitment to neutrality, but with more users and advertisers advocating for safe spaces, their position on the subject slowly shifts.
Twitter, in particular, drew criticism for how it handles the debate between free speech and safe spaces. Having tightened their policies around spreading misinformation and hateful conduct, even flagging some of Trump’s tweets, Twitter faces accusations that it is longer a safe haven for free discourse as it once was.
These accusations, primarily from conservatives, led to the creation of an alternative platform for free speech named Parler. Launched in 2018, Parler drew in the likes of Brad Parscale, Trump’s campaign manager, and Senator Ted Cruz. While the platform continues to grow, with only 2 million users, Parler’s goal to remain “unbiased” might attract more users turned off by Twitter’s policies.
John Matze, CEO of Parler, said, “if you can say it on the street of New York, you can say it on Parler.”
Facebook under fire
The campaign, launched by a coalition of six organizations, calls for businesses to pull their spending from Facebook for the entirety of July, forcing the tech company to reckon with how it protects hateful conduct and misinformation. With 99% of Facebook’s $70 million dollars in revenue stemming from advertisers, the campaign puts pressure on the platform to change its stance on moderating content.
In an attempt to appease advertisers, Facebook announced on Monday that it would submit itself to an audit of how it currently monitors hate speech. Media Rating Council, a media measurement firm, will conduct the audit and evaluate how Facebook shields advertisers from appearing next to harmful content. Still, on the subject of the harmful content itself and how Facebook plans to protect users and not advertisers, the company is indecisive.
Mark Zuckerberg announced that the platform will start labeling newsworthy content — posts that “otherwise violate our policies if the public interest value outweighs the risk of harm.” Such content primarily comes from political figures and persons of interest.
This new policy appears to address concerns that Facebook defends posts by Trump that seemingly violate the platform’s rules on hateful conduct. Facebook received widespread backlash for refusing to police Trump’s more incendiary content, such as his post about looting and shooting in Minnesota, the same post that they flagged for “glorifying violence” on Twitter.
Facebook will also implement higher standards for hateful content in ads and ban those that use inflammatory language to “sow discord.” These restrictions will not apply to unpaid posts, those from direct users, as Facebook still seeks to protect freedom of speech for its users.
Reddit and Twitch’s action against Trump follows the accusations from Republican lawmakers that social media companies are “censoring” conservative viewpoints, to which Reddit replied that they made a commitment to provide a space for civil political discourse.
“There’s a home on Reddit for conservatives, there’s a home on Reddit for liberals,” said Benjamin Lee, Reddit’s general counsel. “There’s a home on Reddit for Donald Trump.”
Trump supporters on Reddit who were part of the “The_Donald” community, however, seem unfazed by Reddit’s decision. Many fled to a new site called thedonald.win, celebrating the ban of their Reddit forum in a post titled “This is How We Won.”
To these former Reddit users, the platform’s strike on their forum only goes to prove their influence — and ultimately, Trump’s influence.
“They censored us, they suppressed us, they silenced us. We beat them,” reads the post.
In an attempt to protect users from hateful conduct and misinformation, platforms like Reddit and Twitch may play into a trope that tech companies feed into the political polarization in modern discourse.
Is it worth it, then?
Andrea Hickson, associate dean of the College of Information and Communications at the University of South Carolina, said the recent steps taken by social media platforms could help to cut down “on the noise and unwarranted confusion around the truth.”
In a New York Times article, Hickson wrote, “there is a lot of popular rhetoric about ‘the media’s’ negative impact on civil discourse, but now social media companies are acknowledging that some of its own users are the problem.”
“The_Donald” played a significant role in spreading the debunked “PizzaGate” conspiracy from 2016 that accused Hillary Clinton and other top Democrats in running a child sex-trafficking ring from a pizza parlor in Washington.
One could easily dismiss the conspiracy theory by asking if anyone actually took it seriously, to which the answer is a resounding yes. One man had such strong convictions that he brought an assault rifle to Comet Ping-Pong, the pizza parlor involved in the conspiracy, and opened fire.
While the issue of free speech v.s. safe space will always be full of complications and challenges, when misinformation accompanies hateful and violent online rhetoric real human lives may be at stake.
Executives of tech companies can sit around all day and discuss the moral imperatives of their platforms, but whether their content puts people in tangible danger is more urgent. If the response is yes, more likely it is that their decisions now may leave a lasting scar on their conscience.