Steve Huffman, the chief executive of Reddit, knows he has some explaining to do.
Huffman, also a Reddit co-founder, landed in hot water Wednesday after admitting that he used his administrative powers to secretly edit user comments that were critical of him on r/The_Donald — a popular, pro-Trump forum (or “subreddit”). He swapped all mentions of his own username with the names of the pro-Trump group’s leaders, meaning that expletive-laden posts aimed at him looked instead as if they were insulting the group’s leaders.
It was not a good idea, he told The Washington Post Friday by phone. “I abused my power to give the bullies a hard time,” he said. Huffman thought of his name-swapping as a joke: a way to poke back at the people who’ve been harassing him and some of the site’s volunteer moderators for months.
It was not taken that way.
Huffman’s admission fanned the flames of controversy that had been surrounding the subreddit — and its relationship with Reddit — for months. It also capped off what had already been a long week. Reddit was already warring with self-proclaimed Trump supporters after shutting down a subreddit devoted to “pizzagate” — the claim that there is secret child sex-trafficking ring run by prominent Democrats. The New York Times and others have debunked this theory. The company deleted that group for revealing people’s personal information.
The subreddit and its users are known for promoting conspiracy theories and fake news across Reddit and gleefully invading and bombarding the rest of the platform with pro-Trump memes. In fact, it was so effective at flooding the site’s front page with aggressive memes and posts that Reddit changed its algorithm over the summer to try to limit its reach. Nearly all of the abuse directed at Huffman, he said, came from avid posters to r/The_Donald. After Huffman’s admission, many in the pro-Trump group demanded his resignation; he has not addressed those calls.
Huffman told The Post that he had been letting the abuse from the subreddit’s users roll off him, but then wondered whether turning the other cheek was setting a bad example. “If The_Donald had done this to another Reddit employee, I would have banned them,” he said.
He said he intended to swap the names for just a few hours — even though doing so violates Reddit employee policies — just to give the subreddit’s moderators a taste of what he goes through on a daily basis. Then, he said, he intended to put everything back.
Still, the decision to step in and directly edit user comments was a surprising move from Huffman, who has often said Reddit’s purpose is to provide a place for communities of all stripes to set up their own groups.
Reddit has struggled to address communities who regularly test the boundaries of its guidelines, or outright break them. In 2015, it introduced new anti-harassment rules and banned a handful of subreddits that regularly violated the site’s guidelines — including two forums dedicated to “ fat-shaming” and one that existed to coordinate harassment of members of a progressive gaming site.
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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Abby Ohlheiser and Hayley Tsukayama