Reddit’s Free Speech Problem is the Tip of the Conspiracy Iceberg
There are few sites that have been the center of as much controversy as it pertains to free speech, privacy, and an open internet as Reddit. They’re usually on the right side of the debate. Lately, they’ve found themselves squarely on the wrong side.
Much hoopla has been made of the recent quashing of discussion surrounding a secret cabal of moderators and admins censoring speech. It was even mentioned in a piece at the Washington Post that dived into the murky waters of free speech limits and community moderation. The discussion surrounds the imbalance of power that naturally arises when the community is allowed to be judge, jury, and executioner, not unlike the power that a small group of people held over at Digg in its glory days.
These problems are real, but they disguise a deeper issue that still goes unspoken in most circles. Reddit is arguably the most powerful propaganda tool in the world for influencing the perceptions and worldviews of the “youth” in western society. By “youth,” I mean a stretched definition that includes millions of 30- and 40-year-olds.
Television is, of course, currently still the most powerful that most people would acknowledge, but they aren’t looking at the big picture. Television is much less lopsided. It doesn’t have the interactive components of Reddit. It doesn’t allow for the control by the user that Reddit has. With television, you get to watch what’s popular. With Reddit, you get to help decide what’s popular.
Let’s break down the different elements behind the concept, then we’ll get into the conspiracy itself.
Size and Reach
Reddit is huge. It’s currently the 26th most visited website in the world and the 9th most visited in the United States. It gets more visitors than NY Times, ESPN, CNN, or any other news site. A link submission that gets “front paged” can send hundreds of thousands of visitors to a website, often crashing unsuspecting servers and spiking the popular post rankings on the target website itself.
Crowd Rules… or Does It?
There are many companies out there that promote the idea of getting popular on Reddit. It can mean a giant influx of traffic, and while Reddit traffic is normally considered unproductive, it’s still a nice feather in a webmaster’s cap when they see the traffic spikes. These companies only pose a minor problem; spam has a very short lifespan even if it’s promoted by these companies because the community and the moderators usually reverse the promotion very quickly, but even a short appearance on the front page can yield massive traffic.
The real problem with the ease by which Reddit is “gamed” will be made known below. It’s important now to simply note that it can and does happen regularly.
The reason that Digg died was because its owners outsmarted themselves. They interfered too much with the algorithm, stepped in when things seemed to get too controversial, and eventually shifted to a corporate model that spelled their doom. Reddit has proven to be the exact opposite and its rise in popularity can be attributed to the mass exodus that took place at Digg.
Reddit’s owners and staff of 35 stay out of it for the most part unless a lawsuit is possible. They have built a reputation of letting free speech be the final judge up to a point, and while this seems to be shifting in recent weeks, they are still much less involved than most moderated websites. With that said, all of the positives of this mentality have resulted in a bigger problem: the manipulation of views within the community that is controlled by powerful factions (cabals?) that make the moderator problems listed above seem like child’s play.
The Real Problem: Manipulated Free Speech that is Now Propaganda
Popularity of topics on Reddit are not a reflection of either the community or the world itself. By its very nature, Reddit must be extremely lopsided based upon the user voting method. In other words, since it takes a large amount of users “upvoting” a post to make it popular and the same users can “downvote” content they do not like, even a moderate majority is powerful enough to put their messages on the front page while keeping the opposing views buried.
Take a look at the front page of r/politics:
All of the top stories at any given moment will have a liberal ideology. They will promote a liberal agenda. It is pretty much impossible for a conservative message (outside of the occasional Libertarian view that sneaks in through a smaller but organized group of users) to ever reach the front page of this powerful subreddit. Does that mean that 99% of the users are liberal? No. If I were guessing based upon my 7 years on the site, I would say that it’s probably about 60/40, but that 20% gap is enough to subvert any conservative messages due to the way that Reddit is operated. Trying to get a conservative story to the front page is about the same math that’s required overturn a Presidential veto, which means only the most universally appreciated conservative news story could ever reach the front page.
Let’s look at the discrepancy in size between the various ideological subreddits based upon size:
- r/Politics (very left leaning despite generic name): 3.1 million users
- r/Conservative: 40K users
- r/Atheism: 2.1 million users
- r/Christianity: 94K users
One might point to this as proof that the site is much more tilted than 60/40, but that’s simply not the case. The vast majority of Reddit users do not seek out the subreddits that appeal to them when they join. They take the popular subreddits that are default to them and only a small percentage adjusts it to fit them. Then, there are the non-user visitors to the site. These people get to see what the community made popular, but if they aren’t subscribed to the smaller ideological subreddits, they won’t see them.
The perceived gap in Reddit user ideology is not just lopsided based upon the nature of the voting system. There is another very unpopular theory that is almost 100% certain to be real.
State Organized Voting Brigades
As mentioned earlier, it’s easy to game Reddit. One only needs to fuel the right fires with a handful of votes in order to get it the momentum it needs to reach the “hot” levels in a subreddit. Once it’s hot, it has the potential of garnering enough votes and comments to make it to the front page.
Companies know this. Political organizations know this. Governments know this.
One of the things we were going to do in this article was to highlight some of the known voting manipulators. These highly organized and completely secret groups shape the opinions of millions of people by making certain opinions seem more accepted than they are, by promoting their agenda’s through articles, images, and videos, and by destroying as many of the opposing views as they can. It’s not a perfect plan – they cannot shift momentum once it’s going for a story, but they can plant or subvert the seeds when they are new.
Unfortunately, we’re going to cave to these groups out of necessity. When I brought up the topic to a friend who has participated in helping an organization build up the infrastructure to game Reddit, she said that there’s an absolute certainty that they will see the story and destroy it before it had a chance to see the light of day. That alone wasn’t enough for me to cave, so she warned me that they would come after me in different ways. I won’t go into details.
Whether it’s a company that needs to destroy a GMO labeling law, a political action committee that wants to make an opponent look like an idiot, a terrorist organization that has mastered social media and that is swaying opinions to garner recruits, or a government that wants to distract people from seeing what they’re really up to by pointing anger at them for less important reasons, the established manipulation of Reddit has made the site a cesspool of propaganda.
Nobody’s talking about it. Everybody’s unwittingly a part of it.