Political censorship and moderator bias on reddit.com

In the last few months, users of the popular social bookmarking site Reddit.com, have begun to unearth an unsettling amount of evidence that moderators, who police submissions sent to the site, are unfairly removing popular submissions to the /r/politics subreddit, by claiming they are off-topic.

Some submissions attain many hundreds of comments and up-votes, before being inexplicably removed. In many cases, the user who submitted the post also finds their account blocked from making any further posts to that group, and are often given short shrift by the moderator who imposed the ban, when asked for an explanation.

Users of the subreddit /r/Republican have long complained that their submissions to the /r/Politics group, are removed simply for being pro-Republican, while some users who post to the /r/AskReddit group, have been banned simply for asking why they were banned from another group without explanation.

What’s particularly curious about the seemingly arbitrary basis upon which topic removals and user account bans are imposed, is while there appears to be a great deal of sensitivity to highly politicised submissions to groups which are in the default subscription listings and so show up on the front page of the site even if a user is not signed in, the moderators of groups which contain extreme pornography, bullying, homophobia, racism, gory accident videos, and hate speech, remain completely unaffected.

Statistically it stands to reason that the ever growing popularity of Reddit makes it a target for viral marketing campaigners, and lobbyists, who want to push a certain narrative on behalf of private companies, and political pressure groups. And while it’s generally accepted that Reddit’s algorithms do a good job of automatically spotting links which have been artificially promoted to the front page, the job of keeping the most popular subreddits free of link bait is ultimately the job of human moderators.

This age old problem, which began in the earliest days of the internet on Bulletin Boards and UseNet, isn’t an easy one to fix. All online communities, which start small and become popular, have experienced difficulties in balancing the freedoms of the user, with the needs of the moderator to interpret the rules of the group appropriately.

But what’s becoming increasingly clear in certain highly contentious discussion groups, such as /r/News, and /r/Politics, according to users of the /r/PoliticalModeration subreddit, is that what perhaps started as one or two genuine mistakes, by certain moderators, has become a war of egos between the users who feel unfairly censored, and the actions of one or two overly zealous moderators, who now appear to be purposefully escalating the situation, in an attempt to cover their tracks.

What’s particularly unsettling is the sorts of stories which are actively removed, even after they have attracted a number of genuine up votes and comments. A quick glance down the page set up to highlight moderator abuses, shows numerous stories about the Koch brothers, articles critical of the nuclear waste industry and evidence of the Pentagon using social bookmarking sites like Reddit itself, for purposes of propaganda.

There are also numerous self-posts by ex-moderators, who have quit in protest at the abuses of their fellow users, including this one by a former moderator who discovered widespread abuse of the mod system, by users who were being paid to submit and promote certain stories to the front page, while removing posts which suggested this was unethical.

This former moderator was also told he didn’t qualify as a moderator of the /r/politics subreddit, because he had posted stories to the /r/Libertarian subreddit and so would have shown a bias. And if that doesn’t explode your irony meter, this story on political censorship at reddit (can we say meta meta?) was removed from /r/Politics, for highlighting the very problem of censorship on /r/Politics.

UPDATE: Here’s another user who is considering removing reddit buttons from his blog, because of exactly this sort of problem. http://somethingsurprising.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/why-this-might-become-reddit-free-zone.html

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28 comments on “Political censorship and moderator bias on reddit.com

  1. I think you have rightly spotted one specific example of a generic problem. Various Reddits are over-sensitive and rather than relying on a democratic vote to bury the bad and promote the good, the moderators ban people willy-nilly. Worse than that is the ‘shadow ban’, where Reddit actively lies to you by making it appear to YOU that your posts are appearing, when they are not. I must admit that I’ve rather gone off a community that I thought was rather useful and fair.

    If you care to read my reasoning, (shameless but sympathetic self-promotion here) you can find it at http://somethingsurprising.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/why-this-might-become-reddit-free-zone.html. For some strange reason, nobody has yet submitted that post to Reddit.

    p.s. You need a physicist on Fundamentally Flawed! :)) Otherwise I enjoy it.

  2. The biggest worry with Reddit, is that it is quickly becoming the thing it fears the most. A single news source with a single narrative.

    I think we’re pretty far from being the first regular users to become wary of the hive mind — hell even that is a meme all of it’s own. But for everyone who up votes a story because they genuinely feel as if they’ve learned something new, there’s ten people who are just regurgitating what they already believe, without looking for any evidence to the contrary.

    Case in point was a recent “look at what dumb shit Ann Coulter is saying now” story which made the front page. It claimed she’d said something which didn’t sound a million miles away from the dumb shit she’s said before. But when you watched the actual news clip, the quote in the headline attributed to her directly, wasn’t what she’d actually said, but the title of a book she’d read, which spoke out against the very kind of miscommunication and unfair bias now being meted out against her. And they say Americans don’t do irony.

    Now, you’ve probably worked out from the fact I can string a sentence together, that I’m no fan of Ann Coulter, but when the right leaning press cry foul over leftwing bias, this is exactly the sort of thing they’re talking about.

    The comment I posted pointing out this total mischaracterisation of her actual words? Down-voted to oblivion.

    We would LOVE a physicist to come on the podcast. Skype me: thatjim

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  4. I post a popular liberty-oriented economics and politics blog, and I’ve all but given up on the economics and politics subreddits. Some of the links to my articles gained hundreds of up votes before the moderators pulled them. Clearly, people found my posts interesting! And the greatest irony: the economics subreddit’s slogan is “Like a free market, this subreddit is mostly unregulated. If you can bond it to the economy, then we will trade it.” The hell they will. Nazis.

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  6. I just deleted my account – ran into the same thing. No longer able to post. Clicked on the politics tab, and scroll down, all of the links are pro Democrat anti Republican/ Anti American. Reddit is American Traitor.

  7. Bricks

    I think ‘traitor’ is a strong word, but I agree that there is a bias against right of centre politics which has needed addressing on Reddit for some considerable time. It’s a useful resource for many things, besides political comment; and I think it’s important to have a balanced view. But — speaking as someone who generally speaking leans towards the left of politics — I do worry that by preventing people with whom I profoundly disagree from being free to air their opinions, reddit.com/r/politics in particular is in danger of becoming — if it hasn’t already become a cesspool of received opinion.

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