Reddit, Ellen Pao, and the false neutrality of ‘free speech’

It would be disingenuous to look at what happened to former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao without factoring in endemic sexism and racism. ‘Free speech’ has to mean a space where everyone is safe to speak.

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Harriet Williamson
17 July 2015

Freedom of speech is one of the most basic and important human rights. Freedom of speech allows us to criticize governments and the powerful, without being afraid we’ll be thrown in jail. Freedom of speech allows for artistic expression, for organising, and for engaging in meaningful debate.

But what happens when freedom of speech is used to absolve us from other crimes? Is it free speech to be able to share pictures of children in a sexual context? Is it free speech to share intimate photographs of people who have not consented to the use of their images? Is it free speech to encourage others to be hateful of a particular race of person? Is it free speech to make rape and death threats? To bully and frighten people that you may not like or agree with?

Reddit is one of the most popular spaces of the internet. It is the self-titled ‘front page’ of the online world and attracts around 164 million readers every month. Both my boyfriend and my sister use it, mainly to look at videos of cats and read news before it breaks even on the BBC. The majority of those who use Reddit don’t feel the need to turn it into a space where hate speech is normalized, but in such a huge, diverse community, there are unfortunately those who cannot behave with basic decency.

On Friday 10th July, Ellen Pao stepped down as the interim CEO of Reddit, after a experiencing, in her own words, “one of the largest trolling attacks in history”. She became the target of a campaign of harassment and abuse after overseeing the shutdown of five Reddit forms and supposedly sacking a beloved moderator. She has been subjected to rape and death threats, ‘strike action’ from moderators of some of the biggest subreddits, and a change.org petition that garnered over 200,000 signatures.


Ellen Pao. Photo by Christopher Michel via Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The decision to shut down five of Reddit’s most hate-filled forums was taken because the users were involved in because they were used to harass people, including the site’s 13th most active Reddit, FatPeopleHate. The US site XO Jane recently ran a harrowing It Happened To Me piece by a woman who was subjected to gross abuse on the FatPeopleHate subreddit, which should clear up any doubt over the impact of finding yourself a target on the link-sharing site.

Pao was widely criticised for ‘censorship’, with Redditors dubbing her ‘Chairman Pao’ and likening her to a Nazi. Ironic, coming from people who are to keep racist subreddits like ‘coontown’ and ‘ShitNiggersSay’ open…

Although Pao was blamed for the dismissal of Taylor, a popular communications director who presided over the Ask Me Anything Q&A sessions, former CEO Yishan Wong later revealed that Pao had merely taken the fall for Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian. It was never clear that Pao had made the decision to sack Victoria Taylor, but that didn’t matter to the angry Redditors baying for her blood.

Since Pao’s resignation, Yishan Wong has become very vocal about behind-the-scenes decisions that were made about the ethos and purpose of the site, and the pragmatic reasons why the free speech policy was formalized.

“It seemed like the wiser course at the time. It’s worth stating that in that era, we were talking about whether it was ok for people to post creepy pictures of women taken legally in public. That’s shitty, but it’s a far cry from the extremes of hate that some parts of the site host today. It seemed that allowing creepers to post (anonymized) pictures of women taken in public, in a relatively small subreddit that never showed up on the front page, was a small price to pay for making it clear that we were a place welcoming of all opinions and discourse.

Having made that decision - much of Reddit’s current condition is on me. I didn’t anticipate what (some) Redditors would decide to do with freedom. Reddit has become a lot bigger - yes, a lot better - AND a lot worse. I have to take responsibility.”

Wong also claims that it was Ellen Pao who was preventing a wider move that would ban abusive and offensive forums, writing “on at least two separate occasions, the board pressed /u/ekjp [Ellen Pao] to outright ban ALL the hate subreddits in a sweeping purge. She resisted, knowing the community, claiming it would be a shitshow.” Ellen Pao who was demonized as the fascist Queen of Censorship was actually protecting hateful Redditors because of the community upheaval a mass-ban would cause. Wong describes the irony of this as “delicious” and he’s not far wrong. It looks to me like the free speech crusaders have really shot themselves in the foot this time…

Pao’s resignation has also raised questions about whether this was a case of another woman being set up on a ‘glass cliff’. The glass cliff phenomenon, backed by evidence from multiple studies, is where women and people of colour are given leadership roles in companies while they are in turmoil, leading to a higher chance of these women/PoC being scapegoated for poor performance and sacked.

Reddit was certainly in trouble when Pao came on board, with investors nervous about the ‘unruly user base’, the sharing of stolen intimate photos of celebrities and the proliferation of hateful subreddit threads. According to ThinkProgress, “the person who held the CEO job before Pao found it so ‘stressful and draining’, in fact, that he left after being ‘completely worn out’”. Perhaps Pao was being set up to fail.

Surrounding the debacle is the distinct feeling of resignation. Kaliya Young, an expert on digital identity, told the Guardian “Ellen was at the centre of a high-profile sexual discrimination suit versus a major VC firm and she was put in charge of the teenage boy section of the internet. What did you expect was going to happen? It was inevitable that they would turn on her”.

It’s certainly worth questioning whether Pao would’ve ended up demonized if the five-subreddit crackdown and the firing of Victoria Taylor had not occurred. It’s likely that the angry Redditors would’ve found any reason to use bullying tactics and attempt to force Pao out, particularly as they didn’t wait for the facts to be established regarding Taylor’s dismissal before going on the offensive. I’m prepared to suggest that their hatred for Pao came from what she represented, rather than anything she did during her time as CEO.

Ellen Pao was a woman of colour with power and influence. She had been involved in a sexual harassment lawsuit. She was a feminist. She was a threat and she represented change of the kind that seems to strike terror in the hearts of racists and misogynists, who like to cling to a vision of the internet as ‘their space’. At the website Feministing, former Reddit moderator Katherine Cross summarizes that “outspoken women, especially non-white women like Pao, are instant targets if they publicly acknowledge the existence of prejudice, worse still if they purport to do something about it.”

The abuse of high-profile women like Laurie Penny, Mary Beard and Caroline Cricado-Perez, the GamerGate phenomenon and the targeting of Anita Sarkeesian, Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu, and the vitriolic responses that the majority of women who speak and write on the internet have to just ‘get used to’, are all symptoms of the rot that is deeply embedded in the online world.

If we are to eradicate this toxic influence, forums like Reddit have to embrace change. Community spaces that allow people to speak freely should not only protect the speech of white, cisgender, straight males. Abusive users who hate women, people of colour, and those in the LGBT community should not be protected at the expense of already marginalized groups.

The ‘throwing my dummy out the pram’ response by those who feel that they should be able to abuse and harass others without recourse is beyond childish and entitled, and the argument that people should just be able to ‘take’ abuse on Reddit without a word is completely counter-productive. A space of ‘free speech’ is no longer free if non-white, non-straight, non-male members are silenced through the fear of being piled on by a faceless mob of bullies.

As Pao writes in the Washington Post: “the foundations of the Internet were laid on free expression, but the founders just did not understand how effective their creation would be for the coordination and amplification of harassing behaviour. Or that the users who were the biggest bullies would be rewarded with attention for their behaviour.” Treating others with dignity and respect should be an essential part of any community.

If your ‘free speech’ involves propping up sexism, transphobia, racism and other kinds of discrimination, it isn’t worth shit. Reddit represents the best and the worst of our online world, and I hope we can strive to do better. Ellen Pao deserved better. 

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