Reddit, the online message forum, announced last week that it is updating its policies to curb harassment between users on its site. The decision follows Twitter's roll-out of new anti-harassment tools this spring, and many consider the changes to be long-coming. In February, Twitter's CEO Dick Costolo stated that "we suck at dealing with abuse...and we've sucked at it for years" after a viral segment of the public radio program This American Life depicted the writer Lindy West's struggle to confront one of her harassers on Twitter. With these changes in place, should Internet trolls consider their days numbered?
As of last week, users on Reddit, whose rules for usage were previously defined by the three commandments of Thou Shalt Not Spam, Thou Shalt Not Post Personally Identifiable Information, and Thou Shalt Not Break the Site, can now report abuse to Reddit moderators, who can remove the content and ban the offending user. In the policy update, Reddit's team stated that removal from the site would be based on evidence of "continued action" in the offensive manner. Still, although the changes reflect a renewed sensitivity to the issue of harassment across the site, Reddit will rely on users to report the abuse rather than actively police it themselves.
In online forums where freedom of expression is a calling card, Reddit's change in policies may chafe some users. But in a blog post last week, Chief Executive Ellen Pao stated that the open policies were in fact "stifling free expression." Of a survey of 15,000 Reddit users, the top reason they wouldn't recommend the site to others was not wanting to "expose others to offensive or hateful content" that appears undeterred on the site.
In March 2015, Twitter announced its "Quality Filter," thought of as its biggest step in discouraging negative interactions on its site.
The filter weeds out spam, obscenities, and threats, but knows not to remove comments that are critical, but in a civil way. A blogger for The Washington Post demonstrated that the filter was able to differentiate a reply that read "I'm going to kill you" (posted for the sake of the article by another WP staffer) from "Your column is only tolerable," in which the former was shelved and the latter kept in the feed. Also as part of its campaign, Twitter has made harassment reporting even easier with a new, pop-up button that sends offensive material straight to headquarters.
What does this all mean for free speech and the way we communicate on social? With forums like Twitter and Reddit receiving greater pressure to change their policies, we can surely await other sites to follow suit as we continue to improve our communities online and develop policies that can better serve them.