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Nice job breaking it, Huffman

Amelia Tait, writing in the New Statesman, says,

Reddit’s CEO edited comments on a pro-Trump thread and everyone should care

Reddit CEO Steve Huffman has publicly admitted to editing comments on the pro-Donald Trump subreddit r/the_donald in a move he has described as “trolling the trolls”. Huffman – who goes by “spez” on Reddit – deleted comments from the pro-Trump community on the site, and also altered comments that insulted him. He replaced comments reading “fuck u/spez” with those of the users who moderate the thread. This meant the criticism directed towards him appeared to be attacking the thread’s own moderators.

[…]

Yet although this might seem like a small and temporary lapse in judgement, the implications are huge.

Normally when a comment is edited on Reddit – by a user or a moderator – a small asterisk will appear after the time stamp to indicate that it has been changed. In this instance, no such asterisk appeared, meaning Huffman ostensibly has the ability to edit comments without a trace. This is crucial because two months ago, a Redditor was taken to court for comments he left on the site. Huffman’s editing powers could clearly be abused to cause trouble for individuals.

Beyond this, however, Huffman chose the wrong Reddit community to anger. Those on r/the_donald are already deeply convinced by conspiracies, and, in a way, Huffman has now validated their claims.

I first came across r/the_donald when news was breaking of the terrorist massacre of 49 people attending a gay nightclub in Orlando carried out on behalf of Islamic State by Omar Mateen. I say “news was breaking”, but it was not breaking at r/news. As one Reddit user said, “They deleted EVERY other thread about the shooting”. Another said, “You know whats crazy? I live in Orlando and I had no idea this was going on. I depend on reddit for my news 100% since it can rapidly deliver news from many sources that I can validate or discard. I have literally been up all night on Reddit and due to the apparent thread lockings and deletions, this story took 9 hours to make it to me — I probably live within thirty minutes of this place.” Yet another said, “This situation has been unfolding for hours, it’s the deadliest mass shooting in US history, and the only evidence of it on the front page is stuff from /r/the_donald?”

The talk is all of “fake news” at the moment, with a presumption that the fakery is coming from the right. But many of those Americans who saw with their own eyes the main Reddit news page attempting to play down a major news story while the Donald Trump subreddit reported it freely will have concluded that those Trump guys were telling the truth and the other guys were fakers – and who can blame them? Some of them will have switched from r/news to r/the_donald as their first news source and will have gone on to vote for Trump as a result. It is always fun to watch the “Nice job breaking it, hero” trope play out in real life, but r/the_Donald is not itself a good news source. The comments that Huffman altered were the usual conspiracy rubbish that is thrown at any politician these days. I don’t believe that Hillary Clinton is running a paedophile ring for the same reason that I never believed that Ted Heath was. Apart from anything else, major political figures are too closely watched. Steve Huffman had the right and was right to ban the “Pizzagate” subreddit, which made claims absurd even by the standards typical of such things and had caused real harm to innocent people. As ever, the believers in the conspiracy took any opposition to their theories as PROOOOF that the opposer was in on it too. Mr Huffman would have been completely within his rights and acting in the interests of his company to have banned the people who were libelling him. Instead he chose to play games with his own site’s credibility. A few weeks ago I would have dismissed the idea that the Reddit CEO would personally hack the accounts of his own customers on the r/the_donald subreddit as yet more conspirazoid rubbish. As Amelia Tait said, Huffman has now validated their claim to be persecuted. He has also validated their claim to be important.

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24 comments to Nice job breaking it, Huffman

  • Yes I have been following this one with mounting astonishment.

    As I am fond of saying, 99% of conspiracy theories are delusional nonsense. But as Edward Snowden showed, sometimes that genuine 1% is earth shaking (not that this is of the same magnitude, I hasten to add).

    If I was Steve Huffman, I would have my lawyer on speed dial because he is now open to all manner of legal questions over his conduct… is there any way to know he has not done this before? This is a massive ‘brand quality’ blow.

    When I am feeling charitable and have time to burn, I occasionally edit people’s comments on Samizdata for obvious grammar and spelling error (I am looking at you Paul), which is why I added the the 5 minute edit timer so people can do that themselves and save me the trouble, or to correct broken links people have added that have typos. But for a site editor to edit a comment for meaning? THAT is a real no-no! If the comment is unacceptable, delete it (ideally with a snarky comment that it has been deleted), but do not edit it to change the meaning! That is potentially libellous.

  • Paul Marks

    The “mainstream media” (including their internet sites) do this sort of stuff a lot.

    They, the “mainstream media”, are a bunch of leftist hacks – they lie, smear and twist (and edit other people’s stuff to suit the left agenda).

    And then they accuse other people of “fake news” – pot-calls-kettle-black.

  • Paul Marks

    And where do these lying leftist hacks in the “mainstream media” learn to be lying leftist hacks?

    In the schools and universities of course – they are the “good students” who parrot every piece of leftist agitprop they are taught and carry it out into the world.

  • Andrew Duffin

    I’d always assumed that “fake news” was code for anything the left/MSM disagreed with or didn’t want published.

    Didn’t everyone? I mean, people aren’t that naive, are they? Are they?

  • bobby b

    When Twitter “shadow bans” you, you can go back and check all of your entries and see them there just as you typed them in.

    But no one else can find them or see them. They don’t show up on sites when others view those sites – but they do show up when you look yourself. You never know you’ve been shadow-banned.

    Twitter has been shadow-banning many conservative users since the beginnings of the political campaign cycle.

    This doesn’t differ all that much from editing without asterisking a reddit entry. Enabling an edit without an asterisk had to have been an intentional departure from the norm – meaning, reddit was intentionally hiding their editing from posters, just as Twitter hides its banning from the banned.

    So, saying that spez did something new and novel and frightening is wrong. Twitter has shadow-banned many people, over a long period of time. It’s the new liberal norm.

  • This doesn’t differ all that much from editing without asterisking a reddit entry

    No, that is quite incorrect because these are utterly different things.

    Shadow-banning is despicable but whilst deceptive, it is neither fraudulent (claiming to be something it is not) nor libellous on the part of twitter.

    However Huffman editing a comment to change its meaning, not for purposes of clarity or the correction of manifest errors, but to invert its meaning and thereby misrepresent the views of the author, under the author’s own name or tag, manages to be both fraudulent (tantamount to forging someone signature on a letter they never wrote) and libellous if it causes reputational damage, which is quite an achievement. He is in deep shit.

  • Even leaving the content of his editing aside, the fact that a CEO is editing comments at all makes me wonder who is doing the CEO’s job. My guess would be “nobody”.

  • Also worth mentioning is that Reddit’s previous CEO was Ellen Pao who seemed to have been given the job to demonstrate she was a high-flyer during her unsuccessful legal action for discrimination against her previous employer. She was forced out of Reddit after users petitioned for her dismissal and it was hard to see how the company could have done worse than this, but it appears they have somehow managed it. I suppose this is the modern CEO for you.

  • Bod

    There’s also the shadow of the AOL suit here.

    If Huffman exercises editorial control over *some* content, it compromises Reddit’s ability to defend itself in the event of a libel suit.

    It takes the platform from being merely a medium for communication to being a media organization. Huffman is clearly a liability to the organization, but he’s not so different from a large number of the other ignorati running social media platforms.

  • Slartibartfarst

    “…I depend on reddit for my news 100% since it can rapidly deliver news from many sources that I can validate or discard. …”

    Probably a good example defining naivety.
    ____________________________

    “CEO … has publicly admitted to editing comments on the pro-Donald Trump subreddit r/the_donald in a move he has described as “trolling the trolls..”

    Probably a good example of moronic “we-know-so-much-better-than-you-what’s-right-trust-me” fascistic behaviour. One wonders whether the instigator was funded to do this by the Clinton camp. After all, they were apparently the ones caught on camera saying:

    “It doesn’t matter what the friggin’ legal and ethics people say, we need to win this motherf#cker.”

    (Refer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5IuJGHuIkzY#
    Rigging the Election – Video I: Clinton Campaign and DNC Incite Violence at Trump Rallies
    ____________________________

    The mind boggles with such as these. Some mothers do ‘ave ’em.

  • LastRedoubt

    Insofar as the pedophile stuff.

    No, I don’t know what the truth is, but something is wrong with those people around Podesta, just from the known facts.

    And before we get a repeat of “too much oversight” let’s not forget Saville, or the recent busts.

    * The friendships with convicted pedophiles like Epstein.
    * The invites to, at the very best, grotesque events like the spirit cooking parties
    * Grotesque artwork suggesting cannibalism in podesta’s office
    * One of podestas favored artists paints REALLY creepy pictures of semi-clothed kids in tiled rooms looking like they are afraid of being abused
    * an underground bunker for viewing “special” videos?
    * even leaving aside normal construction and vulgar bathroom graffiti, the comments on the instagram posted pictures of kids, more than the pictures themselves, are creepy. I know people who took their kids pics off of Flickr/etc. because of the comments they were getting – similar ones here but not taken down until the whole #pizzagate blowup.
    * Who’s posting the pics – they don’t have kids – and neither do some of the commenters.
    * One of the commenters is a prosecutor for sex crimes?

    I’m loath to make accusations without a smoking gun because it IS truly loathsome, but something is “off” with these people even if they’re not breaking any laws.

  • mrboxty

    And nobody is claiming that “Hillary Clinton is running a paedophile ring.” But she does have associations with known pedos (Epstein) and has provided the defense for at least two known sexual abusers (one of whom was a pedo).

  • Fred the Fourth

    Fake news. Huh.
    I suppose CNN has reported on that, with a straight face.
    The same CNN that had to publicly admit they’d intentionally altered their Iraq reporting in compliance with Saddam Hussein’s wishes, in order to maintain their Baghdad bureau.

  • bobby b

    “Shadow-banning is despicable but whilst deceptive, it is neither fraudulent (claiming to be something it is not) nor libellous on the part of twitter.”

    I would call it fraudulent because, while a poster thinks her post has been published – while Twitter actively tells her that her post has been published – it has not. If the post merely disappeared, that would be different. The poster would know, and could react accordingly. It is the intentional concealment of the post’s disappearance from the poster that makes it fraudulent. It is the disappearance of public comment by one who might have been expected to comment that gives it a near-libelous character.

    I agree with you that spez’s act – a rather limited-in-time, limited-in-number act – was very bad, and was qualitatively worse than shadow-banning. My point was, this was no sui generis instance of a new evil – merely an extension of something being done already, on a large scale.

  • I would call it fraudulent because, while a poster thinks her post has been published – while Twitter actively tells her that her post has been published – it has not

    I would be interested to see Mr. Ed’s legal opinion, but to be ‘fraudulent’ I would assume there needs to be some deception for some manner of personal gain. Thus shadow-banning could be construed a kind of editorial control (and I would assume they would argue it is a less severe option than simply banning under T&C, which I think would be a somewhat disingenuous claim but hard to disprove). However actually altering signed content covertly to serve your own political objectives might constitute ‘personal gain’ (albeit not financial gain) therefore actually reaching the level of being fraudulent in law, not to mention libellous, given that is it covertly yet publicly defaming someone by misrepresenting their views under the victim’s own name, done wilfully and with malice of forethought.

  • Laird

    It would give me great pleasure to see Twitter completely crash and burn as a result of this. But it probably won’t happen unless, as Bod suggests, someone successfully brings a huge libel suit which Twitter is unable to deflect because it can no longer credibly claim to be a simple “medium for communication”. Followed by a shareholders’ derivative action against Huffman personally. That would be sweet justice.

  • Well Twitter will not crash and burn as a result of shadow-banning (but as the Zeitgeist is changing palpably, I think they might well start to fade away with alternatives like Gab eventually picking up some of their refugees). But Reddit might well crater due to this unless they do some fancy footwork, with alternatives like Voat benefiting from their downward trajectory

  • bobby b

    There is no requirement that fraud involve personal gain of any kind for the offender.

    What is required is some sort of loss for the defrauded. This can be a financial loss, a reputational loss, a loss of some right or ability – it’s pretty open. Vote fraud usually earns the offender no profit – but it imposes costs on the democratic system (and thus each and every voter).

    You seem to be reacting as if I was trying to minimize spez’s wrongdoing. I’m not. I’m trying to raise awareness that Twitter, Facebook, Google – indeed, the entire liberal techie world – has been acting with as pure a motive, and through as deceptive of acts, as did spez.

    Once they made the decision that their ends justify any means, these are all entirely expected actions.

  • You seem to be reacting as if I was trying to minimize spez’s wrongdoing

    Not at all. I just think this specific example is actually something new, the most extreme example of a new media company grinding their political axe.

  • Alisa

    IaNaL, but in moral and practical terms I tend to agree with Perry: it seems to me that both cases should qualify as fraud, but the Reddit case is significantly worse in that it is very plausibly libelous to boot (which the Twitter case is ostensibly not).

  • Alisa

    Slightly OT and speaking of Gab: their free-speech pronouncements notwithstanding, experience has taught me to curb my enthusiasm pending further developments. That said, I’ll still support them just because the “right” people seem to dislike them so much.

  • speaking of Gab: their free-speech pronouncements notwithstanding, experience has taught me to curb my enthusiasm pending further developments

    Indeed, I do not think they are quite ‘ready for prime time’ to be honest, even though I post there occasionally.

  • Bod

    I shun participating in social media, but I like to try and keep abreast of new systems – I was taking a look at minds.com – forget the whole ‘reputational currency’ feature that they’re pushing, but from what i can see they’re potentially in that sweet spot between delivering 140-character platitudes and long-form essays.

  • Eric

    But Reddit might well crater due to this unless they do some fancy footwork, with alternatives like Voat benefiting from their downward trajectory

    I hope so, but I’m not holding my breath. This is only the latest pebble in a huge mountain of evidence reddit is managed by incompetents. If Ellen Pao didn’t chase everyone off, nothing will. The problem for voat and Gab is the network effect on social media is enormously powerful. You really have to go out of your way to fail once you’ve achieved critical mass in terms of market share.