Opinion: Reddit’s advertising strategies still hide hate speech

When “freedom of speech” aligns with business interests.
When “freedom of speech” aligns with business interests.
Image: AP Photo/Steve Helber
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Reddit has a problem. The website has always played host to unsavory content, with subreddits including r/Jailbait (sexualized pictures of underage women) and r/Creepshots (sexualized pictures of unconsenting women in public places) attracting controversy early on before they were banned. For a long time, its administrators let its worst communities fester, entrusting moderators with power in exchange for keeping admins abreast of anything actually illegal.

As the site has grown, however, so has the media attention it garners. You may remember when the online forum temporarily became host to stolen nudes from celebrities’ iCloud accounts, or when they banned communities created to disseminate AI-generated porn and other involuntary face-swapping.

Now the fourth-largest website on the internet, it can no longer keep its most disreputable elements out of the spotlight—and that includes hidden from advertisers.

How does Reddit make money?

Reddit makes money in two ways. First, there’s “Reddit gold,” which users can purchase and gift to one another to show appreciation for good content. However, this is not a substantial revenue source. Then there’s advertising. Some subreddits show digital advertisements, which means Reddit effectively makes money from whatever people are talking about on those pages. The more people post, the more they click, and the more money is made.

That’s not a problem when it’s a community dedicated to the NFL or discussing Game of Thrones. But when it comes to immoral or hateful content, there’s a clear conflict of interest. When hacked nudes from Jennifer Lawrence and others were hosted on Reddit in 2014, it took a week for the subreddits hosting them to be banned. In that time, enough Reddit gold was purchased (primarily to thank the people who uploaded the images) to run the entire site for a month, and the deluge of traffic gave Reddit a corresponding boost in ad revenue, too. (The company notes that Reddit gold is no longer a large revenue driver.)

As no advertiser would want their products attached to these kinds of posts, Reddit has some safeguards in place to keep companies happy. Rather than the blacklist system that most websites use, whereby certain subreddits would be made ineligible for ads, Reddit runs a “whitelist,” whereby only some subreddits are eligible to host adverts. It inverts the system: Instead of everything being fair game unless it’s flagged, Reddit starts with an empty pool and only adds in communities it thinks won’t irk advertisers.

“Reddit is deliberate about where ads appear across the site and is constantly refining a hand-curated whitelist of communities that we’ve deemed are brand-safe and relevant for advertisers,” said a spokesperson in a statement. “We employ a strict review process to help us classify specific posts as ad eligible. We will not show ads—even if they are on whitelisted subreddits—alongside posts with inappropriate markings, and follow industry guidelines to ensure that ads are compliant with the ad exchange brand safety guidelines.”

However, in the past some of the most hate-filled corners of Reddit have made it onto the whitelist, and therefore showed revenue-generating ads. These include the recently banned r/The_Europe, which was a community for European alt-rightists, and r/CringeAnarchy, where posts include Islamophobic “tips” on how to get away with sexual assault. Because ads were being served on these subreddits, Reddit was effectively making money off the hate-speech contained within.

This shouldn’t make advertisers happy. After all, they’re the ones who spend their money to serve these ads. But because monitoring over a half million subreddits for brand management is not time or cost effective, often advertisers aren’t aware of the company they keep and the views they’re tacitly condoning.

The users of a new activist community, r/stopadvertising, are working to pressure Reddit to stop giving a platform to hate speech by alerting companies to the ways their ads are being portrayed. In order to try and get companies to pull their advertising spend, they are sending screenshots to advertisers of their products appearing next to hateful content. (However, some have been accused of allegedly doctoring some of the screenshots). They hope to pressure Reddit into removing hate communities for fear of the platform suffering the same fate as YouTube, which endured a full-scale advertising boycott last year as a result of its continued hosting of hate speech, and is now in crisis over the demonetization of large swathes of its videos.


However, these efforts are not enough to shelter what is arguably Reddit’s single largest source of hate speech: r/The_Donald.

This subreddit was set up early in the 2016 US presidential primaries and quickly became the web’s largest fansite for nominee Donald Trump. It has played host to a wide range of false conspiracy theories, such as the infamous Pizzagate debacle and the accusation that the Clintons murdered DNC staffer Seth Rich. The subreddit is also a well-known hub for violent content, with calls for “violence and genocide, extreme racism, doxxing, harassment, and site-wide rule breaking.” In the last month, its users have called for “right-wing death squads” and school-shooting survivor David Hogg to be “hanged.”

In an AMA (Ask Me Anything, in which celebrities field questions from Redditors) late last year, Reddit CEO Steve “spez” Huffman insisted that r/The_Donald’s volunteer moderators adequately cooperate with Reddit’s administrators, deleting violent or otherwise rule-breaking content when asked. When pointed toward a list of dozens of instances where this had not occurred, he responded that these posts had not been reported to the moderators, and so had not been flagged as a problem. This raises the question of whether volunteer moderators and users of r/The_Donald can be relied upon to police their own content.

However, there are limits to the kinds of behavior Reddit will tolerate. r/altright, r/WhiteRights, and r/coontown, all home to racism and extremism of various kinds, have been banned, either as a result of targeted harassment against other users, doxxing outsiders, or posting violent content. Two more well-known hubs for hate speech, r/European and r/uncensorednews, were banned in March for similar reasons.

However, despite containing much of the same content, r/The_Donald remains operational —but off the whitelist. It’s controversial enough for Reddit to not want ads anywhere near it, but not enough for it to be banned.

Why? The answer might be business pragmatism.

Why r/The_Donald hasn’t been fired

The banned subreddits were all small and mostly off the whitelist. This meant there was minimal community backlash when they were removed, and they brought in relatively little revenue. r/The_Donald, on the other hand, currently has nearly 600,000 subscribers. Even though ads aren’t being served, users from r/The_Donald still buy Reddit gold, and they also bring in ad revenue when they click away from that subreddit and go elsewhere on the site that does serve ads.

The users of r/stopadvertising argue that Reddit is actively sheltering r/The_Donald’s hate speech: They won’t ban it outright like the other violent subreddits because it brings in so many people to the site. Reddit might not make money from ads on the subreddit itself, but by keeping its community on the platform, they continue to benefit financially in other ways.

Moreover, by preventing ads from appearing on r/The_Donald, it becomes much harder for activists like r/stopadvertising to put pressure on Reddit to ban hate communities. Because users can no longer point to adverts appearing directly alongside violent content, it’s tougher to encourage advertisers to pull out of the site entirely.

It gets worse. Not only this, but for users who are subscribed to r/The_Donald (or any other non-whitelisted subreddit), any page they view that contains a single post from these subreddits will also be ad-free. This means that users who peruse these kinds of communities regularly and have posts from these communities on their “front page” spend much of their time living in an ad-free bubble, their server time paid for by the ads clicked on by all other Redditors. In this way, r/The_Donald is indirectly forcing other users to subsidize its existence.

“There are a vast number of communities on Reddit that are not eligible for advertising and thus trigger advertising restrictions when that content appears elsewhere on the site,” said a spokesperson for the online forum.

Despite this, r/stopadvertising continues to document instances in which adverts are appearing next to content that is hateful or borderline violent elsewhere on the site.

Reddit continues to host a community that posts hateful and violent content on a daily basis. Because of this, Reddit continues to make money from hosting hate speech, as the traffic it brings in brings leads to clicks on ads elsewhere on the site—not to mention inflating their site-visit stats to enable a higher price for the ads in the first place.

When so many other communities guilty of far less have been purged from the site, why isn’t r/The_Donald gone yet? Based on the administration’s past behavior, they’ll only ban it when it becomes financially beneficial to do so.

Correction: This article has been updated to include reference to banned subreddits that Reddit has taken action to remove; clarified that Reddit gold is not a substantial revenue source; and has removed references to Reddit condoning the alt-right.