TPM Cafe: Opinion

How The Reddit Debacle Proves Libertarians Wrong

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AP Photo / Eric Risberg

While the new CEO of Reddit has promised to keep with Pao’s program to clean up Reddit and make it safe for non-toxic people to use, it immediately became clear that the white male-heavy leadership of Reddit has zero intention of actually doing anything about it. The smart, easy move to make is to just start shutting down subreddits that exist exclusively to perpetuate hate and bigotry. While it’s true that these places don’t necessarily create bigots, it is also true that finding communities of likeminded people in mainstream places like Reddit—which hosted a presidential forum, for god’s sake!—empowers bigots to believe that their views are more mainstream and acceptable than they really are, which is one of the sustaining myths that keeps bigotry going. Instead, the Reddit leadership decided to keep subreddits like r/Coontown open, but only accessible with a login and without ad content on the side, so Reddit will not generate revenue from them. That might initially sound like a good compromise, but as David Futrelle, who runs a blog keeping track of internet misogyny points out, this basically blesses bigots with a higher level of service than the rest of us get: They get more privacy for their conversations and they get to have an ad-free experience the rest of us have to pay for with our ad-laden interfaces.

“So, yeah, Reddit’s grand plan to deal with its bigots is to … subsidize them,” Futrelle writes glumly. Already, bigots are planning to up the amount of bigoted content they put on Reddit in order to get the superior level of service. However this was intended, the reality is that they are getting rewarded for their bigotry.

Why not just ban the crappy subreddits? On what planet are a bunch of white supremacists and woman-haters entitled to have someone else pay for space for them to organize and encourage each other? This debacle demonstrates, above all, that libertarianism is not the coherent ideology that it purports to be, so much as a cover story for protecting or even perpetuating bigoted behavior.

After all, the entire justification for going to such lengths not to just ban these subreddits has a libertarian-sounding tinge to it. CEO Steve Huffman says he is “uncomfortable projecting my worldview on others” and “people have more open and authentic discussions when they aren't worried about the speech police knocking down their door.”

The problem is that this isn’t really about free speech. For one thing, people who aren’t allowed to post on Reddit can go elsewhere. This isn’t government censorship, but a private company making choices about what kind of content to put out there. Worse, having a light hand with trolls actually stifles free and lively discourse. Allowing a handful of people to come into a room screaming the N-word or trying to re-traumatize rape victims shuts down open and authentic conversations in the same way that someone projectile vomiting all over the place will shut a party down: People are going to leave rather than put up with it.

In reality, this amounts to a battle over who gets to own Reddit as a space: Poop-flinging bigots or ordinary people who want to have free-wheeling conversations that still maintain enough decency to be actual conversations?

“The sad irony is that online harassers misuse the fundamental strength of the Internet as a powerful communication medium to magnify and co-ordinate their actions and effectively silence and intimidate others,” as the free speech organization Electronic Frontier Foundation concluded in an analysis on the issue.

One of the most common libertarian arguments you hear is that we don’t need government regulation to prevent discrimination because bigotry is bad for business and therefore the free market will stop it. Take Rand Paul arguing that “it’s a bad business decision to exclude anybody from your restaurant.” Or Reason trying to show that bakeries refusing gay customers take an economic hit for it. It’s a pleasing idea, that businesses will realize that bigotry costs them money and will adjust their business practices accordingly, with no government intervention required.

Well, now we have a perfect experiment to see how well that theory plays out in real life, with Reddit, which is a major corporation and not some two-bit rural bakery refusing to make a cake for a lesbian couple. As Reddit has learned, bigotry is, indeed, bad for business. Maintaining a free space for bigots to organize in is costing Reddit real money, as they have to pay for server space and now can’t even collect ad revenue on the bigoted forums.

But instead of proving the liberation argument right—that bigotry will cost you money and therefore businesses will choose anti-bigotry—the opposite is happening. Reddit is choosing to lose money rather than lose the bigots.

Businesses aren’t run by a bunch of computers making rational decisions based strictly on the bottom line or else this debate would have been settled, with the bigots and the haters banished from Reddit years ago. Instead, businesses are run by flawed, blinkered human beings who do foolish things like reflexively defend the “free speech” rights of a bunch of childish bigots over the free speech needs of a more diverse group of people.

Nor is the “free market” a solution that will weed out those making such poor decisions. On the contrary, as this debacle has shown, the “free market”—run by a bunch of white guys who don’t understand the toll of internet harassment on women and people of color—ran off a CEO who was taking steps to preserve Reddit’s business future by making it a more welcoming place to a variety of people. The only thing libertarianism is good at, it appears, is running protection for the bigots of the world, but it doesn’t do anything to improve freedom—or markets—for the rest of us.

Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about liberal politics, the religious right and reproductive health care. She's a prolific Twitter villain who can be followed @amandamarcotte.