Wednesday, October 24, 2007

How tiny minorities can censor others at Reddit.

It appears that this blog has been banned from the networking group Reddit. This happened in the past when someone didn’t like the fact that we published things they disagreed with. And so they filed a complaint.

Reddit uses a deceptive and sneaky method of banning links. They set their system to show the link as appearing in the users profile but in fact no one else coming to the site actually every sees the link.

The first time they did this they said it was because we had been “flagged for spamming” meaning posting information as to what articles have appeared here. They wrote that their users “don’t respond well to seeing a stream of submissions” from the same site -- the stream of submissions was one link per day out the thousands that appear on the site. Hardly a stream but they were trying to justify their ban.

If once a day is a stream then what isn’t a stream? The only number below that is zero per day. And apparently this is not an issue. For instance one user, “neoronin”, has 22 posts in so far today and yesterday he had 44. Another user, garyp714, has 9 submissions in the last hour alone. This multiple submissions in a short period of time does violate policies for the site -- one submission per day does not.

At this point it was pointed out to them that they actual post user suggestions called “Reddiquette” said that people shouldn’t flag a report merely because they don’t like it. The reply to that was that Reddit doesn’t mind but that an undefined “reddit community” is responsible -- apparently meaning anyone who wants to ban sites that they oppose. And they claimed “the community used our reporting mechanism to vote on your behavior” (Note the behavior was posting one link per day to the site.) And they specifically have posted under their reddiquette section that linking to one’s own site is entirely permissible. As they wrote: “Old content and self-promotion are okay.”

Again an undefined and unspecified community was blamed and Reddit said they have no control over their own site. But they reinstated the account.

It was strange that the community was involved yet we were never informed of any such process nor allowed, as a member of the community, to participate. When I asked about that they said the the “reporting process isn’t transparent” because of technical problems. So how did the community participate in a process that no one could see was happening?

I tested the “report” system on one of the individuals who is actually putting a stream of posts on the site, every few minutes in fact. To report someone all you do is sign in and click the report button by their submission. It then asks you if you are are sure and you press “yes” or “no”. If you press “yes” it says they have been reported and that’s it. There is no need to make a specific accusation of any kind. No evidence is asked for. And if the time our site was reported is any indication the person being accused isn’t even informed about the report and summary judgement is issued.

This system sounds like it was designed by George Bush.

In the final reply with the first incident Reddit wrote: “ Our anti-spamming system is not perfect, but we can make corrections immediately, as our intention has never been to censor individuals on reddit.” Not perfect? Apparently one post per day can be listed as spam while other users can post dozens per day with nothing happening.

The account was reinstated and things were fine for a few months. In fact the reddit readers were giving our stories lots of positive support. They have a point system where people can vote stories up or down. And numerous times a posting from this blog has remained on their front page for an entire day -- most stories remain there a couple of minutes. And the supportive votes were accumulating very quickly. So I assumed the problem was solved.

It is bad enough they have a non-transparent system which “the community” does but which they don’t know about. It is even worse that the person or site being targeted is left in the dark and not told about it. But at least they promised to “make corrections immediately” when this happens.

Once again this non-transparent process, which is never explained on the Reddit site from what I’ve been able to see, was used to prevent other Reddit readers from finding out about articles on this blog -- in spite of the high votes from Reddit readers in support of the blog (that is visible). So on October 20 I wrote Reddit asking them to correct this. They were the ones who said they would “make corrections immediately” when their blocking system was being misused.

And I waited. The block stayed on and the email request was ignored. It wasn’t even acknowledged. Then I waited two more days before sending a second email to them pointing out that the first had been ignored and asking them to solve the problem. And once again they ignored it completely. After two more days I wrote them a third time forwarding the previous email and noting that numerous days had gone by and they were still blocking posts.

As far as I can see, this site has done nothing to violate any stated “reddiquette” for users. It was posting one link per day which is hardly flooding the site. And the reddiquette specifically says “self-promotion” is accepted. It’s not like blogs will have PR agencies to send out press releases for them. But Reddit specifically allows any user to “report” any content for any reason. All they have to do is click “report” which basically gives a tiny number of users, perhaps just one, veto power over what others are allowed to see. But previously when I pointed out that the posts we did were all sanctioned by reddiquette the people at Reddit said that reddiquette was created by the community not the site owners, which seems to dismiss it.

Apparently there are no clear terms of usage at all. Since one can obey the terms written on the site and still be reported and banned. Why bother even posting them? Personally it sounds to me as if Reddit has created an excuse system which allows them to blame non-specific users for banning people for violating rules which apparently have no real meaning anyway. Obeying them doesn't prevent you from being banned and violating them doesn't mean you will be banned. There is a huge amount of arbitrary decision making here.

In this case someone apparently hit the report button. I say apparently since Reddit’s refusal to respond leaves me in the dark.

And Reddit claims that their voting system, called “karma” allows readers to reward good posts since the way to get votes is “making good submissions” and this is a ranking handed out by “your peers”, that is the other users of the site. Since the karma for our posts very quickly went from zero and were starting to approach 1,000 it would appear that the community had approved. Yet apparently one, or a few, “reports” by individuals can trump the karma that one accumulates as well.

Reddit has designed two systems that contradict one another. The first allows all users to push a link up or down the page. Negative votes move it down meaning fewer viewers ever see it. Positive votes move it up giving it more publicity leading to even more positive votes. This does, at least reflect the views of the mass of readers who vote.

But the “report” system allows non-specific charges to be made against a user in a way that is non-transparent to the person being banned and to all other users. In addition it apparently trumps the “karma” accumulated by the system of having links voted up or down. Reddit can argue that the “users” are responsible but the “report” really allows one user to report someone. It is the perfect authoritarian system. No one is responsible, and anyone apparently can censor another person by reporting them without having to offer a specific accusation or any evidence. That is then dealth with in way where the accused is never informed about it. And where Reddit did promise to correct such things when they happen they apparently also are quite happy to just ignore such abuses when they happen. In reality the system does encourage people to report others purely on the basis of disagreeing with the content.

For those who wish to write Reddit regarding this apparent ban (and the pathetic service they give in resolving it) you can email them either at and I suggest sending to both so they have no excuse to claim they didn't receive it. If you have more luck than I have good for you.

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