Most of the social media attention in politics seems to focus on Facebook and Twitter (for obvious reasons) but Reddit has experienced its share of controversy and angst in 2016. I don’t tend to be a poster on the site, but I read a bunch of content there. (My favorite subreddit is this one, though decorum prevents me from typing out the name of it here.) As with most social media platforms there’s plenty of political action going on and Trump fans recently learned that the company’s CEO, Steve Huffman, had been going in and editing posts which which were critical of him and making them look as if they were actually critical of Trump supporters. Now that he’s been exposed, Huffman has a few regrets. (Washington Post)
Steve Huffman, the chief executive of Reddit, knows he has some explaining to do.
Huffman, also a Reddit co-founder, landed in hot water Wednesday after admitting that he used his administrative powers to secretly edit user comments that were critical of him on r/The_Donald — a popular, pro-Trump forum (or “subreddit”). He swapped all mentions of his own username with the names of the pro-Trump group’s leaders, meaning that expletive-laden posts aimed at him looked instead as if they were insulting the group’s leaders.
It was not a good idea, he told The Washington Post Friday by phone. “I abused my power to give the bullies a hard time,” he said. Huffman thought of his name-swapping as a joke: a way to poke back at the people who’ve been harassing him and some of the site’s volunteer moderators for months.
To be clear, this is a crime in the publishing world which is unforgivable. Huffman wasn’t deleting content deemed offensive or in violation of site policies, though Reddit has done plenty of that as well. This was intentional fraud, altering someone else’s published material in a way which fundamentally changed their message a full 180 degrees. Whether you agreed with the material being posted or not, this sort of action is anathema in the editorial world.
What we’re learning yet again from the outcome of this incident is that the social media world is not journalism in any sense of the word and there is no accountability for malpractice such as this. Having been caught with his hand in the cookie jar, Huffman is not resigning his position and slinking off in shame. Any efforts to declare a new “policy” against such fraud would be met with incredulity since it wasn’t Huffman’s employees engaging in the crime, but the boss himself. And all he has to say for himself now is that it wasn’t a good idea.
Nobody in the actual media sphere could get away with this. One of the worst examples in recent memory was the “Jackie” scandal at Rolling Stone, and even then the crime was publishing bogus and unsourced material, not fraudulently editing someone else’s words. (And in that case the author seems to have been unofficially terminated since she largely disappeared from the journalism landscape afterward.)
Herein lies the problem with the intersection of government, politics and social media. There are accusations surfacing all the time about Facebook, Twitter and all the rest being in the tank for liberal causes and candidates. We hear some assurances about how that couldn’t possibly be true, but the reality is that nobody knows the full extent of what’s going on behind closed doors at these companies. The trust factor should be close to zero, yet they remain incredibly powerful in terms of messaging and have a real impact on elections.
With that in mind, should we be all that shocked to see what happened at Reddit? They weren’t breaking any sort of new ground here, but rather simply showing up as Worst in Class. Sadly, the Fourth Estate is a self-regulating beast. And in the case of social media corporations there isn’t much in the way of regulation at all.