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How I am fixing the internet

black white headshotAlex Zrenner is a 2015 Kenan Summer Fellow and rising junior at Duke University. She is from St. Louis, Missouri and is pursuing a major in economics with a math minor. Each summer, the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University supports undergraduate Kenan Summer Fellows, a program meant to help students explore what it means to live an ethical life. Portions of this post were originally published on the Kenan Institute for Ethics’ website. Alex has written weekly updates about her project here, and is also creating video blogs for the project that can be seen here.

My name is Alex Zrenner, and I am fixing the Internet. Well actually, I am researching the Internet. I have spent the past six weeks studying the ethics of cyber harassment and free speech as one of this year’s Kenan Summer Fellows.

I have spent six weeks watching the Internet, and mainly watching the bad scary parts of the Internet. I have talked to victims of Gamergate, of nonconsensual porn (popularly referred to as “revenge porn.”), cyber bullying, and gendered cyber harassment. I watched Google ban nonconsensual porn. I watched John Oliver deliver an amazing segment on online harassment. Now I am watching Reddit implode.

Reddit is an interesting reflection of the Internet and presents this perfect case study for my project. It began as this beacon of freedom of speech. Anyone could make an account on Reddit and could post anything on Reddit. Redditors could be anonymous, pseudo-anonymous or identified. Redditors then up-vote or down-vote content and comment. It was supposed to be the online embodiment of the marketplace of ideas.

The theory of the marketplace of ideas is that an open, or what an econ major like myself would call free, market competition of ideas will be “the best test of truth.” This theory did not originate with the Internet. John Stuart Mill first introduced this theory in On Liberty published in 1859, and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes introduced it specifically to the American legal system in his dissent of the 1919 Abrams v. United States  Supreme Court case. Abrams v. United States established that the United States protects the freedom of speech, so to protect the marketplace of ideas; just as with the free market economic theory, the more competing ideas, the closer we come to the (theoretically perfect) one true price of one true idea.

In October 2012, the current Reddit CEO stated,

“We stand for free speech. This means we are not going to ban distasteful subreddits. We will not ban legal content even if we find it odious or if we personally condemn it. Not because that’s the law in the United States — because as many people have pointed out, privately-owned forums are under no obligation to uphold it — but because we believe in that ideal independently, and that’s what we want to promote on our platform. We are clarifying that now because in the past it wasn’t clear, and (to be honest) in the past we were not completely independent and there were other pressures acting on Reddit. Now it’s just Reddit, and we serve the community, we serve the ideals of free speech, and we hope to ultimately be a universal platform for human discourse.”

The marketplace of ideas is this beautiful theory. Reddit loved it. Free speech advocates love it and love to remind any doubters of its beauty. The “universal platform for human discourse” would allow users to debate and argue and to determine the truth within the marketplace.

Here’s what the marketplace of ideas, and what Reddit, didn’t account for: people suck. We don’t like each other. We don’t like each other’s ideas. Most importantly, we want to make sure you know that we don’t like you or your ideas. Reddit had to make these marketplace of ideas-affirming quotes because the users on the platform showed us why people suck. Reddit was trying to remind us of the beautiful ideal they were trying to attain by permitting the hateful speech. (I am exhausted after six weeks of constantly seeing what horrible things people have done online. I am not going to convince that there are parts of the Internet that suck, but I will provide links to articles that do throughout this post. To see the horrible things Redditors did in the early years, see here.)

Redditors became a home for harassment and shame. Privacy on Reddit doesn’t matter unless you are a Redditor. (See here.) Privacy is the unasked question for the marketplace of ideas: what ideas, actions or individuals belong in the public discourse of the marketplace and which do not? Redditors act like nothing is outside of the bounds of marketplace. Are you an overweight person? The subreddit r/FatPeopleHate would post a picture of you, demean you and even target you offline. Are you a feminist in the gaming community that speaks about sexism in gaming? It is very likely personal information like your home address or email address was posted on Reddit by the cyber mob Gamergate. Are you a woman? Well you are entitled to no privacy. Reddit has non-consensually taken photos of women and GIRLS that sexualize them to post on Reddit (see here). When individuals stole intimate photos of female celebrities, those photos circulated on Reddit (Google Celebgate/Fappening if you missed this story). These Redditors treat women’s bodies as if they are destined for public male consumption.

All of this done in the name of “free speech” and “anti-censorship.” Reddit is a marketplace of ideas, and this marketplace reflects the people and their culture. If you put thousands of 18-29 year old males, there’s going to be some speech that demeans women. (I discuss the presence of sexism online extensively throughout my project: here and here.)

Then Reddit put a controversial, gender-discriminating person of color woman in charge. Ellen Pao helped Reddit grow up. Constant barrages of hate speech, demeaning speech, threats, and general harassment does not foster free speech. Pao appears to have read her John Stuart Mill: “There needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them.” Under Pao, nonconsensual porn, commonly referred to as “revenge porn,” was banned and five subreddits that encouraged harassment were banned (see here). Pao made Reddit a little more welcoming to women.

Redditors didn’t like these changes and didn’t like Pao. They lashed out. Pao recently resigned from her position as Interim CEO. (See further discussion of her resignation and her experience with hate on Reddit here and here .) Shortly after Pao left, Reddit’s chief engineer, Bethanye Blount, also left. This woman who was in charge of making sure Reddit worked as a website, this woman who was in a powerful leadership position in a massive technology company, left.

Pao’s departure concerns me as an aspiring businesswoman. Blount’s departure should concern anyone with a vested interest in promoting women in STEM. That is why I am writing about this topic for a science blog. If we want to promote girls to take roles in technology and engineering, fields that are becoming more and more Internet-focused, what does online harassment tell these girls? Maybe we will let you code for us, but only if you never talk about your gender or heaven-forbid you talk about feminism. Online harassment tells woman they are not allowed to speak online. It sends a further message that women are not welcome in technology.

In the process of writing this, the returning Reddit CEO Steven Huffman announced harassment would no longer be tolerated on Reddit and will be banned. Reddit seems to be taking the steps to create a marketplace of ideas that Mill would be proud, where even those the tyranny tries to oppress can speak. Hopefully, these steps will show women interested in STEM that they can go online, they can talk about science, they can talk about their lives, and they can talk about being women without fear of harassment.