Reddit's ugly, racist secret: How it became the most hateful space on the Internet

The powerhouse website is turning a blind eye to hate, explains Southern Poverty Law Center's Keegan Hankes

Published March 18, 2015 12:30PM (EDT)

    (Reuters/Robert Galbraith)
(Reuters/Robert Galbraith)

When you think of places on the Internet where racists like to congregate, there are probably a few obvious locales that jump to mind: the explicitly white supremacist Stormfront, the hipster-racist Taki's Magazine, the comments at YouTube, the comments at the Daily Caller, the comments at almost any local news' website... So basically every comment thread on every popular or conservative website. But according to a new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the arguably vilest, ugliest, nastiest and most unapologetically hateful space on the Internet is not in some comment thread you weren't going to read anyway but at one of the most popular websites there is: Reddit.

Recently, Salon spoke over the phone with Keegan Hankes, a research analyst at SPLC and the author of the piece. Our discussion touched on the white supremacist forums (known as "subreddits") he's found at Reddit, why the folks running Reddit have not done anything to remove them, and how they complicate the free speech absolutist stance that's long characterized Reddit's approach to moderation. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

Why did you look at this? What sparked this idea?

I actually spend a whole lot of time investigating Stormfront, which is probably the largest white supremacist forum on the Internet. It’s been around for going on 20 years ... I’ve noticed some of the people I’ve tracked on there, some of the people who participate on other white supremacist websites, had mentioned Reddit in the past. So I’ve kind of in passing been watching it. As I watched these networks of racists' websites develop, I got more interested, especially once I found some of the more violent ones.

Could you give me a sense of how large these communities are?

Stormfront is going to be, by the numbers, since its a membership website, the largest. It’s been around and the accounts aren’t deleted; it’s been accumulating them for 20 years. They have over 200,000 registered users. Now, the Reddit community ... there's one subreddit ... that has 5,500 subscribers right now — which puts it just into the top 5,000 subreddits, which is relatively small compared to other subreddits that are active. But that does not figure in the audience of the site. So these do not include outside audience members that are perusing it. I’d say it’s a small community; but it’s significant in the fact that it does drive a lot of traffic to websites outside of Reddit.

Your piece notes that these subreddits are often full of racist snuff films. Do you have any idea where these videos are coming from? Or are they originating on Reddit?

One thing that’s distinct about Reddit that drew our attention ... was very violent videos — typically of black men being killed very graphically — that you can’t even put on Stormfront or other white supremacist sites. They will get taken down. And that’s one of the things that sets Reddit apart ... the fact that it has much less oversight in some ways than Stormfront and what you’d typically consider the nastiest white supremacist forums on the Internet.

As far as where they’re getting the content from, it depends on exactly what the video is. The more graphic and explicit ones, some of this stuff can’t even be posted on YouTube. But some of the more simple YouTube videos that they’re putting up links to are from some other third-party hosting site that has looser restrictions on what you can upload and host ... It’s coming from many different members, it’s not just one guy up there every day posting a nasty video. It’s from a wide variety of sources.

Do the people at Stormfront ever mention these subreddits? How do they feel about them?

I would say that there is a pretty serious generation gap between the people who are using Reddit and the people who are using Stormfront. When my story got published [at Gawker] ... a thread was started on Stormfront and a lot of members commented, saying, I didn’t know about Reddit. So there wasn’t a level of awareness that you might expect between these two corners of the white supremacist movement.

That said, they echo a lot of the same themes, so there’s a lot of cross-posting. The community that exists on Reddit actually made reference to a lot of the same resources, websites and individuals that also show up on Stormfront. It’s just a different audience.

How do these older white supremacists seem to feel about these subreddits?

Just earlier this week, [one white supremacist site] posted an article ... and there’s this quote from it that I think illustrates it pretty well: “the really great thing about reddit is that it provides a lot of fertile ground for recruiting young people to the pro-white movement.”

Reddit probably appeals to the younger demographic, particularly more than Stormfront. Because Reddit is a very well-known website that does not seem extreme, I think it allows people to feel less marginalized when they’re immersing themselves in these communities [through it]. If you’re on Stormfront, you’re very explicitly on a white supremacist forum. You can’t get around that; the entire site is designed to be white supremacist forum.

On Reddit, maybe you spend some time on other subreddits ... but you can make these communities part of your everyday browsing.

And who owns Reddit? Who is ultimately responsible for it?

Reddit actually operates as an independent entity, but they are owned by Advance Publications. Advance Publications also owns Condé Nast, which is a huge media conglomerate that publishes magazines like the New Yorker, Wired, GQ, etc. That's one of our criticisms — although Reddit operates independently, being owned by a company as large as Advance Publication ... it makes them, on some level, bulletproof.

Placing aside the fact that Reddit is not part of the government and is not subject to the same kind of laws about free speech, how does the potential that these subreddits will act as recruiting centers that might not otherwise exist complicate, in your mind, Reddit's arguments about being hands-off in the name of unregulated discourse?

Reddit ... [has] shown reasonable discretion in the past about some of these things, which for us was pretty telling.

As far as the recruitment of youth, the most concerning thing for me is that, based on the structure of Reddit, you can get these ... white supremacist views, and put them in context of less offensive views and make them much more palatable — especially to someone who’s not been radicalized yet. Again, if you’re on Stormfront, you know you’re on the white supremacist forum.

That’s not the same thing with Reddit. Maybe you follow world politics, maybe you follow sports; whatever variety of subreddits you want to follow, if you start including some of these [white supremacist ones] ... it puts you one step further on that path to being radicalized.

Another potential problem: The free speech absolutist model assumes that, in a "marketplace," bad ideas will get exposed as such. But on Reddit, you can just live in your little subreddit and never have to deal with those who aren't of the same mind as you are. 

Right. They self-segregate. The people who are actually participating in this network of racist subreddits, you don’t see a lot of anti-racists there. There’s no normal opinion to balance this out. You don’t have the counter-balance that, in my mind, is supposed to be part of the design of Reddit. You always have this counterbalance; if it swings one way, it can swing the other way. You can go back and forth. You don’t see that here.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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