NEW YORK – Today’s digital devices and social networks deliver so much information that even the savviest consumer cannot evaluate all of it. We seem to be living in a version of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where truth is drowned in a sea of irrelevance. But the future need not be the dystopia that the present seems to suggest.
The share of Americans who get their news from social media has grown rapidly in recent years, to 62% as of 2016. And yet, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, media, academic, technology, and publishing professionals have increasingly come to view the Internet as a cesspool of hate speech, anger, and trolls.
Much of what arrives on our digital doorstep these days is best described as “fake news”: hoax stories, propaganda, and other forms of misinformation. But while “fake news” is a useful label for a very real problem, it does not tell us if we are in fact living in a “post-truth” world; and, if so, whom we should hold responsible. To answer those questions, we need to examine the fake-news infrastructure.
Many of the anonymous political hobbyists and social hackers who are creating and disseminating fake news do so on Reddit. With 542 million monthly visitors (234 million unique users), Reddit is the fourth most visited website in the US, and eighth in the world, as of this month.
A casual observer who visits Reddit will find what looks like a Web 1.0 message board that is ridden with near-indecipherable jargon and acronyms, such as “HH,” “cucks,” “centipedes,” and “God Emperor of the Internet.” These are insider code words that did not emerge accidentally. They respectively refer to “Heil Hitler,” critics of the so-called alt-right, Trump supporters, and, of course, Trump himself.
Despite being wildly popular, Reddit is mentioned in mainstream media coverage only when its most controversial conversations boil over, as occurred in 2008, when a Reddit subpage (or subreddit) called “Jailbait” provided a platform for users to exchange child pornography. Following a public outcry, Reddit deleted the subreddit in 2011, as it did again when the public took notice of a subreddit about stalking women called “CreepShots.”
Still, misogyny and hate speech have continued to flow freely on the site. In an ugly masquerade of free speech, Reddit has hosted subreddits called “BeatingWomen,” “FatPeopleHate,” and “The Chimpire” (promoting racism). Most recently, a “Pizzagate” subreddit hosted conspiracy theorists claiming that Hillary Clinton ran a child pornography ring out of a pizza restaurant in Washington, DC. When a Reddit user armed with an AR-15 arrived at the establishment and started firing off rounds, the media finally, but only temporarily, took notice of Reddit’s role in the fake-news phenomenon.
Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian, for his part, doesn’t seem to spend much time worrying about the potential dangers posed by his website. When Ohanian delivered a keynote address at the popular SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, this year, he didn’t talk about the line between free speech and hate speech. Nor did he mention the infamous subreddit “The_Donald,” which has more than 300,000 registered users, and may have played a critical role in electing Donald Trump. Instead, he spoke about a subreddit called “Shitty Watercolour,” and he declared “pseudonymity” to be the hallmark of freedom and uncensored speech. During an “Ask Me Anything” session after his speech, Ohanian took no questions about Pizzagate, “The_Donald,” or hate speech.
To be sure, Reddit isn’t the only supporter of the kind of online anonymity that allows users to distribute hate speech and fake news without consequences. And there are those who worry that cleaning up Reddit will only drive the trolls underground to less public sites like Voat. But while other large online platforms such as Facebook are taking steps to address the problem, Reddit remains defiant.
Reddit’s relative immunity from criticism may help to explain its indifference. As a top-ten site for US web traffic, it acts as a major conduit for media outlets, which use it to increase their page views, and thus their advertising revenues.
Reddit itself is owned by some familiar names. Its single largest shareholder is Advance Publications, the parent company of Condé Nast; and its other investors include Marc Andreessen, Peter Thiel, Sam Altman, Ron Conway, Snoop Dogg, Jared Leto, and Josh Kushner, the brother of White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner. Sadly, none of these high-profile investors seems to have objected to Reddit’s hosting of subreddits called “WhiteNationalism,” “rapeisfun,” “BurningKids,” “cutefemalecorpses,” and so on.
Fake news is a symptom of a larger problem. With advertising revenues declining, media organizations are increasingly desperate for clicks. Most readers do not hesitate to share or re-tweet headlines that support their own biases and beliefs. And technology companies shrug and claim that they are “just a platform,” while they reap profits from the traffic that fake news brings in.
So, what can news consumers do to push back against fake news? For starters, we should be demanding that trusted media outlets avoid hosting their content on anonymous sites like Reddit. And we should apply more pressure on companies like Advance Publications to take responsibility for the sites they own and what happens there.
Above all, that means rolling back the culture of digital anonymity that facilitates hate speech and misinformation. Digital platforms should require those who espouse ideas and share information to sign their names to their output. Pseudonyms are for fiction writers.
Steven Rosenbaum is studying the fake news phenomenon as a member of the TED Residency in New York City. He is the author of Curation Nation, and the director of 7 Days in September, a documentary about the world after the attacks of September 11, 2001.