Reddit, a link-aggregating website that claims to be the “front page of the internet,” has turned into a hotbed for radicalization.
Reddit’s fundamental reliance on upvotes over an algorithm produces an unstable equilibrium in the hands of bad-faith moderators. This creates an incredible echo chamber made up of subreddits, which create groups of individuals who will gladly throw away their empathy as long as they view themselves as a “bastion of good” fighting those who are ontologically evil.
In some rare cases, these individuals reach beyond the keyboard and manifest this radicalization into action.
This article is meant to shed some light onto the unseen world of Reddit, where left-wing users are routinely goaded into increasingly concerning rhetoric and, sometimes, even violence.
How Reddit Works
To understand why Reddit is uniquely suited for this type of radicalization, you will need a basic understanding of how Reddit operates.
Unlike most social media platforms that utilize complex faceless algorithms to curate content for individuals, Reddit is far simpler. Users are given the ability to “upvote” and “downvote” content, which directly affects what other users see. Theoretically, this system produces a true marketplace of ideas, but there’s a catch.
Reddit relies heavily on more than 40,000 volunteer moderators to act as guide rails for subreddits, allowing good faith and positive discourse to flourish. However, Reddit’s moderators wield remarkable power and go largely unchecked, likely because the value these unpaid moderators bring to the platform makes them indispensable, no matter how Orwellian and drunk on power these moderators become. The free reign that moderators have over the site gives them inordinate power over the system.
Often moderators are not selected based on their ability to moderate but rather on their desire to moderate. Since these mods are volunteers, one of the biggest rewards for becoming a Reddit moderator is the power the mods wield.
The problem Reddit faces today is that many Reddit moderators are no longer interested in moderating speech. Instead, these activist moderators use their power to suppress the speech of dissenters, tumbling subreddits into radicalizing echo chambers. They achieve this by censoring and banning anyone who goes against the narrative. Want proof of the assertion Donald Trump hates black people? You’re banned. You refute the claim “genital Surgery is not performed on minors in the states”? You’re banned. Post a link to an Associated Press story about how “South Africa begins seizing white-owned farms“? You’re banned from ever posting in that subreddit again.
Who Uses Reddit?
Discourse on Reddit often quickly devolves into the kind of language that can encourage radicalization. Redditors can often be found using extreme language to attack and belittle their opponents. However, the most vile rhetoric often manifests itself in “safe-space” subreddits where their opponents are either unable or unwilling to retort. The pattern of comments often becomes detrimentally self-reinforcing, where Redditors are praised for doubling down and repeating increasingly radical ideas.
The lack of disagreement radicalized individuals on Reddit encounter means they often come to believe they are a bastion of virtue fighting against the predations of an ontologically evil opponent. This manifests itself in the wholesale hatred of entire groups such as the GOP, where accusations like “All Republicans are Fascists” are repeated dozens if not hundreds of times per day. These baseless accusations often receive hundreds or thousands of approving upvotes, boosting the message to the top of comment threads.
Another common result of residing in radicalizing echo chambers is that Redditors consistently perceive threats that are not actually there. For instance, claims of a “trans genocide” never hold up to academic scrutiny or official definitions of “genocide.” And Redditors are constantly concerned that Republicans, due to their religious nature, are “fundamentally theocratic” or worse, they are “Christofascists.” To say that Redditors frequently demonstrate fundamental misunderstandings of Republicans and conservatives would be a monumental understatement.
And in an environment where extremism is unchallenged, misinformation is the bread and butter of the so-called “free-thinking, high IQ” individuals on Reddit. Redditors will frequently misconstrue the truth in order to conflate individuals and ideologies that are not actually linked. It then becomes a game of tenuously tying those two ideologies together via mental gymnastics and repeated lies.
A very common example of this is accusing Republicans of being Nazis, and the idea that “when someone from the left calls someone a fascist, they are more than often not” seems to be one that many at Reddit take seriously. Indeed, in addition to Republicans, here is a list of things Redditors have accused of being fascist: Andrew Yang, Joe Biden, voting, people who don’t like pit bulls, J.R.R. Tolkien, people who don’t like Antifa, anyone who thinks Kyle Rittenhouse is innocent, the Supreme Court, Second Amendment supporters, Christians, Chik-fil-A, the American flag, pro-lifers, neo-liberals, Twitter parody accounts, people born in 1988, and Florida. This could all be written off as absurd if Redditors didn’t frequently advocate violence against and express hatred toward so-called fascists without repercussions.
Along these lines, another common tactic is amplifying the actions of a small portion of a group to demonize the entire group. For example, when one individual does something heinous, such as one lawmaker in Florida making a ridiculous bill “outlawing Democrats” — technically, the bill outlawed any party that had formerly supported slavery — many Redditors condemned Ron DeSantis for it, despite DeSantis publicly disavowing it.
A License to Hate
Redditors are, just like most social media users, highly motivated to oppose things they see as evil. This motivation, coupled with moderators permitting ontological hatred of an entire group of people, is what gives Redditors an excuse to go on the offensive without pesky restrictions such as “empathy” and “respect.” Once this “license to hate” takes hold of a subreddit, it will begin to spiral into ever-increasing hateful discourse.
This process is initiated when moderators, rather than moderating the speech of a subreddit, decide that hateful rhetoric against certain “out groups” is acceptable and even praiseworthy. This suggestion of ontological evil is often the core foundation of radicalization on Reddit. The manifestation of this can be seen in subreddits such as r/WhitePeopleTwitter, r/196, r/MurderedByWords, and many other “non-political” subreddits that have become highly politicized as their moderators have decided that speech against “fascism” (which is merely speech against any conservative) is wholly justified.
Users of these subreddits will often get showered with upvotes for making absurd claims like “The GOP are all fascist traitors” that quickly devolve into people advocating for violence against any and all individuals on the political right. In that situation, moderators are often the only thing capable of preventing a politicized subreddit from spiraling into insanity.
Unfortunately, moderators willing to hold the line on civil discourse are few and far between on Reddit. When moderators release restrictions on speech based on the aforementioned ontological evils projected onto enemies (e.g., “kill all fascists”), the community begins its descent into chaotic vitriol:
This often comes along with crackdowns against dissenting opinions. Often mods will put their foot down and make broad sweeping statements about “not tolerating nazis” and then ban individuals who, for instance, have any activity in r/Conservative because “All Conservatives are Nazis.”
This intolerance of opposing views, driven by the agenda of moderators, is resulting in the death of subreddits and a cooling of speech on the platform. One such example of this is the subreddit r/JusticeServed. Activist mods of the subreddit used an automated tool to systematically ban users who had any participation in subreddits like r/Conservative. The result of these ban waves was the rapid stagnation of a multimillion-subscriber subreddit.
What’s more, the administrators of Reddit apparently support this insane automatic banning process. Recently, when a few confused members of r/Conservative posted the messages they received showing they had been banned from participating in r/JusticeServed, the moderators of r/Conservative got a stern warning from Reddit administrators warning them against “ban showboating.” Needless to say, left-wing subreddits have not been given the same warnings.
Mods that use mass-banning systems are creating giant rifts in user overlap that both hurt communities on Reddit and damage the site’s retention of users and reputation as a whole.
Herman Cain Award
Redditors are champing at the proverbial bit to have a justification to become engulfed in hatred. One of the most prominent examples of how enticing this “license to hate” is for Redditors can most clearly be seen in the meteoric rise of the hate subreddit r/HermanCainAward.
Herman Cain was a 2012 presidential candidate. During the beginning of the pandemic, he publicly denied the severity of Covid-19, which would ultimately take his life in July. In August 2020, a month after his death, his Twitter account posted this: “It looks like the virus is not as deadly as the mainstream media first made it out to be.”
This quickly entrenched Herman Cain as the poster child for individuals who denied the severity of Covid or refused the vaccine and eventually succumbed to the disease.
The subreddit r/HermanCainAward was launched just three weeks later, but it would rise in popularity in the fall and winter of 2021. What resulted was one of the most grotesque displays of widespread hatred for humanity ever orchestrated on Reddit.
The format of the subreddit was simple. Find an individual (usually from Facebook) who had succumbed to the virus and then find posts from that same person downplaying the danger of the pandemic or refusing a vaccine. You then post a timeline of their death to Reddit and, like roaches to a sewer, the worst of Reddit crawled into the comments to jeer and laugh at the demise of these individuals.
While reveling in the death of people is egregious in itself, some users would regularly take this one step further. In the early days of the subreddit, before it was a requirement to censor names and faces, Redditors would often track down the Facebook account itself and harass the grieving family members.
More than 500,000 Redditors would eventually subscribe to the subreddit that gave them a license to hate. The subreddit was so bad that even liberal corporate media outlets felt they had to condemn it.
Fomenting Violence and Terror Recruitment
When these Reddit echo chambers encourage extremism and allow misinformation to flourish, the threats perceived by the individual members of these Reddit communities are portrayed as imminent and dire. This means these threats demand quick, decisive action. After steeping themselves in rhetoric like this, there is only one conclusion that can logically be drawn by many of the Reddit radicals — violence is justified. Indeed, If you truly believed there was an active genocide going on against trans people perpetrated by “Literal Nazis,” wouldn’t you do anything you could to stop it?
In the spring of 2022, when the draft opinion about Roe v. Wade leaked, r/196 — a left-leaning chaotic meme subreddit — became a hotbed for radicalizing threats, with users posting the addresses and making blatant threats against the Supreme Court on a very regular basis. This included posting the home addresses of justices alongside information on how to make Molotov cocktails, repeatedly issuing bomb threats, and other general terroristic threats. Only in the most egregious cases did the r/196 moderators step in to curtail the unruly crowd.
In one notable case, a Redditor was contacted by the Department of Homeland Security for threats he or she had made on Reddit toward SCOTUS. And Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s would-be assassin, a man by the name of Nicholas Roske, was actively looking for affirmation as he suggested assassinating the justice on a subreddit known as r/TwoXChromosomes. He laid out his initial intention on Reddit before he was arrested near Kavanaugh’s house with a Glock, zip ties, a tactical knife, pepper spray, a hammer, a screwdriver, a nail punch, a crowbar, and duct tape.
Naturally, Antifa has found Reddit instrumental in rallying radicalized individuals to its cause. Reddit has thoroughly spread Antifa’s violent ideology, which, again, effectively states that there is no middle ground: Everyone that disagrees with Antifa is a fascist who doesn’t deserve rights or basic protections such as free speech, and any violence committed against these literal Nazis is self-defense, even if you’re the aggressor.
After a user has been successfully steeped in such rhetoric, Reddit provides a gateway for Redditors to turn their anger into violent activism. Subreddits like r/AntifascistsOfReddit give users explicit guides for how users can cover their tracks and hide from scrutiny. (This is often referred to as OPSEC, or “operational security.”)
Antifa’s OPSEC and non-hierarchical organizing structure often make it hard to directly connect violence to the influence of the organization. It should come as no surprise then that Redditors are being arrested for violence connected to Antifa causes. Samuel Fowlkes, one of the Antifa members arrested in April for attacking protesters at a drag show in Texas, had an extensive history on Reddit. His posts and comments demonstrate just how instrumental Reddit was in his radicalization. Kyle Tornow, a man who threatened to blow up a Portland police station during the civil unrest in 2020, also had a history on Reddit.
And while perhaps he wasn’t as far-left as Antifa, it’s worth noting the account of the man behind the recent mass shooting in Louisville, Kentucky, was also found on Reddit. His account regularly espoused left-wing views.
Breaking the Cycle
For the most part, Redditors don’t expand their hate beyond the reach of their keyboards. However, it should also come as no surprise that some Redditors decide to take the logical conclusions of the narratives they’re spoon-fed into real life. By now, Reddit has a well-established history of being used by these violent activists to attempt to get advice, suggestions, or praise for carrying out violent acts against other individuals.
That history is as extensive or more extensive than many other social media sites that have been relentlessly called out for violence and disinformation. And yet, the media and the rapidly increasing number of “disinformation” groups have given Reddit radicalization hardly any attention. It appears they only regard violent rhetoric as a problem when it can be connected to right-leaning politics. If concern about violent rhetoric were applied fairly, there would be a deafening chorus from the media and Big Disinformation demanding accountability at Reddit.
Reddit has taken action in the past. Just a few weeks after the Jan. 6 riot, Reddit banned the “The_Donald” subreddit for harassment and targeting at the same time it also banned the raucous left-wing “ChapoTrapHouse” subreddit for similar reasons. However, Jan. 6 produced a censorious hysteria among media companies and Big Tech, and given the rhetoric and out-of-control subreddits that have flourished on the site since then, there’s little evidence Reddit management still cares about these issues.
Fixing Reddit would mean some pretty fundamental changes to how the site operates, particularly holding moderators accountable. Moderators are the only individuals who really have the power to break this cycle of escalating rhetoric and violence. Redditors as a group have demonstrated they’re incapable of self-moderation. Activist moderators need to be scrutinized and potentially have their privileges revoked. There should be increased moderator transparency.
Moderators, not the site’s owners and administrators, are who ultimately control the platform, and Reddit is going to pay for it dearly. Reddit is subject to the whims of unpaid moderators who have extreme control over the speech on the platform. Until that’s fixed, Reddit will remain a hotbed of radicalization and is likely to be associated with more violence in the future.