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Reddit CEO Cracks Down on Abusive Content to Protect Users, Attract Advertisers

17 Nov 2017 11:00 am
By Lara O'Reilly 

Reddit made a name for itself as the self-proclaimed "front page of the internet," with user-generated forums that allow people to anonymously share everything from funny animal memes to conspiracy theories and edgy political opinions.

But the website -- the eighth-most trafficked in the world, according to website ranking firm Alexa -- has recently been ramping up its efforts to stamp out the darker fringe of the platform as it hopes to encourage users, publishers and advertisers it's a safe home for their content.

With the help of a recent round of funding, Reddit is increasing its investment in human content checkers, investigating whether Russian entities used its platform to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election and preparing a redesign that will, among other benefits, give more tools to its thousands of moderators to make their job of policing the site easier.

In an interview at the Web Summit trade show in Lisbon, Reddit co-founder and Chief Executive Steve Huffman said the violent clashes between white nationalists and protesters in Charlottesville, Va., in August were a wake-up call. A rallygoer plowed his car into a crowd of people demonstrating against the white nationalists, killing one woman and injuring 19 people.

Mr. Huffman and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian had both studied there at the University of Virginia in the early 2000s. "I grew up an hour away, so that's my home, and then we saw people on Reddit celebrating that violence and we were like, 'we can't, this is not acceptable, this is not who we are,'" Mr. Huffman said.

A few months later, Reddit updated its content policy to ban content that glorifies, incites or calls for violence against an individual, groups of people or animals, after noting that the previous rules had been too vague.

Reddit employs an "anti-evil team," whose job it is to help fight abuse on its platform. A forthcoming redesign of its desktop site, slated for the first quarter of next year, will make the site look more familiar with other social networks and will also include new tools for its many thousands of moderators, such as "bulk actions" to make the filtering of harmful content more efficient.

Reddit also has a business incentive to clean up its act: It needs to appeal to marketers -- and live up to its investor's expectations. In July, Reddit raised $200 million at a $1.8 billion valuation.

Reddit is hoping that its large, highly-engaged community of users that share their opinions honestly is an attractive offer to advertisers. The company is ramping up its ads sales efforts at a time when digital publishers are already struggling to compete with the advertising behemoths of Facebook and Google. Mr. Huffman didn't give specific numbers, but said Reddit's ad revenue had grown fivefold over the past two years, from a small base.

Rather than going toe-to-toe with a company like Facebook for its advertisers and go deep on "people-based targeting," Reddit wants to differentiate itself around interests and passions and with conversational ads. Reddit's users may be pseudonymous, unlike Facebook which encourages users to share their real identities, but Mr. Huffman says that has helped it build tight communities that allow people to be comfortable to be themselves.

"That's why we don't ask your gender, we don't ask your age," Mr. Huffman said. "That's not to say we won't someday, but I can guarantee you it'll never be required. I think people should be control of how much they share."

Meanwhile, Mr. Huffman said he and Reddit Chief Technology Officer Chris Slowe have also been "looking deeply" into whether Russian operatives may have used the platform to spread divisive messages in a bid to interfere with the 2016 U.S. election, as was found to have been the case on Facebook, Twitter and Google. Unlike those companies, Reddit hasn't been asked to present evidence to congressional committees, according to a Reddit spokeswoman.

"We have dug deep on Russia; we are continuing to do so," said Mr. Huffman. "We haven't found much, to be honest, but I wouldn't be so foolish to say it's not there, but perhaps we haven't found it yet."

Mr. Huffman believes the antidote to false information being spread online is ensuring people are better educated about how to fact-check information. For its part, Reddit is looking to ensure its front page listings surface both sides of a political argument, for example.

Earlier in 2016, the Bernie Sanders community was "completely dominating Reddit" and its voice was "much louder than the population size would warrant," Mr. Huffman said. When Mr. Sanders lost the democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton, that was replaced somewhat by "vociferous" Donald Trump supporters, he said. That led to Reddit making some technology changes to ensure its front page listings have diverse content and more accurately reflect the size of particular user bases.

Reddit has also been attempting to put technology to work to help stamp out bullying and harassment, an area that has long-plagued the site.

A year ago, 100% of the action Reddit took against harassment on the platform was reactive -- in response to a complaint from a user -- now, Mr. Huffman says, "over 60%" of its work is proactive, rooting out bad behavior early by using machine-learning algorithms to detect patterns of bad behavior.

Mr. Huffman says "things are getting better" in terms of the nature of positive discourse on Reddit, noting the fastest-growing community over the last year was the "/r/Wholesome Memes" subreddit.

"I think people are tired of being angry all the time," Mr. Huffman said. But, he added, "We still have a ways to go because the political climate sucks right now."

Write to Lara O'Reilly at lara.o'reilly@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 17, 2017 06:00 ET (11:00 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2017 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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