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Reddit says it won’t force subreddits back open (but will it?)

Reddit says it won’t force subreddits back open (but will it?)

Reddit is pledging it will respect the subreddit blackout where thousands of subreddits are currently staying dark — but it’s not clear the company actually will.

“We are not shutting down discussions or unilaterally reopening communities,” reads a line from a “Reddit API Fact Sheet” that the company shared with The Verge alongside our full Reddit CEO interview.

But that word “unilaterally” may be doing a awful lot of work — because Reddit has apparently given itself a framework and justification to eject the moderators who support a blackout, replacing them with those who would re-open the sub.

On Reddit, the ModCodeofConduct account has informed moderators that it will replace inactive moderators with active ones, even if they all agree to “stop moderating”:

If a moderator team unanimously decides to stop moderating, we will invite new, active moderators to keep these spaces open and accessible to users. If there is no consensus, but at least one mod who wants to keep the community going, we will respect their decisions and remove those who no longer want to moderate from the mod team.

That Reddit admin suggests that it breaks Rule 4 of Reddit’s Moderator Code of Conduct and is nothing new — even though Rule 4 says nothing of the sort. You can read it for yourself:

Here’s a screenshot of Rule 4 as of June 15th, 2023.
Screenshot by Sean Hollister / The Verge.

We asked Reddit spokesperson Tim Rathschmidt: Does this post mean that, for a subreddit that has gone dark as part of the protests, Reddit can decide to replace the mods of that subbreddit due to infractions of the Mod Code of Conduct? For example, could Reddit argue that mods of subreddits that have gone dark are in violation of Rule 4?

The first part of his reply: “Yes, that would be in violation of rule 4 in the CoC.”

Rathschmidt writes that “this isn’t new, and isn’t something that was only activated for our current situation,” suggesting that the admin account in question has a history with the rule that you can look up. So far, paging through that history, I’m seeing the account dealing with subreddits that had been totally abandoned or moderators who were unreachable, not active moderators taking their subreddit private with the support (or even lack of support) of their community.

And again, there’s nothing in Rule 4 about this situation, though Reddit certainly has the right to do whatever it wants with its platform.

I ask Rathschmidt to confirm: “Yes, Reddit does believe that a team of moderators who take their subreddit dark in protest are in violation of the Mod Code of Conduct and can/should be replaced?”

He replies: “No, I’ve said previously this has nothing to do with a protest. It’s about if they violate the Code of Conduct, not what causes it.”

I don’t know how to interpret that, or his other replies explaining that the current actions might be a pastiche of interpretations of different rules instead of just Rule 4 — but it all makes me wonder if the conspiracy theorists among us were correct.

Paging through various subreddit threads ahead of the blackout, it was pretty common to find Redditors suggesting Huffman would simply purge the moderators from its most popular subreddits and force them back open. There were even allegations that it had already happened to r/AdviceAnimals and r/tumblr, but I originally wrote it off as the moderator drama that happens on Reddit from time to time.

In our interview, Huffman told us that he sees Reddit as a “democratic living organism created by its users.”

“Every once in a while in cities, there’s a protest. And I think that’s what we’re seeing exactly right now. We, even in disagreement, we appreciate that users can care enough to protest on Reddit can protest on Reddit and then our platform is really resilient enough to survive these things,” he told my colleague Jay Peters.

“Dissent, debate, and discussions are foundational parts of Reddit. We respect our communities’ ability to protest as long as mods follow our Moderator Code of Conduct,” reads another part of the fact sheet.

But Reddit has apparently decided this form of protest does not follow the rules, may be grounds for a moderator purge — and may not even be the only way Reddit ejects moderators who participated in the protest.

NBC News writes that Huffman “plans to institute rules changes that would allow Reddit users to vote out moderators who have overseen the protest, comparing them to a ‘landed gentry.’” and suggesting the moderators weren’t following the will of their users.

That does seem like a possibility, but it reminds me of when Elon Musk suggested that verifying notable people on Twitter created a “lords and peasants” system just because Twitter needed a new revenue stream.

While many subreddits are still dark, Reddit writes that over 80 percent of its top 5,000 communities (by daily active users) are open, “and we expect this to continue.”

Here’s our full interview with Reddit CEO Steve Huffman.

Update, 7:31PM ET: Added that the mod code of conduct rule could serve as a pretext to force open a subreddit.

Update, 9:39PM ET: Changed hed because the situation appears to evolving.

Update, 10:40PM ET: Post rewritten to reflect the current situation.

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