Programming note: The Interface is off Thursday. Back on Monday.
Should Reddit pay its volunteer moderators? The thought had not really occurred to me until last week, when I joined a call with CEO Steve Huffman and his general counsel, Benjamin Lee. The executives were briefing me and some other reporters about a significant expansion of the site’s content moderation policies, which were unveiled on Monday and resulted in the removal of 2,000 subreddits, including the notorious forum for hate speech The_Donald.
Reddit’s content moderation scheme differs sharply from the Facebook News Feed or the Twitter timeline. Instead of applying one set of rules for the entire user base, Reddit sets a “floor” of rules that no one can violate but allows individual forums (called subreddits) to raise the “ceiling.” (I wrote about this approach here last month.) This helps create a collective context for discussions, and allows users who have similar values to come together in a shared space online. It’s why I can go to my favorite subreddit, which covers the world of professional wrestling, and find an incredible assortment of relevant stories, pictures, and discussions every day. But it also works only because of the moderators who volunteer to enforce a subreddit’s rules from floor to ceiling — and those moderators are totally unpaid.
In describing how his thinking on the subject had evolved, Huffman said he had been moved by moderators’ stories about their struggles to keep discussions civil. It’s a truism of life online that every forum eventually descends into drama, and keeping participants from flaming one another requires constant, even heroic vigilance. But the moderators themselves often become collateral damage, Reddit executives said.
“To me personally, what was the most heartbreaking was listening to moderators, who would talk about getting these crazy death threats,” Lee said. “And they would say something like, ‘oh, but I understand that that’s protected as a matter of free speech.’ And my first reaction is, oh my God, that’s not true! The first amendment does not protect that! … There’s a disconnect there — the fact that they could on any level believe that the law, let alone our policies, don’t protect them is a fail. And it’s a fail we need to fix.”
One way you can address this policy is rolling out new rules that more expressly prohibit hate speech, as Reddit did this week. But if you’re the sort of person who thinks of content moderators as first responders — people whose work is more in line with a police officer or a firefighter than it is typically given credit for — you might not think that’s enough. There are a lot of jobs you can do for which you will not routinely be subjected to death threats; moderating a web forum is not one of them.
If that’s the case, isn’t the least Reddit could do to pay these moderators?
Reddit is a 15-year-old company with a fairly complicated corporate history involving a sale, a spinout, and a new life as an old startup. The company sells premium memberships and advertising. According to TechCrunch, it has more monthly active users than Twitter, is valued at $3 billion, and last December was on track to earn $267.1 million in 2021.
I asked Huffman and Lee whether the moderators who keep all those subreddits humming didn’t deserve something beyond an update to the content policy — and didn’t quite get an answer.
“The mods — and there are many thousands of them — are are a critical part of this equation,” Huffman told me. “The message that we’re trying to convey … is, we can do much more to support you. The mods — the value that they get out of this, or at least what they want to get out of this, is in being leaders of these communities, and creating a space for their passions. And them having to put up with a bunch of garbage to do so is not fair.”
Huffman said that “how our relationship with them evolves over time may be a topic for a different conversation [about] how Reddit the platform evolves.” But he suggested the company might revisit the question over the next few years.
“The policies are just the first step in the journey and that partnership with the mods,” Lee added. “There’s a whole bunch of other things we are both looking at and thinking about in terms of supporting them, including product improvements.”
Policy updates and product improvements are great. But I suspect that, for a lot of moderators, cash would go a lot further.
The Facebook ad boycott continues. On Wednesday, ads from 400 brands disappeared from Facebook and Instagram, Reuters reported. The coalition of civil rights groups that is leading the boycott has meetings planned with company executives, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has agreed to join. Most of the biggest advertisers are not yet participating. But more are pulling their ads each day.
Nick Clegg, the company’s head of policy and communications, put up a blog post making the case that Facebook does a pretty good job of removing hate speech:
“More than 100 billion messages are sent on our services every day. That’s all of us, talking to each other, sharing our lives, our opinions, our hopes and our experiences. In all of those billions of interactions a tiny fraction are hateful. When we find hateful posts on Facebook and Instagram, we take a zero tolerance approach and remove them. […]
Unfortunately, zero tolerance doesn’t mean zero incidences. With so much content posted every day, rooting out the hate is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
I continue to be rather cynical about the motives of the brands here, for reasons I laid out on Monday. But I’d note that Clegg’s post reinforces a point I made then: what has been presented as being primarily a story about policy and enforcement is actually a story about Facebook’s size. A company that hosts 100 billion messages a day is a company that is going to host a lot of hate speech, period.
If advertisers sincerely wanted to address Facebook’s hate speech problem, they would start there. But the whole appeal of Facebook to them is its vast reach. So I’m not holding my breath.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
Trending down: Facebook mistakenly shared some users’ personal data with outside developers for a longer period of time than promised. The error represents a breach in the policies the social network implemented following the Cambridge Analytica scandal. (Kurt Wagner / Bloomberg)
Trending down: Zoom missed its own deadline on releasing a transparency report that will tell the public how many government demands for user data it has received. The report was supposed to come out on June 30th. Zoom hasn’t given a firm new date for releasing the figures. (Zack Whittaker / TechCrunch)
⭐ Apple CEO Tim Cook has agreed to testify in the House antitrust investigation. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Google CEO Sundar Pichai already committed to testify. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is also reportedly on board; the hearing is expected to take place later this month. Here’s Mikey Campbell at Apple Insider:
The House Antitrust Subcommittee last year announced a bipartisan investigation into “platform gatekeepers” and “dominant” tech firms. Apple is being scrutinized for its App Store business, so-called “Sherlocking” of third-party apps and systematic removal of parental control apps.
While Bezos, Pichai and Zuckerberg each signaled intent to participate in the House inquiry last month, Apple remained mum on Cook’s potential involvement.
In a recent interview with Bloomberg, Cicilline said he expected the executives to offer testimony on their own accord, but cautioned the committee would issue subpoenas if needed.
UK regulators released a report saying that Google’s deal with Apple to be the default search engine on Safari creates “a significant barrier to entry and expansion” for Google’s competitors. Apple received the majority of the $1.5 billion that Google paid to be the default search engine on a variety of devices in the UK in 2019. (Stephen Nellis / Reuters)
Starting Wednesday, California will begin enforcing its digital privacy law. Tech business groups have been calling for the state to hold off on enforcement because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Privacy waits for no disease! (Rachel Lerman / The Washington Post)
Facebook plans to ask the Supreme Court to rule that tracking web users via the “Like” button doesn’t violate the federal wiretap law. The news comes after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to revisit its earlier ruling that Facebook’s alleged tracking may have violated a federal law restricting the interception of online communications. (Wendy Davis / Media Post)
Google threatened to cut off European publishers from a lucrative flow of ads if they followed through with a plan to curb the company’s data collection practices. Publishers had expected to use new data privacy measures to bar Google from storing insights about readers. (Paresh Dave / Reuters)
Rockland County plans to use subpoenas to investigate a new cluster of COVID-19 cases tied to a large party earlier this month, given by someone who knew they had symptoms. The county initially tried to use contact tracers to investigate the event, but found people wouldn’t cooperate. Yikes. (NBC New York)
Detroit’s City Council delayed a vote on whether or not to extend a controversial contract with DataWorks for facial recognition services. Activists and community organizers say they’re doing everything they can to swing the vote against extending the contract. (Alfred Ng / CNET)
Researchers found links between malicious software and groups connected to China’s government, pointing to a hacking campaign that targeted China’s Muslim Uighur population. The campaign dates back to 2013. (Paul Mozur and Nicole Perlroth / The New York Times)
⭐ Google is pushing back its plans to reopen US offices after coronavirus cases started to surge. All US offices will remain closed until September 7th at the earliest. Does anyone believe Googlers are actually going back to work in September? I don’t. Here’s Gerrit De Vynck at Bloomberg:
COVID-19 is spreading fast again in the U.S., prompting some states to reverse earlier decisions to relax lockdowns. California, where Google is based, reported its second-biggest jump in new cases on Tuesday.
“While conditions do vary from state to state, we need to see that the U.S. outlook as a whole is stable before we move forward,” Chris Rackow, vice president of global security, wrote in the memo. “As the recent resurgence of cases demonstrates, Covid-19 is still very much alive in our communities.” Bloomberg News obtained a copy of the memo.
Twitch broke another viewership record in the second quarter of 2020. The company saw a massive 62.7 percent increase in hours watched from Q1, to reach 5 billion hours in Q2. (Sarah Perez / TechCrunch)
MIT took offline a highly cited dataset that trained AI systems to potentially describe people using racist, misogynistic, and other problematic terms. The institute also urged developers to stop using the training library, and to delete any copies. (Katyanna Quach / The Register)
Reporters have feelings about working with Facebook’s vast public-relations apparatus. I’ve had my ups and downs with that crew — the most notable down serves as the lead anecdote in this story — but I’d add that it has changed significantly for the better over the past four years. Generally these days I find Facebook PR to be fast, responsive, and truthful. And for all that this story has to say about secrecy, I’d note that Facebook has done more of its work in public in 2020 than any other company we regularly write about here. Its CEO has had multiple press conferences during the pandemic. Why hasn’t that been true of Apple, or Google, or Amazon, or Twitter? (Jacob Silverman / Columbia Journalism Review)
Facebook’s chief AI scientist Yann LeCun announced he was going to stop tweeting after getting involved in a long and often acrimonious dispute regarding racial biases in AI. The Twitter feud saw LeCun run afoul of what he termed “the linguistic codes of modern social justice.” (Synced)
Facebook has a new proof-of-concept virtual reality headset that looks like a pair of large sunglasses. It’s billing the new device not as a pair of augmented reality glasses but a legitimate VR product. (Jay Peters / The Verge)
A venture capital firm started by Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin raised $820 million for its second fund focused on investing in startups. Saverin said it’s important for the startups to have an impact on society and to think beyond their business model. Whatever! (Katie Roof / Bloomberg)
Facebook is shutting down Hobbi, an experimental app that allows people to organize photos of personal projects in a visual diary of sorts. The app just launched in February. (Sarah Perez / TechCrunch)
WhatsApp announced a collection of new features, including QR codes that can be used to quickly add new contacts and animated stickers. The features already existed in beta versions of WhatsApp, but now they’re official. (Jon Porter / The Verge)
Claudia Conway, the daughter of White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, has a significant following on TikTok — where she posts anti-Trump and pro-Black Lives Matter videos. Her mother has asked her to delete her TikTok videos. Relatable! (Connor Perrett / Business Insider)
Things to do
Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.
Read a message from your university’s vice president of magical thinking. A good bit of satire about reopening colleges from Juliana Gray at McSweeney’s. “Our university has always valued creative problem-solving,” she writes, “so we have posted NO COVID-19 ALLOWED PAST THIS POINT signs on the doors of every campus building. Plus, to show how seriously we take the situation, the signs have been laminated.”
Put the Peloton app on your Roku TV. It exists now! A happy day in my house.
Congratulations to everyone for making it through the easy half of 2020.
— Travis View (@travis_view) July 1, 2020
i hate when mfs come in the crib and don’t speak to the dogs. say hi to coco bitch.
— manito (@azarosito) June 26, 2020
I let so many people live in my head rent free because housing is a human right and as long as i have space i will do my part to open my doors for friends and enemies alike, beckoning in a more equitable future rooted in community. And also because I have a mood disorder
— sio (@bestinsio) June 22, 2020