Turning Hate On The Internet Into Humor

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Escape From Destruction (u/Ocomum)
Escape From Destruction (u/Ocomum)

Editor's note: This episode and article has some extra explicit language and deals with subjects that may be offensive. 

Let's take a stroll down memory lane to the early days of the Internet. You know, the "information superhighway." The "World Wide Web."

Ah, the heady days of the 1990s, when the internet was pure and good. Let us fast forward to 2018, when the most popular imagery regarding the internet seems to be a dumpster. On fire.

A dumpster fire or the internet in 2018?
A dumpster fire or the internet in 2018?

There are a lot of dumpster fires on the internet, and you don't have to look too hard to find them. If you want to fight with someone about a topic, or get depressed about the state of humanity today, it is out there, with one click of a mouse.

Reddit is no exception. If we pretend like Reddit doesn't have its own dumpster fires, says Ben, we wouldn't be doing our job, which is to find all kinds of good stories on Reddit. Some of those good stories are about dumpster fires, but also about the people trying to put them out. People... like Brad.

Brad moderates a handful of subreddits, and I promise if you click on these they are extremely safe for work, even though it doesn't seem like it.

"Some of the subreddits that I've taken over are fat pussy, pocket pussy, wet pussy ...." says Brad.

There's a lot more, but I think you get the gist. If you were too nervous to click on those links, don't worry. They're literally all pictures of cats.

Brad is part of an elite super fighting squad (my words) of Redditors "taking over" offensive subreddits. They're stealthy. They swoop in when a subreddit goes dormant and submit a request to Reddit administrators to take it over. Or they befriend the mods and wait for them to get banned from Reddit, one-by-one, for bad behavior until the squad member has full ownership of the subreddit.

Here's another example — r/faggots is not what you think it is. It's about faggots... aka, bundles of sticks. Or cigarettes, if you're from the UK.

It's run by u/drewiepoodle, a transwoman and Redditor who does the same thing Brad does — take over offensive subreddits and turn them into something funny.

"There's a small window where there's a chance for you to actually step in and, if you have a good idea, use your troll power for good and not evil," she says. "What better way to troll the trolls than to actually take over those subs that they use for hate."

Penny, aka u/BardFinn, is another member of this crew.

"Every hate group, every fascist movement, they all tend to gravitate around a narrative that they have a purpose, and that, by doing these things, they're fulfilling this mythical purpose," she says. "And the very best thing you can do is to puncture their balloon. Show how they’re ridiculous, show how their funny, lampoon them. Do exactly what Mel Brooks did with Hitler in 'The Producers'."

There is a small, but committed, group of Redditors at the other end of the spectrum, who think throwing out the bigots, homophobes and misogynists is going too far. And that, the more that Reddit administrators facilitate these takeovers, the more they are endorsing a certain set of beliefs, while depriving others of a platform for human discourse.

But many would argue that allowing that bigoted, hateful speech isn't helpful for human discourse and, perhaps, makes discourse more difficult.

Like all the internet’s big platforms, this conversation is complicated for Reddit. Because the site really is built around this idea that it’s run by, and for, Redditors. Communities self-police through moderators, and Redditors upvote the content they like so that it's seen by more users.

But Reddit does have pretty explicit rules of the road when it comes to behavior, and they have people constantly working to enforce those rules. Things like, don’t post sexual content related to minors. Don’t sell and buy illegal stuff on Reddit. Don’t post someone else’s personal information. Don’t break the law. There are also rules against harassment, and against glorifying and inciting violence.

Some of the moderators performing these subreddits takeovers have been doxxed, meaning they've had their personal information — where they live, work, etc. — revealed on Reddit. u/drewiepoodle has received all sorts of heinous messages, including death threats. But she's not letting that stop her.

"Conversation is always good, right? I would like to sit down with people who are open to it — who say, 'I have been taught this hate, but you seem like a decent person. Tell me more.' I would love to have conversations like that, but a lot of the times, it's not [like that]. The trolls want to be trolls, and the trolls want to hate because it makes them feel good, putting other people down. So, talking only goes so far with these people. But you just have to keep trying."

Thanks to artist u/Ocomum for this week's artwork.

We're on Twitter at @endless_thread and on Reddit as /u/endless_thread. Subscribe to the podcast with Apple PodcastsStitcherRadioPublic or RSS.

Headshot of Meghan B. Kelly

Meghan B. Kelly Multi-platform Editor
Meghan is the multi-platform editor for WBUR.



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