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How Reddit avoids content moderation woes of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube

Melody Hahm
Senior Writer

Content moderation is the issue that won’t go away for YouTube (GOOG), Facebook (FB) and Twitter (TWTR). As the social media juggernauts face harsher and harsher scrutiny and pressure to police the billions of posts on their sites, smaller players are keeping close watch of the regulatory action.

Hate speech, conspiracy theories, and bad content have proliferated on Reddit since the site was founded 14 years ago. It has a massive reach of 330 million monthly active users yet manages to stay out of the intense spotlight shining on its publicly traded competitors. While the tech giants have been called to testify in congressional hearings about hate speech and white nationalism, Reddit has mostly stayed out of the consciousness of regulators.

“It's a 14-year-old company that's had years in there that were kind of wild. And it's taken since [founder and current CEO] Steve [Huffman] came back in 2015-2016, we've been on a very, very good path,” said COO Jen Wong in an interview with Yahoo Finance’s Breakouts last week.

Despite a lot of scrubbing, bad actors remain rampant on Reddit. Most recently, Philadelphia news anchor Karen Hepp sued Facebook and Reddit, among other platforms, for a photo from a convenience store captured on a security camera that's now being used in dating and erectile dysfunction ads.

When asked how the site can ensure that Reddit doesn’t house such content, Wong echoed the go-to talking point the tech industry has been using — the community has a certain level of responsibility.

Reddit Content Policy (Reddit)

“We take a different approach than any other platform, and we're pretty unique. Our approach is layered moderation, and this is something that I think is getting better all the time. At the base of it, Reddit, Inc. writes policies and rules — think of it as the federal government — and enforces those rules. We build tools to enforce those rules, and that's the layer that actually builds tools for our communities, as well,” she said.

“The second piece that's really unique to Reddit is community. So every community has human moderators. It has its own rules. Think of it as, like, states' rights that sit on top of the federal government. They provide moderation for the content, and what that does is it means that we have joint responsibility for the health and safety and the vibrancy of Reddit. And they share the burden, and they write their rules, and they police their own rules, and we give them tools to do that. So it's very unique how we approach it, but the concept is that we share the burden with the community. And what that allows for is for them to have nuance in what the rules are. We don't adjudicate all the rules. The communities in their contexts can set rules and adjudicate and apply, and we can too, and we do that together. And it's very different,” she said.

‘Wow, they’re really, really strict’

Wong cited a personal example of how the collective Reddit community served as a gatekeeper.

“I had hyperpigmentation in my skin, and I was, like, what is going on? I took a picture of it, and I posted it in [subreddit] Skincare Addiction because I was, like, ‘OK, these people are skin mavens.’ They're gonna tell me what's wrong with my skin. The moderator responded and said, ‘Hey, you know, we don't feel comfortable putting this post in Skincare Addiction because we're not doctors.’”

“Wow, they're really, really strict. And I think that's mostly what happens on Reddit. Those rules are there for a reason, for the communities to keep themselves on topic and police themselves. And I think that was right, and that's actually pretty illustrative of what those rules can do,” she noted.

Reddit is often seen as a freewheeling blog where its anonymous users can say whatever they please, but Wong claims otherwise.

“A lot of people believe that anonymity breeds bad behavior. And what I've observed is that anonymity actually makes people incredibly human and connect. By being anonymous, we are able to transcend who we are and connect on a very human level. People are sending each other medical beds and getting doctors to look at, like, people's medical files to help them through kind of disease conditions. They're helping people get out of, like, $100,000 of debt by going into extreme detail about how to refinance their credit cards,” she said.

Jen Wong visits Yahoo Breakouts at SubCulture on Sept. 25 2019 in New York. (Photos by Gino DePinto)

Still, Wong has not been in talks with regulators and tries to create a healthy distance from the likes of Facebook. This is possible given Reddit’s relatively small share of digital ad pie — though Wong says revenue has been doubling year-over-year. Though the company doesn’t publicly disclose financials, eMarketer predicts revenue will exceed $100 million this year. For fiscal year 2018, Twitter’s revenue topped $3 billion and Facebook made $55 billion on the top line.

“As a platform, you're in the dialogue. We're big, so we're important and significant. But from a business size, we're small from that perspective. The dialogue that we have — and a lot of this is public dialogue — what we try to get out is that platforms are really different. They're just very different than each other, and they can't be treated as one size fits all. What’s very important in all the dialogues and the concerns that people have is to just keep in mind that platforms are actually all different animals.”

For now, Reddit has the privilege of setting its own guidelines and parameters, but if its larger players are any indication of its future challenges, that may no longer be a choice.

Melody Hahm is a senior correspondent at Yahoo Finance, covering entrepreneurship, technology and culture. She also hosts Breakouts, an interview series featuring up-close and intimate conversations with today’s most innovative business leaders. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm.

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