Reddit: a breeding ground for toxic techno-cultures

Why are there so many toxic techno-cultures on Reddit, and why hasn't it been stopped yet?

Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

If you’ve ever used the internet or read the news, you’ve probably already heard of Reddit. It was created by two University students in 2005 as an “online bulletin board for the web”, a simple discussion board where people could talk openly about their interests (Kemeny, 2020). Now, 15 years later, in todays ever more digital world its importance has grown exponentially in the discussion of socio-political topics around the world. Its no wonder it has become such an influential force – now being the 5th most visited site in the US, with over 430 million monthly users, more than 130,000 communities and a whopping 30 billion monthly views (as of 4th December 2019). (Homepage – Reddit, 2020) With this great influence comes great responsibility, yet it seems that Reddit somewhat neglects this responsibility as conveyed by many controversies involving the popular forum site over the years, with examples of doxing, racism, sexism and extremist beliefs going unchecked. (Massanari, 2017)

The reddit community has always been “a fierce defender of rights, from free speech to net neutrality” (Anderson, 2015)

This makes it extremely difficult to crack down on this damaging behaviour, and being a platform where each subreddit (a particular topic or group within the site) is independently moderated, with a mostly hands-off moderation policy, its no wonder its become a place in which toxic techno-cultures thrive, further exacerbating its socio-political complications. (Massanari, 2017)

The Birth of Subreddits

Reddit began as a simple forum, in which people would post singular posts invoking discussions and comments below. There were no closed groups, and the forum was more generally moderated. Then the first subreddit was created – r/nsfw – as a way to take pornographic content away from the first page, this was followed by the creation of r/science, r/programming and r/politics so that there was more separation to these given interests. The community called for a way for an easier division of interests, subsequently in 2008 the community was now able to create their own subreddits. (Kemeny, 2020)

With subreddits becoming a crucial function to the platform, the site was no longer a “dedicated gateway to the Web” but had transformed into an “increasingly self-referential community that focuses on and reinforces its own user-generated image- and textual content over external sources.” (Singer, 2014)

These subreddits became increasingly more self-sustained, with their own specific rules and “submission ethics”. These subreddits became much more diverse, with many users participating in the subreddits of their interest, allowing them to submerse themselves with other like-minded individuals who would both agree with and support the majority of their opinions. (Singer, 2014)

This move towards subreddits had the ability to create a greater sense of community, with users making meaningful connections and finding places to dwell in their interests and the things they cared most about, making a positive change to their lives. If there wasn’t already a subreddit that suited your specific interest, you could even create your own subreddit in which you could create your own community. (Anderson, 2015) On the other side, this amazing sense of community and belonging also gave way to a much darker side of the platform, in which the same function that gave people a sense of belonging, also allowed users with extremist beliefs to find like minded individuals – within a space moderated by those like minded individuals, cultivating toxic environments rampant with sexism, racism, antisemitism and many negative extremist values. These toxic communities are cultivated as a result of the technological affordances and platform politics of Reddit. (Massanari, 2017)

A Platform Supporting Toxic Communities

The complications with the platform are not just a result of the platform’s community, but it is an integral part of their business model. (see figure below) Within Reddit’s value propositions is that people are able to speak their mind and decide the topics they want to talk about. Free speech is intrinsic to the platform. The utilisation of self-governed communities and users as moderators is also a core part of the platforms functions. (The Business Model of Reddit, 2020)

Reddits Business Model. Retrieved from:

Recently Reddit has had to take action in regards to the subreddits that were being moderated by some of its members, as the moderators were either passive towards, or even actively supporting their specific subreddits that participated in toxic behaviors such as doxing, leaking nudes, supporting white supremacy and actively dehumanising minorities. In many cases, Reddit took action only after being called out by mainstream media, causing doubt as to whether the company was genuinely concerned with these ongoings, or whether it was just a result of their user moderated structure. (Gillespie, 2018)

With one of their main value propositions being that users can speak their mind, much of the community holds free speech very highly. They hope that the idea of an open web would allow for new “opportunities for knowledge and sociality”, with information available to the public without intervention or moderation by publishers and broadcasters of mainstream media. (Gillespie, 2018) This pursuit of truth is worshipped by the community, with Reddit even being the first site to suggest a blackout in protest to the internet censorship bills SOPA and PIPA in 2012. (Anderson, 2015) Many users hoped that this move towards community sourced information and free speech would be “more egalitarian, more global, more creative, and more inclusive”, contributing to a more community based, fair and truthful culture. (Gillespie, 2018)

Despite these good intentions around free speech and a self regulated community, rather than a move towards a more free and truthful world, this allowance of free speech and a self-regulated community serves as a nexus in which toxic techno-cultures flourish. (Massanari, 2017)

Extremists, Terrorism, and the Alt-Right

“Over the past few years, new ideological movements like the Alt-Right have captured the attention and concern of both mainstream media, policy makers, and scholars alike,”(Grover and Mark, 2019) with right wing extremists using platforms such as Reddit as a method of recruiting and convincing others in their radical ways. Reddit has gained a lot of negative attention in the press for this in many instances. Both #Gamergate, The Fappening and the r/incels group being prime examples of this. (Massanari, 2017) Many of these toxic communities are still active in Reddit, with articles such as “Here Are Reddit’s Whiniest, Most Low-Key Toxic Subreddits” (Caffier, 2017) being written to highlight just how many toxic communities there still are.

One of Reddit’s CEO’s – Steve Huffman – disclosed that “obvious open racism, including slurs” were not against the rules of Reddit. He then elaborated by saying “On Reddit, the way in which we think about speech is to separate behavior from beliefs. This means on Reddit there will be people with beliefs different from your own, sometimes extremely so. When users actions conflict with our content policies, we take action.”(Statt, 2018)

Not only this, but over the past ten years, instances of violent extremism and terrorism across the world have more than doubled, and the number of  fatalities from acts of terrorism have nearly tripled (Roser et. al, 2018), as a result of our more connected world, it is much easier to find people with extremist view, and convert those who are not already of that view. Reddit has played a crucial part in this, with extremists finding solace in groups within the platform. Some Reddit groups play such a key role in this, that one particular Reddit group – r/incels – has been added to the RCMP terrorism awareness guide, as is “an example of ideologically motivated violent extremism”. (Bell, 2020)

Reddit is also the perfect platform for your everyday troll or cyberbully. With its ability to remain anonymous people feel safe behind the comfort of their own screen. The platform does very little to monitor the subreddits and leaves it to the specific subreddit’s moderators. (Anderson, 2015).

“Toxic techno-cultures have always thrived in an environment of little accountability, anonymity, and the increased globalisation enabled by online technologies” (Bernstein et al., 2011), so it’s no wonder that Reddit, with its self regulated community, ability for anonymity, and its relationship with free speech – is a hub in which toxic techno-cultures thrive.

Reddit and Mainstream Media

Reddit, along with 4chan and twitter can be seen to have a lot of impact on our mainstream media as well. Information is often posted in some of these groups, hashtags or forums, and when it becomes popular enough through upvotes or a similar system, it gains the attention on many mainstream media outlets. “These smaller, fringe communities on Reddit and 4chan serve as an incubation chamber for a lot of information.” With many topics originating from these platforms, there is no question to their influence on our modern information ecosystem. (Zannettou et. al, 2017)

With such a great influence on our modern information ecosystem, you would think that they would have a higher focus on dealing with misinformation and hate speech, yet the platform remains to be community moderated with loose guidelines around what is generally unacceptable across the entire platform.

Reddit Ecosystem

The Reddit Ecosystem

Reddit’s influence can be seen in the figure above, with most of its content coming from its users experiences, opinions, and the media they consume outside of reddit. Being a self moderated platform, there is little influence from outside sources on moderation. Reddit’s CEO’s and creators do define the overall platform rules, although even they have their own political views and standings that flow onto the general workings of the platform, such as their stand on free speech as discussed earlier. Through little moderation and self-sustaining subreddits, these users opinions and experiences often go un-edited, and eventually make their way to the mainstream media, where they are either criticised for their standpoint, or conveyed as news about the socio-political ongoings of our online world.


Through Reddit’s structure, company decisions and community, it is both a place for self expression and a strong sense of community yet also a place for bullying and a toxic techno-culture. The aspects of the platform that give it such value such as subreddits, self moderation and free speech are simultaneously its greatest downfalls. Much like our society outside of the internet, there are groups of people who find solace in their communities of like-minded individuals – but with the allowances of the internet it has become of a much larger scale with a much greater impact on the socio-political world.

The problems with Reddit are much more complex than simply getting rid of certain functions or imposing specific rules. Within the platform, these toxic techno-cultures are supported by its very structure, making it impossible to implement considerable change without changing the platform completely.



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