Monday, October 28, 2013

Reddit Politics Forum Announces Publisher Blacklist


By James Maynard Gelinas

This afternoon, the moderation team for the popular /r/politics subreddit announced a publication blacklist in a post published on October 28th.

Publications targeted for censorship include,  Alternet, Dailykos, Drudgereport, Heritage Foundation, Huffington Post, Motherjones, National Review, Reason Magazine, Salon Magazine, Thinkprogress, Twitter, Vice.com, and many many more. It's seemingly across the ideological spectrum and yet targets smaller independent outlets.

With over three million members, the Reddit Politics forum has significant audience share. To block an entire domain and publisher from submission access will have major economic repercussions for any publication on that list. It will also diminish public recognition of any news published at those sites, now denied access. And thus, the free flow of information is diminished.

Mod List Change on /r/politics
The big-daddy of link and content aggregation sites on the 'net, Reddit has tens of millions of users worldwide. The site bills itself as, "...a source for what's new and popular on the web. Users like you provide all of the content and decide, through voting, what's good and what's junk."

So it might interest many of these users to learn which sources the moderation team in Reddit's politics subreddit have sidelined by blacklist. And in so doing, to disenfranchise those users from their supposed vote. It might also surprise the community that what these moderators have blacklisted are some of the most well recognized publishers of political journalism on the web.

The change began about two weeks ago when site administrators replaced many of the old politics mod team by a large number of new moderators. From that point forward, the new mod team took drastic measures to change subreddit policy by fiat.

Moderators behind this policy shift stated:

We have identified one of three recurring problems with the newly disallowed domains:

  • Blogspam
  • Sensationalism 
  • Low Quality Posts

They offer details to these definitions. To summarize the first two, Blogspam refers to a blog or web site that quotes large amounts of text from another publication without offering significant content, analysis, or secondary sources. Sensationalism is as they interpret the word. But the third reason, low quality posts, offers significant insight into the purpose behind their blacklist policy.

The third major problem is pretty simple to understand, though it is easily the most subjective: the domain provides lots of bad journalism to the sub. Bad journalism most regularly happens when the verification of claims made by a particular article is almost impossible. Bad journalism, especially when not critically evaluated, leads to lots of circlejerking and low-quality content that we want to discourage. Domains with a history of producing a lot of bad journalism, then, are no longer allowed. [emphases added]
All of which might seem reasonable until one digs into the details of which sites were banned. Most remarkably, Mother Jones is on that list. A publication that directly impacted the 2012 Presidential election by publishing hidden video of candidate Mitt Romney making disparaging statements about those '47% of the population' who he thought probably wouldn't vote for him anyway.  As a result, their reporting shifted the electoral landscape and severely diminished Romney's chances of winning that election. The series won author David Corn and Motherjones a Polk Award for investigative journalism.

One editor for Mother Jones, who identified himself as Nick Baumann when I contacted him and gave approval for the release of his name, wrote about the then unofficial ban on Mother Jones submissions in the Reddit Journalism forum.

Hey folks. I'm an editor at Mother Jones and a long-time redditor. I'm disappointed, but not entirely surprised, by this decision. I like to believe that readers (especially redditors) are smart enough to read a bunch of different sources and make up their minds about what's true. News outlets should ultimately be judged by whether the stories they report turn out to be correct—i.e., whether they are accurate. A healthy r/politics community would be one that downvotes inaccurate or misleading stories and upvotes accurate ones, not a sub that bans entire domains (except for domains that focus entirely on making things up, like the Onion or whatever). A clarifying example here might be the Economist. Anyone who reads the Economist presumably understands that it has a libertarian point of view. But there's not a ton of wailing and gnashing of teeth about it because everyone assumes that the readers are smart enough to separate the facts from how the paper sees them. If r/politics community members are having trouble separating op-ed pieces from news reporting, that's too bad. But that doesn't mean essential work from great reporters (to pick someone on the other side of the ideological spectrum) such as National Review's Robert Costa should be banned from the sub. Just an unfortunate decision, and a slippery slope, too. All reporters make decisions that are affected by their personal biases—who to call, what to cover, whom to trust. Is the sub going to start taking seriously the complaints of conservatives who think the New York Times or the Guardian have too much of an agenda? What about liberal complaints about Fox News? Where does this end?

Which prompted an interesting response by user townsley to that self-proclaimed MJ editor. He offered an interesting perspective for context:

Unfortunately, /r/politics has extremely weak moderation right now and one moderator in particular (/u/theredditpope) combined with some hardcore conservatives (and other complacent and inactive mods) to make sure that redditors won't see reporting like this on mass shootings in America.

This was a huge win for the hardcore right - good investigative fact based journalism has repeatedly been damaging to the right on reddit. It is really important for them - and now /u/theredditpope apparently - that they don't allow redditors access to a factual catalogue of shootings as a part of their political discussion.

In what world does this make sense in a sub called /r/politics? You got me.

But it's not just Mother Jones that's been affected. When one respondent asked for examples of sensationalism in Salon Magazine that prompted the banning, a moderator replied:

Sure thing. As soon as we finish our closer look into the domain. If you ask this time next week I'll be much better positioned to answer that question with specific examples and with what we decided to do with the domain after our closer examination.

I asked if that meant that the moderation team had banned the site without having completed a review of its content. To which another moderator replied simply, "No." There were no additional details provided.

A majority of comments from the community decried the decision, some some outliers supporting the ban. One comment indicative of popular opinion read:

You are trying to control the source and the free flow of information. Please stop it. Let us post the sources we see fit, then let the votes decide.

You guys are ruining /r/politics, quit trying to fix something that isn't broken. Also, the bannings are so arbitrary, RT is allowed but not MJ? Youtube takes of Alex Jones going crazy are just fine but actual journalism from Salon is not allowed.

Mother Jones broke the biggest story of the 2012 election and they are banned. Do you guys realize MJ has been around since 1976? Do you guys realize David Corn, who writes for Mother Jones, is an award winning journalist? It's like you guys made these bannings based on what 22 year olds think is cool. No historical knowledge at all.
I don't want to see anything banned, I'd like to put the blaze and the weekly standard up against MJ and Media Matters then see what happens.

Stop it mods, just stop it."

Another wrote:

Do you feel you may have gone to far in an attempt to be 'fair and balanced'?

The sites you have labelled as 'right wing' sites that you have banned are largely conspiracy sites (infowars) or sites that falsified news (briebart) while fox and russian propaganda papers are allowed.

While on the 'left wing' side you have banned actual papers, and domains that have won awards and broke large stories.

I see this as forcing a false sense of equality between the content of mother jones/huffington and infowars.

Are you attempting to shape the direction of this subreddit in a more conservative/libertarian direction?

A Moderator replied:

I and others have admitted that perhaps some of these bans are not necessary. We are engaged in an internal process to re-evaluate these domains (among which are salon, HuffPo, and several others that people have been mentioning).

It should also be said that we banned the NationalReview and Heritage.org as well. So it isn't true that we targetted only the silliest of right-wing material.

Which suggests the question: Why should a nonpartisan political forum ban any publication promoting serious public policy or journalism? Regardless of whether it comes from Heritage or Motherjones.

There were some users less concerned about the decision. One community member responded in support:

These rule changes only affect what is allowed to be posted, not discussed. The main backlash against the banned domain list stems from people thinking their favorite biased news sites are banned from discussion, when they are not.

The criteria the mods used for the banned domain list addresses the issue of biased posts, which start a discussion off with a heavy weight to one side or the other. Since a post title cannot be changed and it is the post's link that is the topic of discussion, any posts to a biased article or that have a sensationalist title can almost never lead to an equally weighted and completely open discussion.

Some might remember that three years ago on Digg, a then popular link aggregation site similar to Reddit, a conspiracy was revealed whereby a conservative group had colluded to censor content there.

The popular link-sharing website Digg is investigating claims that a group of the site's "influential conservative" members are systematically downgrading thousands of stories deemed to be "liberal".

Online magazine AlterNet claimed to have uncovered a group of Digg members – dubbed "Digg Patriots" – who have "censored hundreds of users, dozens of websites, and thousands of stories" from the site. Alternet alleged that the Digg Patriots, thought to number nearly 100 members, are "able to bury over 90% of articles by certain users and websites submitted within 1-3 hours".
Reddit user PinkSlimeIsPeople extracted a site submission graph from stattit.com, a statistics generation tool for reddit. A reply by OllieGarky noted an interesting trend:
Wow. Looks like those top domains that got banned are all left wing or left-leaning.
So this is an attempt to stop the promotion of left-wing content on Reddit.
Interesting.
As others noted, any conservative publication blacklisted would have had little traffic flow anyway. So while the policy might appear nonbiased in site selection, by user popularity and traffic flow one particular group of publications would appear targeted. I asked the moderators about this concern in a comment to the announcement. PoliticsMod, a new mod account apparently related to this new policy shift, replied:
Popular domains have been banned for two weeks now, and in that time traffic has only grown and our front page has become noticeably less sensational.

There's no proof yet that political censorship is the underlying motive behind these new policies in the Politics subreddit. But, given past history, that conservative activists might squelch serious journalism in an attempt to skew public opinion isn't just conspiracy theory. It's already happened before. Which means that fact based journalism could well be under threat in one of the most popular political forums on Reddit. A matter of significant concern for journalism and a free flow of information crucial to the general public.

One thing is clear, looking through the comments in their announcement a lot of very unhappy users have offered vociferous complaints. And further, that what questions posed to the mods that have not been responded to are more interesting than the ones they have answered.

UPDATE Nov 3rd, 2013:

I've created a video tl;dr (too long; didn't read) for anyone who might be interested in the subject but is too time constrained to read in depth. Enjoy!


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