A New Era of American Internet Censorship

Following Reddit's purge of over 2000 'subs,' or online communities, Twitter appears to censor viral, anti-corporate content

On Monday, as rumored in a post which appeared the night before, Reddit expanded its rules and rolled out its largest ever ban wave, removing thousands of subreddits from its site at once, many on the pretense of promoting hate. While censorship has been an observed phenomenon on Reddit for years, it had neither been exercised on such a scale nor been so unprompted.

Of those banned, the largest name in the headlines appears to be r/The_Donald, a stronghold of Trump’s online base which once toted hundreds of thousands of users, offering sanctuary to racist, nationalistic, and Islamophobic sentiments while strictly enforcing pro-Trump ones. However, following the subreddit’s quarantine by Reddit admins about a year ago which prevented any of its content from appearing on Reddit’s de facto main page, r/all, the once-reviled sub had seen a marked decline in use. Over the past year or so, many of its users were rumored to have migrated to a different site promoted by r/The_Donald’s admins, (thedonald(dot)win if you really want to do it to yourself, I’m not actually linking it) and plenty still appear in slightly lower profile right-wing subs, such as r/conservative or r/trump, both of which are still alive and well. That all goes to say, the highest-profile ban was largely symbolic.

The other prominent subreddit affected by the ban wave was r/ChapoTrapHouse, named for a left-wing podcast with which the community was seldom ever concerned. Featuring some 150,000 subscribers, the subreddit, much like r/The_Donald, had also been placed under quarantine last summer. As long as I ever knew it, content on the sub consisted mostly of leftists of varied backgrounds shitposting, making fun of reactionaries, and calling each other liberals. The community was vociferously anti-bigoted, and would often harass users who were seen engaging in any type of bigotry regardless of which subreddit they were posting in, frequently drawing the ire of Reddit’s admins.

In the few years I was a user of r/ChapoTrapHouse, I certainly saw posts or comments praising what Mao did to landlords, or suggesting you should punch Nazis, or proclaiming slave owners deserved death, but as far as posing any threat of real-life violence it was nothing remotely on the scale of The_Donald’s repeated, years-long harassment of, threats toward, or execution fantasies concerning say, Ilhan Omar, need I mention Hillary. (Note: I saw many of these posts as they were brought to light in watchdog communities. It seems now that Reddit has banned r/The_Donald, the original posts are unavailable even through archive links, so my word, and the hundreds of posts and reactions by other users accessible at the links above, will have to suffice as evidence of the claim.)

On a fun note, one notable mention from Reddit’s ban wave, curiously, is r/BigChungus, a community devoted to memes featuring a portly Bugs Bunny.

Meanwhile, just a few hours ago on Twitter, a viral tweet criticizing Gilead (seriously read it, it’s great) which had nearly 30,000 retweets and over 60,000 favorites was removed with essentially no explanation, along with all of the subtweets providing sources for the tweet’s claims.

It is the dawn of a new era in American internet censorship.

What were once whispers, theories, feelings, quiet understandings, or conspiracies for tinfoil-hat internet sleuths have appeared as an in-your-face reality, overnight. No longer do social media companies merely curate content toward an individual’s likes or interests, they are now removing content which their corporate financiers dislike, and they’re no longer trying to hide it.

We can’t trust our government, we can’t trust our news media, and now, we may quickly arrive at a place where we can’t even trust our social media not to censor individual content. We may quickly see the open, horizontal communication on which the internet was built become constrained, free speech rendered null by the corporations who own the platforms. I’d even argue it makes sense to think we will. After all, large social media companies are fundamentally the same as major news networks, relying on revenue provided by advertisers rather than from the pockets of their users, and who wants to associate with the website known for housing people with fringe politics? It’s why tumblr, which used to be rife with adult content, banned porn. Social media sites simply remove content that companies deem unsavory to keep those ad dollars flowing.

In my mind, all of this occurs within the context of Reddit and Twitter as two of the biggest online hubs for American political conversations and news. They’re the two main places I’ve gotten my non-traditional or perhaps off-the-air content and historical education over the past few years, whether it’s a video of the latest incident of police brutality, links to the Wikipedia articles on the Dakota War of 1862 or Fred Hampton’s murder, or a Latin American journalist’s account alleging the American-backed coup in Bolivia long before it was admitted in the New York Times earlier this month. These sites, if you know to use them, can truly offer unique perceptions of the world we live in.

But I doubt that will be the case much longer. Under capitalism, everything must grow, and for a massive social media website to grow, it will inevitably have to moderate, censor, and ultimately remove fringe content.

As per Amazon, which now hosts nearly 6% of all websites, Reddit is the 18th most popular website in the United States, bigger than Netflix or Zoom. As of April 16th, Twitter was the 40th.

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