The impact of social media and online communities on politics was one of the hottest topics of 2017. Thanks to an election upset (to put it mildly!) and stories about Russian trolls or Macedonian click-farms, plenty of hands were wrung as the CEOs of Facebook and Twitter took it in turns to pass the buck elsewhere.
But in recent interview with the New Yorker, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman took things in a very different direction. “I’m confident that Reddit could sway elections,” Huffman told reporter Andrew Marantz. “We wouldn’t do it, of course. And I don’t know how many times we could get away with it. But, if we really wanted to, I’m sure Reddit could have swayed at least this election, this once.”
Marantz’s article is a rare behind-the-scenes look at how large social media companies view their increasingly important role as the platforms for online discourse. Huffman’s comments on how Reddit could fix an election are shocking and egotistical, for sure, but they also admit something that most other social media companies have shied away from. Facebook and Twitter are loathe to acknowledge the power that their policies have, while Huffman thinks so highly of his company that he believes a handful of engineers and community managers could sway an entire nation’s political system.
Huffman’s explanation of whether he sees Reddit as the dog or the tail is particularly enlightening:
“I go back and forth on whether Reddit is the tail or the dog. I think it’s a bit of both.” First, he laid out the tail hypothesis: “Reddit is a reflection of reality. People are enthusiastic about Bernie or Trump in real life, so they go on Reddit and talk about how much they like Bernie or Trump. So far, so good.” Then he laid out the dog hypothesis, which his fellow social-media executives almost never acknowledge—that reality is also a reflection of social media. “All sorts of weird things can happen online,” he said. “Imagine I post a joke where the point is to be offensive—like, to imply, ‘This is something that a racist person would say’—but you misread the context and think, ‘Yeah, that racist guy has a good point.’ That kind of dynamic, I think, explains a lot of what happened on The_Donald, at least in the early days—someone keeps pushing a joke or a meme to see how far they can take it, and the answer turns out to be Pretty fucking far.”
Between the interview with Huffman and a behind-the-scenes look at the day Reddit banned hundreds of hate subs and rolled out a new content policy in one go, it’s a very honest and candid look at how one tech company is dealing with its place in the world.