Reddit (sorta) censors Atheism

The Atheism subreddit has been deliberately excluded from appearing on the front page and the default choices for Reddit. Unfortunately, the excuses given don’t convince.

How the Reddit bar looks like after the change in the algorithm
How the Reddit bar looks like after the change in the algorithm

Well, this is disappointing. It seems that Reddit has decided to practically hide the Atheism subreddit from public view. I may be posting late about this, since other have already started covering this controversy, but I might as well throw my two cents for all it’s worth.

Initially I noticed this yesterday night when rumors of this started popping up all over atheism. Initially it looked like a conspiracy theory but very soon the facts of the matter started coming up through investigation by redditors. Soon after, as the facts could not be denied anymore, an official explanation was posted. Needless to say, it failed to convince.

As other noticed as well, the argument is pretty weak. The reddit admins don’t think that Atheism is legitimately on the top and thus instead of fixing their algorithms, they decided to hide it instead. Now except from the fact that this looks very much like a quickly cooked up explanation, it does also raise the question of why this impression was had by the admins. The official take is that the Atheism reddit is not really so popular because of its controversy it rises to the top unfairly”. Which immediately raises the question “Why is this unfair? Why is the old algorithm deemed wrong just because it managed to reward controversial reddits with more popularity?”.

I don’t think an easy answer can be given to this, as it will be simply based on the developer’s perspective, which then as others pointed out as well, makes it a de-facto censorship. If the developers don’t believe that Atheism deserves to be on the top, then any way they modify the algorithm for choosing the top reddits will be deemed bad unless it can push Atheism down. That is, the measure of success depends on /r/Atheism not being on the top!

Nevertheless, although we can speculate on the developer’s motives, a charitable interpretation demands that we consider that it is, in fact, their site and their design, and as such they get to decide what makes a good algorithm. However there are still some unanswered questions.

First a modification is exactly what has happened. The algorithm was modified accordingly and Atheism was pushed down to the 16th position. However the deliberate exclusion of Atheism from the front page and from the top-bar selection of subreddits (visible to unsubscribed users) is still a concern as it points to the possibility that Atheism is still being deliberately excluded even when the algorithm puts it outside the front page. If the concern was simply about the trolling going on when an article from Atheism hit the front page, then why is this necessary?

Personally, even though I am not a big fan of /r/Atheism, mostly because my sentiments on it are similar to this guy, and even though I consider the whole ordeal a tad overblown, I have still removed reddit from my adblock whitelist as a minor sign of protest and I’ve messaged the admins with my disappointment of their handling of this situation.

I believe things would have been far better if the admins had posted in the subreddit with the problem they face, why this is, what they were thinking of doing and asking for feedback. They would then have immediately seen the feelings of the community, how popular or not it would be and most certain of all, they would have avoided all this controversy and negativity which is the explicit result of them changing things under the table without telling anyone.

Such an act starts to raise questions about motives and honesty on the part of the reddit admins, something which can be lethal to a site which is practically run by their community and thus based on the community’s explicit trust that they are not being manipulated for commercial or political purposes. Signs of underhanded tactics like this, done without informing anyone harm this and as such harm reddit itself. Which other reddits are being hidden under the table? Which other opinions are not considered “popular” enough to deserve the spotlight as already implemented? Will the algorithm be modified again if a marginal reddit like Anarchism suddenly rises in popularity and ideas the owners don’t espouse start being promoted to the front? Probably not, but the acts of the admins have put such uncomfortable questions on the table.

This is in fact a great sample to show how authoritarian decisions by those who are considered an enlightened minority (ie those who are assumed to know what is best for everyone) can diverge with a very considerable number of those they are deciding for. The backlash is only so large in reddit (as opposed to dictatorships or republics) because of its democratic nature and community participation but the same rules apply to all such authoritarian decisions. Most, if not all of this would have been avoided if the decision had been taken with the participation of the community they decide for. Not only that, but the solution implemented would have possibly been far better.

As it is now, I can only hope that the reddit admins have learned a lesson, even though their current actions don’t point to that direction. At best, next time they decide to modify their code with such an explicit purpose in mind they will inform and consult with the communities affected. At worst they will keep in mind that doing such acts in secret can backfire and possibly invoke the Streisand Effect.

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12 thoughts on “Reddit (sorta) censors Atheism”

  1. I don’t think you’re looking at this correctly.

    The main issue is that the current algorithm at reddit takes what are basically spam downvotes as legitimate activity, and because of that the atheism reddit seems more popular than it really is.

    From my understanding of what spez was saying, any new algorithm will not, as you say, be judged by whether or not /r/atheism/ is popular, but whether or not is treats down vote spam as legitimate activity.

    Because of your mistake here, the rest of this post is pretty much useless.

    The fact of the matter is that some people on reddit, when they find something they don’t like, downvote absolutely *everything* related to it. We see it in unpopular comments, where not only the comment is downvoted, but every other comment that person makes is downvoted, regardless of content.

    People downvoting every story on the /r/atheism (or upvoting for that matter) is *not* legitimate activity, and is not a good metric for such. It does not gauge true controversy, but the reactionary actions of a few idiots are really are trying to censor the sub-reddit.

    Reddit is not the bad guy in this. Reddit is taking the responsible action, and a new popularity algorithm that ignores spammed downvotes will be better for the entire site, including /r/atheism.

    1. I actually know the reason for which reddit acted like this but you seem to have failed to understand what my point was. It was not that reddit's activity was not worthwhile. It was not that Atheism deserves to be on the top 10. It's the fact that this was done under the table, without informing everyone, initially based on an code jury-rig which sorta solved the problem as the devs considered it. It's also the fact that even after the algorithm was modified Atheism is still excluded from the top-bar which means that the exclusion filter has not been removed. It's also that the devs are not being open on where the problem is and so we're left at simply taking their words for it. For example showing us how many downvotes Atheism is receiving and how many of these are considered spamming would go a long way to make people understand.

      and this:

      Because of your mistake here, the rest of this post is pretty much useless.

      is borderline insulting, especially since it's based on not understanding my point.

      1. It's on the top bar now, at ranking 15. /r/christianity suddenly MAGICALLY got promoted to eleven.

        I like your username btw. 🙂

  2. I reread spez's post to make sure about this. He's not claiming the problem has been fixed. In fact, the very last sentence in his post is talking about specifically that: they're going to fix it, it's not fixed yet. I took this to mean the new algorithm hasn't even been installed, so at this point, I don't see what the problem is with having /r/atheism excluded.

    I guess my over-arching point is that to jump to the conclusion that /atheism/ is being at least partially censored, or that the reddit admins are acting out of some sort of malice.

    In your original post you're drawing conclusions like "That is, the measure of success depends on /r/Atheism not being on the top!" This is completely unsupported by the information we have now. Okay, so you want more facts about the type and magnitude of vote spamming going on. I don't have any problem with that. I just think it's unreasonable to jump to the conclusions you have based on the information we have.

    1. You must then not have followed my links because it's been noticed that the algorithm has been modified already and Atheism is not on the top. Most people would be fine with that, even if generally annoyed at the way this whole thing has been handled (which was a large part of my point) but the problem is that it seems as if it's still being deliberately excluded from the top-bar, even if it deserves to be there by the new algorithm and to claim that Atheism with at least a solid 1/3 of populace of reddit doesn't deserve to be on the top 25 reddits is ridiculous. As such this is not jumping to conclusions but is based on solid investigation by reddit atheists who start to be a little more suspicious.

      This is completely unsupported by the information we have now.

      Untrue, the argument from the reddit admins is that they do not think that Atheism deserves to be on the top 10 based on the "activity" it gets. As such any algorithm they design to fix this can't by definition of this belief put Atheism in the top 10. It's can very well be argued that the kind of activity makes a reddit be considered "active" is up to the admins and that's perfectly ok but one can't avoid pointing out the potential flaw in this logic

      1. You're making the assumption that their ideas about the activity specifically in /atheism/ is going to influence any future algorithms. This seems to be an unreasonable step to me.

        It seems their main issue is the downvote spamming, and any new algorithms are going to be addressing that problem, not aimed at keeping /atheism/ out of he top 10. /atheism/ might not be in the top ten under a new algorithm, but that is a side effect of addressing the root problem, not the result of an action taken directly against the sub-reddit itself.

        You're treating spez's statement as something set into stone – that is, since he doesn't think that /atheism/ deserves to be in the top 10 based on the activity it gets, he's going to insure that it's not there. This is what they've done in the short term, but as he himself says, they're still working on the problem. The way it reads to me is that once they get an algorithm that better calculates popularity and solves the downvote spamming problem, they're going to remove any manual filters, and /atheism/ will be able to stand on it's own once again. I don't see a problem with that at all, if that's the case.

        1. And as I said I don't have a lot of problem with that either as much as I have with the way this has been handled but the motives of the admins do need to (and should be) be called in question when they say stuff like

          We hope there is a place for everyone on reddit, and we also hope you realize not everything found on reddit is appropriate for the front page

          which in the context of the current controversy raises a lot of eyebrows. In short the difference between our two perspectives is that in light of their behaviour, I'm inclined to not immediately assume benign motives and start to question more. And I think that healthy for the community of reddit.

          1. I see the context of that quote is that he's talking about the entire reddit community. The idea that some things on reddit are not appropriate for the front page is nothing new. Anything requiring age verification is already excluded, for example.

            I agree that it is a concern that this attitude could be applied to /atheism/ specifically.

  3. Why don’t you give a try to It’s a not-for-profit fully democratic self-regulatory information sharing community. It works through a mixture of direct and representative democratic processes.

    The friends system, community tagging and elected moderators(severely limited in power and their actions can be “overturned” by the community) ensure that the place doesn't turn into a mess and stays interesting for everyone.

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