Aimee Challenor's departure shows how cynically tech giants play all sides
The trouble began on Tuesday. In a reddit board devoted to UK Politics, r/ukpolitics, a user had linked to a Spectator article.
The article had been written by Julie Bindel, who, in little more than a glancing aside near the bottom of the piece, mentioned Aimee Challenor, a transgender woman and former Green Party activist.
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Challenor has an extraordinarily dark Wikipedia page, the most uncomfortable sections of which refer to her father’s conviction for child rape. In 2016, while Challenor was running for the deputy leadership of the Greens, she hired her father as her campaign manager — at the same time as he was on bail on 22 charges. This, a Green Party report later concluded, was a ‘major failure of safeguarding’. More recently, Challenor’s husband has posted erotic fiction online about children.
But Challenor now works for reddit — and the company has policies in place which are designed to prevent the brigading of its employees by angry site users. So the original poster was banned, and subsequent accounts which mentioned Challenor also found themselves nixed.
This entrained a kind of mass strike by the serfs of reddit, who keep the site ticking over with all their free content and free moderation. Suddenly, over a hundred subreddits had set themselves to ‘private’ (meaning no new users could access them).
Reddit climbed down. After a couple of earlier attempts at damage limitation, by last night, CEO Steve Huffman was forced to issue a statement that they would no longer be censoring the references. Apparently, it was an ‘automated bot’ that had tripped the initial bannings. And that ‘the employee in question is no longer employed by Reddit’. The statement also noted that the company failed to vet this background ‘before formally hiring her.’
All of which is a perfect picture of the present inanities of Silicon Valley.
Either the company knew who Challenor was, but didn’t wish to disbar an individual with such heavily protected characteristics. Or, an org whose data systems are so sophisticated they can delete hundreds of user accounts in real time on the basis of two words, can’t use Google. That a workplace with armies of HR staff, more money than God, operating at the sharp end of the culture wars, in litigious California, would not be running elementary background checks should surely be grounds for Huffman to tender his own resignation too.
Yet as the game is played, to please a user base with wings that support transgender rights and ones that bridle at limits on free speech, Huffman must now talk out of both sides of his mouth. To please one lobby, he is under pressure to hire people of transgender status and ‘prevent hate’. Yet on the other side, the instinctively libertarian side of reddit fought a famous culture war in 2016 over whether deleting subs like ‘r/jailbait’ (teen girls in sexualised poses) was a case of free speech martyrship.
In the end, he has insulted both sides. It was Challenor who spearheaded the deletion of some Gender Critical sub-reddits viewed as ‘anti-trans’, via an open letter to the company in 2020. That wave of mass-deletion has in turn re-shaped the moral landscape of the site, and tightened the ratchet on acceptable opinion. Not disagreeing with Challenor has seemingly been reddit policy for a while now. Yet Huffman was prepared to chuck his thought leader out on her ear the moment things got hot. This is what passes for values in the Valley.
Normally, social media can last out simply by playing all sides a bit. But when all of these conflicting rules directly come together in this case, the mealy mouthed morality of the new media CEO class begins to warp and fold under the pressure. Yet what else is there to do, except carry on, visibly bent, disfigured, incoherent, repugnant? This is what happens when you crowdsource your ethics.