Welcome to Voat: Reddit killer, troll haven, and the strange face of internet free speech

Can anti-censorship bring a community together?

Reddit’s refugees are, by some accounts, the worst of an already bad lot. They’re the people who deride any hint of anti-racism or anti-sexism as “social justice warrior” (or SJW) antics, believe that surreptitiously creepshotting teenage girls is a heroic use of free speech, and leave a site because banning five harassing boards with names like /r/FatPeopleHate is an unspeakable act of oppression. And there’s one place that will take them in.

That place is called Voat, and the day I create my account, one of its more popular boards is dedicated to introductions. Almost every submission, including mine, draws at least a couple of friendly, welcoming comments. For a site that grew partly because people wanted the right to say the most vile things possible, its users are often polite and thoughtful, at least by internet forum standards.

Some people want Voat to be a reset button, as Reddit was to Digg years ago. But to a casual visitor, the distinguishing features are its small-town feel, the relative ease of mocking the obese, and the volume of threads complaining about Reddit. And only the first of those things is conducive to a lasting community. For all the anger and betrayal that Voat members feel toward Reddit, hoping it crashes and burns right now might be the most counter-productive thing they could want.

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Image credit: Sento / Flickr

Voat, which launched under the name WhoaVerse in 2014, isn’t a direct Reddit clone. But besides the nomenclature ("voat" instead of "vote," "subverse" instead of "subreddit"), its differences appear mostly under the skin. Unlike Reddit, which obscures exact vote numbers to thwart spambots, Voat supposedly lists raw numbers. Moderators can run a limited number of subverses, making it harder for any single user to gain outsized influence. Users’ voting powers are limited until they’ve accrued a certain amount of positive feedback. There’s a nebulous plan for sharing revenue with users, and a greater focus on privacy. And you can theoretically make a subverse about anything, as long as it’s legal in the site's home base of Switzerland. Voat did not respond to a request for comment; its site suggests there’s a substantial email queue.

At the height of June's anti-Reddit rage, Voat’s two-person team said they’d had 700,000 unique visitors over the course of a month, and at times they’ve struggled to keep the site running at all. At least some of this influx is from subreddits like Fat People Hate, which has reconstituted itself with 18,700 subscribers on Voat. More visibly, there are subverse equivalents to Reddit’s most popular communities, including "Ask Me Anything" — though it has around 30,000 subscribers instead of the original’s 8.5 million.

The site’s devotees frequently cite its founding principle as the reason they made the switch; the FAQ says "our policy is to not meddle and not censor content unless said content is illegal." Reddit’s interim CEO Ellen Pao has said administrators only ban groups for harassing people outside their subreddit, not expressing themselves. But some people interpreted the decision as advertiser-friendly whitewashing and a slippery slope. Or, as one Voat user put it, "censorship at Reddit is getting out of control." The recent blackout protest hasn’t improved the situation.

At times, Voat’s free speech absolutism can sound like a red herring. While there’s no harassment policy, the user agreement appears copied almost word for word from Reddit: no sensitive personal information, no inciting harm, no sexualized pictures of minors, among other things. People praise Voat’s policies in the abstract, but they often sound more enthusiastic about having a small, personal version of Reddit that hasn’t yet settled into memes or a central ethos.

"I feel like I can speak my mind before getting swarmed by other people like angry bees," one user wrote when I asked for impressions of the site. "People on this site act more like people and talk like they're talking to other people in real life." This may be more the mark of a new community than the result of radical openness — I heard people say similar things after leaving open platform Twitter for the decidedly cloistered Ello. But depending on how broad your definition is, it’s also a reflection of the internet’s conflicted relationship with free speech.

In a 2010 report, EFF activist Jillian York warned of censorship in the "quasi-public sphere," a series of commercial platforms that have increasingly centralized the internet. York’s biggest example at the time was Facebook. "Whereas a user who wants to express unpopular ideas in a blog has the option to move to an alternative platform or host his own content, a user of Facebook cannot simply take his network elsewhere," she wrote.

While Reddit is no Facebook, it’s become a go-to substitute for privately hosted forums. In an email to The Verge, York described it as a tricky thing to categorize. "Like Facebook and Twitter, it has for years proclaimed itself a place for free speech, which is one of my criteria for when a platform is ‘too big to censor,’" she says. As she notes, Reddit has always let individual moderators strictly regulate their own subreddits, but she finds its policies about banning subreddits wholesale inconsistent. "As a corporation, Reddit is doing a poor job of defining boundaries, which makes me think it should perhaps not do so at all, and leave it to mods as it has always done."

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Image credit: Fdecomite / Flickr

One of Reddit’s problems is that it’s set up as a central community, not just a series of discrete groups; it’s hard to keep a wall between a pro-racist forum and an anti-racist one. Another is that Reddit has always retained power to ban people who manipulate votes or reveal personal information about another user, which can be a tricky question in its own right. And a third is that internet censorship has come to describe a state of mind more than an act. Members of the reactionary r/KotakuInAction board used the term to condemn individual subreddits that didn’t want to host Gamergate-related discussions — something that’s generally fine by Reddit. Closing comments on YouTube videos or private news sites (including The Verge) has been described as censorship. So have Twitter block lists, which people can voluntarily join to stop seeing messages from certain users.

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it," a quote usually misattributed to Voltaire, makes periodic appearances on Voat. But the right to speak is becoming less important than the right to be listened to or engaged with. The reductio ad absurdum of this is a user arguing that voting itself is a tool for "the retarded masses" to censor dissent. "Reddit and Voat can't be a place where free speech exists as long as that arrow exists," he wrote. But voting does not remove posts or comments. It sorts them, so the lowest-rated material drifts to the bottom. Is making something less prominent censorship? If so, other members censored his post enthusiastically.

To a less extreme extent, Voat’s general anti-censorship policy gets conflated with escaping an ideological Reddit "hivemind," or applied to moderators who want to shape the tone of individual groups. At worst, there’s little sense of the difference between tolerating something and celebrating it. When a banned subreddit migrated to Voat, it was met with "I hate racism — but I think I hate censorship more... thank you for existing /v/niggers." Or, when one user complained about far-right trolls invading subverses: "/pol/ [the group in question] is a little fucked up, yeah. They have some Nazis, yeah, I don't like that. But they aren't censorious, and they aren't SJWs, and they welcome a good argument." Which might make people who delete subreddits worse than Hitler.

At these moments, Voat draws comparisons to 8chan, another "free speech-friendly" version of a larger platform. 8chan, which grew after informal message board 4chan banned discussion of Gamergate, is also the great hope of people too terrible for an already legendarily offensive community. But unlike 8chan, Voat hasn’t tied itself explicitly to a movement like Gamergate. Nor have its administrators very publicly written for a prominent neo-Nazi site, as 8chan’s founder has. Both user bases might share a disdain for the SJW menace, but Voat’s seem to have a lot more on their mind.

As with Reddit, white supremacists and anti-fat activists make up a vast minority. Plenty of users weren’t happy with the influx from /pol/, and there are threads dedicated to hashing out community standards and discouraging memes or in-jokes, albeit with the occasional admonition not to censor. People are debating the "upvoat" and "downvoat" system in genuinely reasonable ways, trying to figure out what’s best at promoting discussion. But mostly, they’re hanging out being Redditors.

And that’s the real problem: a bigger, more popular Voat might just feel like an emptier Reddit. Two of its best selling points — the relatively personal atmosphere and a lower chance of having unpopular posts "downvoted to oblivion" by huge numbers of users — scale poorly. It's too early to say if large numbers of Reddit mods will make the switch. Reddit might be understaffed, but Voat is run by two students. Charitably, Voat is where people go if they hate that Reddit has sold out. (Uncharitably, it’s where they go if they hate uppity women — Reddit critics’ singular hatred for Ellen Pao, who played a relatively small role in the site’s evolution, is hard to explain in rational terms.) But while Voat isn’t profit-driven, that doesn’t mean there’s no outside pressure to change.

In mid-June, Voat’s European web hosting company terminated its service for "publicizing incitement of people, as well as abusive, insulting, and youth-endangering content," along with "illegal right-wing extremist content." Around the same time, its creators said their PayPal account had been suspended for sexually oriented material. They also banned four subverses that had allegedly shared illegal content, including two devoted to sexualized "jailbait" images.

The site’s creators said that as a young company, they just needed to temporarily err on the side of caution and legal safety. But to some, it was yet another slippery slope. "I don't want to see Voat go down this road," said the top-rated comment, apparently from a moderator of a jailbait sub. "Perplexed as to why we came over if this is going to be the case."

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