Originally published on iafrikan.com on 08.06.2020.
Nearly half of the pages dedicated to African countries on Reddit, the world’s 20th-most popular website, were created and are run by a Canadian. Since 2011, when the pages or subreddits were created, many users have complained about spam and inadequate moderation in their communities. Now, a campaign led by users of the Eritrean subreddit has managed to get enough traction to get a response.
While Reddit is one of the world’s most popular social networks with about 430 million active users, the user base is concentrated heavily in the United States and Europe. However, in many African countries, it still ranks among the most popular sites, for example in South Africa (28th), Nigeria (50th), or Botswana (41st), all according to Alexa Rankings.
Moderation on Reddit is outsourced to volunteers
On Reddit, the account that creates a subreddit automatically becomes its first moderator. They are then responsible for keeping it clean from spam and deleting inappropriate comments. Often, they also create regular events, modify the subreddit’s appearance, or otherwise create a sense of community. Reddit moderators are unpaid volunteers, and their level of engagement with their subreddits varies wildly.
In this case, the creator of the subreddits in question, who goes by the account name PhnomPencil, had not publicly posted in an African subreddit since 2016. Whenever asked if they needed help, they would give the requesting users the permissions to do so. Still, due to Reddit’s rules, he always stayed in control of the subreddits, including the one which has caused heated discussions in the last weeks: r/Eritrea.
Moderators in the Eritrea subreddit appointed seemingly at random
Eritrea is one of the world’s most notable dictatorships. Its government has been in place since 1993 and according to the UN it is guilty of crimes against humanity, including enslaving up to 400,000 people. About 5,000 Eritreans flee the country every month, even though they can expect to be shot at for trying to cross the border. In 2019’s Freedom of the Press Index, Eritrea rates second-to-last.
However, not all users of r/Eritrea have the same opinion of Isaias Afwerki’s government. Though its supporters are in the minority, they are a loud minority, says Reddit user Kmnubiz who some years ago was appointed as moderator of r/Eritrea. Out of the blue, he said, “probably because I was one of the more active users”.
Once he had access to the documentation showing what moderators took what actions in the subreddit – deleting posts or comments, banning users – he found out a co-moderator had been secretly marking anti-regime content as spam, meaning the posts would no longer be visible. After speaking to the other moderators, the regime supporter was removed and became inactive.
That could have been the end of it. Kmnubiz tried to contact PhnomPencil over his lack of activity and moderation but never received an answer. For several years, the subreddits went along with their usual low level of activity.
Subreddits smaller than those of other countries
None of the 21 subreddits run by PhnomPencil have more than 1,000 subscribers, which includes countries like Cote d’Ivoire, Angola or the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The example of r/Sudan shows the potential of a well-run subreddit: When the Internet was shut down in the country during the revolution of 2019, moderators and users coordinated an effort to spread publicity throughout Reddit as part of the larger #IAmTheSudanRevolution. The subreddit jumped from 500 subscribers at the beginning of the year to 2,200 and rising by the end of it. Today, Reddit is the 41st most popular website in Sudan.
A similar effect could be seen in r/Egypt, today the second-largest African subreddit behind the South African one (r/SouthAfrica), according to its moderation team. “Our method of moderating the subreddit by not incorporating any political beliefs has allowed all voices to be heard”, they say, including “pro/anti-government and other minority voices that aren’t usually represented in Egyptian society”. r/Egypt also allows posting in English and Arabic: “We are a bilingual subreddit”, its rules say.
Many countries, many languages
In r/Eritrea users complained about non-English comments going unmoderated. “Amen. You have yosking calling everyone stupid in Tigrinya. That’s how you know the mods aren’t Eritrean“, one user later wrote. PhnomPencil did not reply to questions asking how he dealt with moderating subreddits for countries whose languages he did not know.
That American social media platforms like Facebook or Reddit often do not have the language expertise needed to moderate users speaking hundreds of languages is nothing new. In the last few years, this deafness for the non-English speaking world enabled the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar and the spread of misinformation in Cambodia and several other countries.
Facebook has since hired moderators speaking Burmese and other languages. But in Reddit’s two-tier content moderation system, such change has not happened – not for Africa, at least. Reddit did not respond to questions asking about how its professional team is set up to deal with African content. But for at least 15 subreddits across Africa, the only active volunteer moderator does not seem to have any knowledge of local languages.
Censorship of r/Eritrea in the name of free speech
Maybe that is why PhnomPencil in early May added the already mentioned yosking as co-moderator of r/Eritrea. yosking, one of the subreddit’s few prolific pro-government posters, started removing anti-government posts and banning users before the other moderators could notice. When they did, Kmnubiz revoked his permissions and reinstated the removed posts and the banned users. This included one named tht_pod, who often engaged yosking in long, sometimes not civil debates. He also asked PhnomPencil for an explanation, since there had been no discussion beforehand.
As a reason for his actions, yosking explained that the Eritrean government was “a direct target of a demonization campaign by the media to instigate regime change” and that he had “concluded Eritrea is correct to closely monitor digital press coming in and out of the country.” How this aligned with subreddit policies supposedly supporting free speech is not entirely clear.
When PhnomPencil commented for the second time ever in r/Eritrea a few days later, he offered no explanation for what had been going on. Instead, he announced that tht_pod would be banned again for following him to another subreddit. tht_pod also harassed PhnomPencil on another social media website, where PhnomPencil was posting under his real name. Police were notified of the incident, but never responded, PhnomPencil says.
“I’ve lost family members to this dictator regime. So for this moderator to try and justify his reasoning for allowing spam posts and trolls that support this regime I take that as disrespect and no regard for human life. He knows nothing about my culture and what my people and family have been through so I have no sympathy for his”, tht_pod says of the incident.
Like the majority of the subreddit’s active users, tht_pod is part of the Eritrean diaspora. He is located in Canada, moderator Kmnubiz in Germany. yosking, too, does not live inside the country whose government he spends so much time defending.
Kmnubiz said he did not condone harassment, but asked PhnomPencil why he had not replied earlier to ideas about how the subreddit should be run and why he had given a known government supporter moderator powers. Shortly later, he was removed as a moderator. When asked for comment, PhnomPencil said that “I’m not following them that closely, to be honest, just if they think there is nothing wrong with [tht_pod’s] actions they’re in my list of assholes. I don’t really follow politics on Reddit as I don’t take the site seriously.”
Reddit’s rules offer no possibilities
r/Eritrea was not the first of the 21 subreddits in which users complained about lacking moderation. In May 2020, the only user posting new content in r/Guinea created r/GuineaRepublic as a reaction. There have been no new posts in r/Guinea since. In July last year, a former user of r/Djibouti created r/RepublicofDjibouti. Now, some of the most active users of r/Eritrea have migrated to r/Eritrean.
While the other 21 link to each other as part of an “Africa Network”, the splinter subreddits are isolated. Also, there is no official way for moderators to get control over a subreddit whose top moderator is no longer active in there, that needs Reddit’s administrators to step in. Though the users of r/Eritrea have requested this, the admins so far have not responded publicly.
Otherwise, the site’s policy is on the side of the original creator. While Reddit’s moderation guidelines say the company “may, at its discretion, intervene to take control” of subreddit, for example, to “ensure your community can reach people interested in that community”, this rule is only employed very sparingly.
As another moderator of an African subreddit posted in r/Eritrean: “I agree with you, but Reddit’s rules reward goldrush landgrabbers. Bar a massive uprising, which is a tall order, we are fucked.” At least, he said, his subreddit had started linking to the alternative subreddits and was open for further suggestions.
On 31 May 2020, Kmnubiz was made moderator of r/Eritrea again – and again, without any comment. “I will try to make sure that no one tries to censor the sub again”, he says about his plans. He had already proposed a set of new rules for the subreddit – such as a rule against “anti-Eritrean” content – which he will now try to enforce.
yosking is back to posting links to propaganda videos with titles like “Only in Eritrea, love, and peace”. Tht_pod is still banned from r/Eritrea, though it does not seem to bother him too much.
Meanwhile, PhnomPencil still “owns” 21 African subreddits. In three, he has appointed new co-moderators following the events in r/Eritrea, but in 15 he is still the sole moderator active on the site. Taken together, these subreddits have just over 4,300 users – and their countries nearly 130 million inhabitants, which highlights their importance.