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Transgender Redditors Are Being Driven From the Site by Transphobic Trolls Exploiting Reddit's 'Follow' Function

Users are exploiting Reddit's loopholes to harass transgender Redditors
Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP (Getty Images)
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For thousands of transgender Reddit users, subreddits like r/asktransgender and r/transtimelines are a source of community and connection. There, users seek advice, share stories, and even just joke with other trans people. But these communities are also under constant attack from transphobic trolls who threaten and bully these vulnerable trans spaces. According to participants in trans subreddits, along with the volunteer moderators of those communities, Reddit is often slow to respond to these attacks, if administrators even bother to respond at all.

The latest tool transphobic Reddit users have co-opted in order to terrorize trans communities is the platform’s “follow” function. For years, Reddit allowed users to “follow” one another, which allows followers to see what the accounts they have followed paste on their home feed, essentially making each home feed its own subreddit for individual users. But while in the past, followers were anonymous, in 2019 Reddit rolled out a feature that sends a notification to users each time they get a new follower. Over the past week, many trans users say they’ve been targeted by dozens of accounts with names like “trannykiller” or “Georgina Floyd,” accompanied by transphobic profile pictures.

Users say that the process for blocking these accounts has been made needlessly complicated by a platform notorious for tolerating harassment and abuse. (Reddit has changed its harassment policies numerous times and, after public pressure, banned an incel subreddit in 2019.) Since follower lists are not available on desktop or mobile sites, Redditors must download the mobile app, not only to see a complete list of their new, bullying followers, they must then go to their profile’s security settings and delete each new follower one by one, thus interacting with the abusive profiles over and over, even as new accounts replace the old ones. Currently, Reddit does not have any list of banned words for usernames.

Those harassing trans users seem to be exploiting nearly every loophole in Reddit’s policies, demonstrating that despite Reddit’s decision to widen its anti-harassment policies, the platform still does little to protect its more vulnerable communities. For example, while mods are able to ban users from commenting on subreddits, banned accounts can still view those subreddits and send direct messages. Furthermore, “blocking” a harasser only means the person being harassed can’t see the harasser’s posts. The abusive account can still view all of the content posted by the person they are abusing. In response to questions about fixing the problem of abusive followers and protecting its trans users, Reddit issued the following statement to Jezebel:

“At Reddit, our site-wide policies explicitly prohibit any content or behavior that promotes hate or threatens, harasses, or bullies groups of people or individuals. In accordance with these policies, we quickly banned the accounts in violation and are installing mechanisms to prevent this from happening in the future.”

For users like Eli, a pseudonym used to protect their anonymity, Reddit is a safe haven of judgment-free guidance and interaction with others in the trans community:

“I know sometimes anonymity can attract lots of bad things but I feel like sometimes I just want to post my feelings anonymously,” Eli says. 
“There are subreddits where you can go to ask embarrassing questions that you wouldn’t want to ask your real-life friends, like 99 percent of the answers are going to be in good faith from people you can relate to even if you don’t actually know them.”

But after being followed by five transphobic accounts with names like “I Jerk Off to Your Pictures,” with About Me sections featuring statements like “Yes, even if you’re underage. I love underage trannies. If you transition over 20 you don’t look hot to me,” Eli is thinking twice about posting to communities that have served as safe spaces for them.

These problems are all too frequent for the trans communities of Reddit, says a moderator of dozens of communities, many of them pertaining to the trans experience, who has requested to be called Faith to protect their anonymity. According to Faith, one of the biggest challenges moderators of trans subreddits have are bots. Trolls often build bots to report inoffensive content, bogging down the moderators with needlessly flagged content to wade through and getting the accounts of trans members banned by administrators without cause.

“You can have 20 of them just reporting a dozen different, non-problematic posts, and they’ll get taken down due to the way the Reddit reporting system is set up,” Faith says. “Even if it’s not taken down, it will still clog up the moderation queue, which makes things much more frustrating. When you’re wading through a hundred different posts, trying to determine ‘this is problematic/this isn’t.’ It wears you down, and things will get through that shouldn’t. The most frustrating part of this, to me, is that there’s no real solution to block them. It’s like a hydra. You take down one, and two more pop up.”

The problem is so prevalent that Eli says that many of their friends on Reddit have made burner accounts just to avoid being banned after posting content to communities they’ve been active members of for years. And reporting either of these problems to Reddit often simply feels like an exercise in reporting bots to bots.

“Mods themselves are kind of powerless,” Eli says. “You have to report harassment to the admins. But the admins are robots. I reported the threatening follower accounts to reddit.com and only got a robot response. I could talk forever about robot administrators and how trolls have weaponized it against the trans community.” Reddit declined to comment on the record about the involvement of its administrators in preventing abuse.

Another feature trolls have used to threaten members of the platform’s trans subreddits is something as innocuous as its awards system. In 2019, the site introduced something called “Community Awards,” which allowed users to send one “free gift,” once every 24 hours in the form of cutesy positive messages. According to Cedar, another moderator of multiple trans-centric subreddits, harassers quickly weaponized the awards against the most vulnerable in trans communities:

“Seems pretty benign, right? Well, within a few days, trolls online figured out that they could use the awards system to send harassing messages directly to people and they could do things like put ‘wholesome’ awards and ‘you can do it!’ on posts made by suicidal people.”

And while Reddit has since given moderators the power to disable awards, it seems every time Reddit introduces a new feature, it is almost immediately weaponized to abuse trans communities. A mod named Katakallai, who has also spent years moderating multiple subreddits for trans Redditors, says that this influx of abusive accounts “has all the trappings of something automated to harass anybody that posts in trans subreddits.” Katakallai also believes that the bots are likely the work of one or just a few users who have built an automated system for creating the abusive bots, harassment that she says often feels like a hobby for individuals deeply committed to infiltrating these communities and making trans people feel unsafe in a space where they have come specifically for a sense of safety. Katakallai has simply turned off her notifications, but for others, like Eli, the unsettled feeling doesn’t go away so easily, which is why they’re hoping Reddit will make broader moves towards both giving users the ability to block these accounts and removing them from the site:

“What worries me is that because it’s anonymous there are a lot of people who feel safe in these communities,” Eli says. “When you get followed by a bunch of people, it discourages you from participating. I worry about the lack of response fracturing these queer spaces and making people afraid to post their pictures or just afraid to participate.”