SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Reddit's wildly popular Am I the Asshole forum has a harassment problem

The Reddit community Am I the Asshole? describes itself as “a catharsis for the frustrated moral philosopher in all of us.” Every day, thousands of people detail situations in which they may or may not have acted like an asshole, and ask the wisdom of the crowd to let them know whether their actions were morally justified.

Sometimes the crowd decides they’re NTA: Not the Asshole, like in the case of a woman who walked out of her job after her condescending boss refused to accept her resignation. Other times not so much, as in the case of a man who didn’t want to get his fiancé an engagement ring after instead proposing with a video game related necklace. Sometimes there are no assholes in the situation, or everyone’s an asshole. But regardless of the outcome, the poster gets some clarity and the audience gets to make a consequence-free judgment of a stranger online.

This audience participation has given AITA an entire ecosystem outside of the subreddit itself. The unaffiliated Twitter account that aggregates the “quality content” of the subreddit has almost half a million followers. Posts regularly get written up by outside media sites. It’s also been enjoying increased coverage this year, as people look for things to occupy themselves during coronavirus lockdowns and it makes its way into the mainstream news.

Most articles and online commentary agree with AITA’s self-description: it’s cathartic to judge others. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. The community is a space where people go specifically to be judged, knowing that’s what will happen, and it strictly enforces its rules, including “be civil.” Those judged as in the wrong often come back to report they agree and have changed their minds.

But others come back to report that not everyone is being civil. In particular, posters often leave updates asking people to stop sending them abuse in private, particularly using Reddit’s messaging feature. Recently, for example, a woman who was judged the asshole for getting upset that her bridesmaid didn’t want to attend her bachelorette party wrote that she accepted her judgment, but “please stop sending me harassing messages and calling me names.”

Everyone makes mistakes, but AITA will act like one mistake is a defining aspect of someone's personality. —Reddit user Mychickenmyrules453

Not that it’s acceptable behavior either way, but abuse doesn’t only happen to those whom the subreddit have deemed assholes. Another woman who was judged not the asshole after proving that she knew about Formula 1 to a condescending classmate wrote: “To the people sending me abusive private messages about this and F1 please stop. They aren’t funny.” In another, an 18 year-old-girl who wrote about not wanting to visit her sister’s grave on her birthday reported that she had 10 private messages that she wouldn’t be reading: “two of the ones I got earlier were really mean and one said I should have died instead.”

It’s difficult to assess the scale of this issue. Most posters use a “throwaway” or burner account, created specifically to post on the subreddit so that they can’t be easily identified. This is a good strategy for containing harassment, and encouraged by the moderators for that reason. But regular users, like Mychickenmyrules453, who tells Mic she has been called “a ‘dumbass’ and an ‘idiot’ because I got married at 19,” sees some ongoing issues. “[It] bothers me how quick people on this sub are to call people ‘narcissists’ and ‘sociopaths’ based on one glimpse into their lives,” she says. “Everyone makes mistakes, but AITA will act like one mistake is a defining aspect of someone's personality.” (Mic is identifying sources for this story through their Reddit handles to prevent further harassment.)

She also says that “there are certain subjects I would never come to AITA for moral feedback on because of their consistent attitude,” specifically mentioning affairs, inheritance, and parental responsibility, all of which are fairly common topics brought up by other posters.

“[Someone] cussed me out for leaving my sperm behind for my wife, telling me that I’m a special kind of stupid to want to pass on my bad genes.”

Another such subject is sex work. “I expected it,” says Reddit user Peachykeengirl333, after sharing a string of abusive messages she received after making a recent post (now deleted) in which she shared her past history as a sugar baby. Though she tells Mic that comments propositioning her or calling her a “slut” were removed from her post, the private messages continued, saying things like “You’re a whore,” and “You’ll probably get Covid from all the random men you’re shagging.”

But anything may net harassment. A poster who essentially asked whether or not he should tell his wife that he had only months to live tells Mic “[Someone] cussed me out for leaving my sperm behind for my wife, telling me that I’m a special kind of stupid to want to pass on my bad genes.”

A recent piece on Am I the Asshole? published by The Ringer states that “posters get doxxed regularly.” I wasn’t able to confirm this, but a search of replies to the Twitter that collates AITA posts finds many variations of people at least hoping that the poster will have their private information revealed, if not actively trying to find and release it themselves.

The peripheral harassment that surrounds the subreddit is an issue that the moderators (who are volunteers) are aware of, but not equipped to handle. Keeping the comments as civil as they are is already a massive undertaking. The community’s creator and moderator since 2013, Marc Beaulac, tells Mic that September saw 117,000 moderation actions. “My ballpark unscientific guess at how much of that relates to Rule 1 [Be Civil] is about 70%,” he explains. “There are enormous hours spent by a big and well organized volunteer moderation team, trying to keep this space safe and beneficial.”

But if harassment happens in private messages, it’s outside of the jurisdiction of Beaulac and the rest of the moderation team. “Quite a lot of off-sub harassment is reported to us, but there's effectively nothing we can do about it,” he says. He encourages those receiving harassment in private messages to report them, but those reports go to Reddit admins (who are staff of the website) rather than the moderators. “Only they can verify the complaints and suspend abusive accounts,” says Beaulac.

Reached for comment, Reddit did not respond to questions about how often they receive reports relating to the AITA subreddit. A spokesperson tells Mic: “At Reddit, our site-wide policies explicitly prohibit any content or behavior that threatens, harasses, or bullies groups of people or individuals. We have dedicated teams that use a combination of tools and human review to enforce those policies, proactively go after bad actors on the site, and create engineering solutions to detect and prevent them in the future. Additionally, we have a general reporting flow for users to report policy-violating content or block users, including in Private Messages.”

Whenever someone posts on AITA, they get a moderator-written warning. Among other things, it states that “millions of people” might read it, and that incivility can “occasionally…be extreme.” There’s a recommendation to report, block, and disable inbox notifications “as you see fit.” It’s the best the moderators can do. But Beaulac shows me graphs indicating that AITA has been on a steady path of growth since the end of 2018. Though Mychicken and Peachykeen said that they had not been deterred from using the subreddit, and essentially knew what they might experience, posters regularly state that they are unacquainted with Reddit and heard about the community elsewhere. It’s likely they’re not expecting abuse for their genuine questions. And as more posters find their way in, and the audience grows, the problem of harassment is likely to grow with it.