The Redditors who are driving up the cost of GameStop stock just to pwn the hedge funds that bet on its demise may not be breaking the law. But this show of force by the subreddit r/WallStreetBets still represents a new and uncharted front in the evolution of content moderation on social media platforms.
In a statement to Protocol, a Reddit spokesperson said the company's site-wide policies "prohibit posting illegal content or soliciting or facilitating illegal transactions. We will review and cooperate with valid law enforcement investigations or actions as needed."
It's still unclear whether any such investigations will result from this, and White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is "monitoring" the situation. But the fact is, Reddit writes lots of site-wide rules that have nothing to do with whether certain behavior is illegal. Reddit is unique among platforms in that it leaves much of its content decisions to the moderators of different subreddits.
Still, the company does have rules. It prohibits, for example, "directing unwanted invective at someone" or "following them from subreddit to subreddit," classifying that as harassing, bullying behavior. Redditors aren't allowed to send "large amounts of private messages to users who are not expecting them" or repeatedly post "unrelated/off-topic/link-farmed content," because, under Reddit's rules, that's spam.
That means if Reddit decides that what r/WallStreetBets is doing is dangerous or disruptive, it could very well take action. That would be tricky for Reddit. Given the range of offensive stuff that regularly appears on the platform, it could be tough to justify outlawing stock trade tips. So far, that hasn't happened, and the Reddit spokesperson was unable to comment on whether any content policies related to the GameStop issue might be implemented in the future. Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, for one, seemed unconcerned in a Twitter thread Wednesday. "It's a perfect storm at a time when lots of people are hurting, interest rates are so low, inescapable student loan debts loom, and every major institution has caught Ls during a /global pandemic/ over the last year," Ohanian wrote. "This is something to believe in."
That may be true for now. But experts on social media manipulation argue the model WallStreetBets has created could morph into a bigger long-term problem for Reddit. "The WallStreetBets manipulation of [GameStop] is now the best template for how one could monetize an influence operation," tweeted Stanford researcher Alex Stamos who, as Facebook's former chief security officer, worked on detecting and rooting out foreign influence operations after the 2016 election. "I don't know if any laws were broken this time, but Reddit now has a problem: it is the home for a community of hundreds of thousands of people who have demonstrated the ability to move billions of dollars based upon the urging of, at most, a couple dozen anonymous accounts."
Facebook's current chief security officer, Nathaniel Gleicher, agreed with Stamos, tweeting: "Good reminder that while political [information operations are] a serious threat, there are many harmful cases of these tactics driving financial gain."
Gleicher added: "[Money] is a driver across security threats, from hacking to phishing to good old bank fraud, & [information operations are] no exception. Getting ahead of how these tactics enable fraud is essential to disincentivize bad actors."
To be clear: There's no evidence that the GameStop mob has any ties to a malicious influence operation, and aside from some hedge funds that tried to short GameStop in the first place, it's not immediately obvious who WallStreetBets is hurting. What are hedge funds anyway if not an institutionally sanctioned pool of people betting on the success or failure of businesses for profit? For now, it's easy to root for the underdogs banding together to stick it to the man.
But one thing that seems obvious from the last decade or more on the internet is that the same tools that can be used to build mass movements — be they political or financial — can be used by bad actors to manipulate the masses later on. If and when that happens, Reddit will have few excuses for not being prepared.