What Really Happened With Jesse Jackson’s Reddit Appearance

You may have read about the situation at Reddit, the online community that devolved into mutinous turmoil after the firing of a popular employee last week. Well, I was pretty close to the center of the storm, and I can tell you that there’s more to the story.

The fired employee, Victoria Taylor, coordinated the “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) forum, where celebrities and regular people ranging from Bill Murray and President Obama to some random vacuum-cleaner repairman answer Redditors’ questions in real time. In response to Taylor’s dismissal, the site’s army of volunteer moderators shut down hundreds of the discussion forums known as “subreddits,” and while many of them have been revived, Redditors are now calling for the head of CEO Ellen Pao.

Because Taylor was fired a day after overseeing a problematic AMA with Jesse Jackson, many Redditors speculated that the two events were connected. Reddit’s leaders and Jackson’s people both say otherwise. In any case, I should weigh in, because I was on the phone with Taylor and Jackson during that AMA. Here’s what I know:

One of the criticisms of the Jackson AMA was that, in some cases, his responses seemed out of sync with the questions. But this wasn’t the standard AMA format, wherein an interviewee reads questions off the screen and types in answers directly. As often happens with other celebrity AMAs, Taylor selected Redditors’ questions and asked them to Jackson live. She then transcribed his verbal responses and posted them on his behalf. Yet Jackson’s AMA was even more complicated than usual because it was also one of the first in a forthcoming series of video AMAs to be released this fall. In this setup, he answered the questions in front of a camera in a ballroom in Los Angeles’ Hyatt Century Plaza while Taylor communicated with him remotely from New York.

The most upvoted question began: “You are an immoral, hate-filled race baiter…” and went downhill from there.

The interview was meant to be an opportunity for Jackson to further discuss his diversity initiatives in Silicon Valley, which I’d covered in this recent Mother Jones feature. We suggested the AMA to him as a way to bring more attention to the issue—and to our piece. I was there in the Reddit feed during the AMA, identified as “Mother Jones,” and also listening in on the call, where I helped Taylor identify questions relating to Jackson’s work in the tech world. I could hear Jackson’s verbal responses.

From the beginning, Jackson attracted a lot of hostile questions. This happens all the time on Reddit, but it soon became clear that his critics on the thread outnumbered supporters. People on Reddit pages can “vote” comments up or down, with the most popular ones rising to the top. The most upvoted question began: “You are an immoral, hate-filled race baiter…” and went downhill from there. Another Redditor pointed out that at least one person posting to the AMA had also posted in a notoriously racist subreddit.

Taylor asked Jackson the upvoted question despite its confrontational nature. It was hard to blame her, since Reddit does call it “Ask Me Anything.” Jackson’s response was criticized as rambling and nonsensical, and to an extent it was, but the critics may not have realized that he didn’t hear the full question. Out of politeness, perhaps, Taylor had paraphrased it to omit the most incendiary language. It’s also worth noting that Taylor’s transcriptions, while generally accurate, were not verbatim.

Some media accounts called the Jackson AMA a “shitshow,” but by Reddit standards, it wasn’t all that unusual. If you look past the awkwardness, there were some illuminating and thoughtful responses that were eventually elevated by other Reddit users. This is exactly what Taylor had predicted would happen. She is widely known and loved on the site as someone who just “got” Reddit and worked hard to listen to the community.

That kind of trolling “is very typical for Rev. Jackson being online,” said a Jackson spokesman. “We get that same Fox News/Hannity/Colmes/O’Reilly stuff almost every time.”

So was the Jackson AMA reason enough to fire Taylor? Probably not. Taylor didn’t return my call, but Reddit Chairman Alexis Ohanian told a colleague of mine on Thursday that Taylor’s firing “has nothing to do with the Reverend’s AMA.” He later said on Reddit: “We’re phasing out our role being in-between interesting people and the reddit audience so that we can focus on helping remarkable people become redditors, not just stop by on a press tour.”

A Jackson representative who helped coordinate the AMA told me last week that he wasn’t even aware of Taylor’s firing and had never complained to Reddit about how it went. That kind of trolling “is very typical for Rev. Jackson being online,” he added. “We get that same Fox News/Hannity/Colmes/O’Reilly stuff almost every time.”

The Jackson rumor, however, is convenient for critics of CEO Pao, who now faces a Change.org petition signed by nearly 200,000 people calling for her removal. Pao is perhaps best known as the former Kleiner Perkins employee who unsuccessfully sued the venture capital firm for sex discrimination—a suit that in some ways dovetails with Jackson’s efforts to diversify Silicon Valley. Pao has also made tolerance a priority at Reddit. She recently banned five subreddits dedicated to various forms of harassment, including one focused on racism. Reddit’s trolls responded by flooding the site with content that harasses Pao.

Pao admits she made a mistake in firing Taylor in the way that she did. The moderators “should have been told earlier about the transition and we should have provided more detail on the transition plan,” she told NPR. It also might have helped to consider the proximity of the firing with the Jackson AMA—though had Pao done so, Reddit being Reddit, another conspiracy theory would undoubtedly have risen to take its place.