WTFast affiliate influenced Reddit mods in decision to remove critical video
The League of Legends subreddit is easily one of the most influential spaces in the game's community, driving hundreds of thousands of pageviews to articles and videos on a daily basis.
But like anywhere else on Reddit, the forum's stewardship belongs to a group of volunteer moderators who hold the kill switch over what content lives or dies. The system functions when the mods operate independently, free of outside influence. But as the case of a popular video yesterday shows, that's not always how things work.
A content creator known as “Gnarsies” has made a number of videos critical of Riot Games, the League of Legends subreddit, and streaming culture. His latest called out the business practices of the group behind WTFast, an app intended to boost connection speeds for League players that the company describes as a "gamers private network".
According to Gnarsies, the company had essentially bribed users with free subscription time for writing positive reviews about it on steam. Their rationale? Counteracting all the negative reviews the app had received, which the company characterized as “trolls." Steam only allows people who purchase or download to leave a review, so this was essentially labelling a significant number of the company's own customers as “trolls.” Of course, quid pro quo agreements for positive reviews are against Valve's terms of service. WTFast was shortly forced to renege on its promise and apologize.
The video rocketed up the League of Legends subreddit. But after it reached the front page, the moderation team removed the video on the grounds that it was “witch-hunting”— much to the confusion of its creator and many viewers. The video contained no call to action against the company, nor did it leak any personal information or the name of any streamers sponsored by WTFast. The facts laid out in the video were solid, even if some of the language used was less than flattering.
The moderators initially cited a "call to action" in the video as the reason for its removal. But later changed their minds, focusing instead on the phrase “snake-oil” and referring to negative customer testimonials as “evidence.” Senior moderator “KoreanTerran” explained the decision to remove the post:
“This video didn't have a call to action, but it also wasn't a post just laying out the evidence/facts in a civil manner. That's why I said that the first part of his video was fine, it's the second half of the video that was problematic. A lot of bashing without the proper evidence to back it up.”
This is how the subreddit defines witch-hunting:
"A witch-hunt is a thread or comment that damages or threatens to damage a specific person or entity's reputation or resources without solid evidence. These often take the form of personal threats or attacks and calls to action (“burn him;” “get that guy banned;” “stop watching that dude’s stream”, “boycott this tournament” etc.)."
There are naturally multiple interpretations of the language in the rule. But in this case, there was something more significant at play.
After the removal of the video, Gnarsies reached out to WTFast itself to ask what the company thought about the video getting removed. They sent back a reasonable reply, addressing some of the concerns in the video, the respondent said that he believed the video was removed pending a request from a sponsored affiliate.
“I'm talking to you because (I'm still trying to confirm this) that the reason your video was taken down was it was at the request of one of our affiliates,” the rep replied. “If that's true I'll have a word with him about it, I don't like people we get to represent us engaging in acts of censorship. I'd rather meet criticisms directly, but that's hard to actually do as we've found ourselves in a position where we realize that the people handling our marketing don't have any idea about how to engage with people on the Internet.”
In a follow up email, the rep denied WTFast had any direct influence over the LoL subreddit but stated “The person in question talked to the moderators and convinced them it was slanderous. We never asked him to do that, and I've asked him that the video be reinstated.”
The sponsored affiliate in question is one of Twitch’s most popular League of Legends streamers, Joedat "Voyboy" Esfahani, who formerly played for Team Curse both in top and mid-lane.In a message to the moderators he sent prior to the thread’s removal, he specifically invoked the “witch-hunting” rule. The full message, posted below, reads almost word for word as the justification offered by “KoreanTerran” in his response to the deletion.
“I’d like to discuss the grounds on which the WTFast video is not breaking the witchhunting rules,” Esfahani began. “From about 2 minutes onwards it begins to make claims they don’t provide evidence for (and they certainly do not provide a balanced viewpoint because there are literally dozens of comments in the thread saying that WTFast actually did help them)”
“I believe this video staying on the frontpage is honestly close to defamation/libel to not only the company but also the content creators who promote the service.” Esfahani advertises the WTFast service on his Twitch channel."
In his reply, KoreanTerran told the streamer he agreed with his assessment of the video and directed to him his official comment on the matter. In the moderators' private Skype channel, he also made direct reference to Esfahani’s message, saying that “Voyboy’s reasoning is more in tune with what we want to go with.” At no point did he address the fact that Esfahani was sponsored by the company being scrutinized in the video, nor did he raise any conflict of interest concerns with the moderation team.
While Reddit has clear rules surrounding the acceptance of rewards for favourable moderating decisions, what is less clear are the rules about any form of status-based influence or leveraging of popularity. It is hard to argue against the likelihood of influence given the post was on the front page for two and a half hours without incident but was removed within thirty minutes of Esfahani’s message.
Equally, chat logs from the moderator’s Skype group show that they were all comfortable with the submission prior to receipt of that message. “Just skimming through it” said the mod Merich, who would later claim it contained a call to action. “it seems like WTFast is being called out on bs.” Even the moderator who would eventually remove it, Picflute, had no issue with the thread prior to being contacted by the affiliate, saying “a lot of Youtubers are advertising it boosts your connection between you and Riot which is BS. So I agree with keeping it up.”
Gnarsies told the Daily Dot he was still perplexed as to why his content, which was consumer-focused, was removed from the subreddit that would most benefit from a discussion about it. “I'm disappointed that the league subreddit decided to accuse me of inciting witch hunts and doing personal attacks” he added. “While one thing I say in my video is caused by a slip up by me, it still doesn't warrant calling my video a personal attack or an invitation to hunt people."
Indeed, to a certain extent, this type of situation flies in the face of Reddit's populist, egalitarian ideals. Moderators are technically free to do as they please in their own subreddits. But content on Reddit is still ideally supposed to live or die based on the power of users' upvotes and downvotes, not on the displeasure of influential community members.
"While it's a grey area, I find it silly that content with a 90 percent upvote ratio gets removed from the frontpage for reasons that don't make sense," Gnarsies said. "If they were influenced by a WTFast affiliate, it makes me doubly disappointed since they are a company that decided to partake in shady activities on Steam, and some League Content Creators push this piece of software without even using it themselves, blatantly saying they are doing it for the money."
Pulling the video was a "disservice" to WTFast and to the Reddit community, Gnarsies said. "I don't understand why complaining about this behavior is a problem. I have other pieces of content that have similar or harsher tones, but when it comes to WTFast and the people who promote it, it becomes a problem for some reason.”
Disclaimer: The author of this story was banned from the League of Legends subreddit shortly before this article's publication.
Image via Riot Games