With its decentralized forum system and hands-off approach by the company's administrators, Reddit is often seen as one of the last bastions of internet freedom that hasn't been (completely) trampled by alt-right bronies. But in the past year, a secret war has been fought between the karma haves, and the karma have nots, one they feel will decide the fate of internet democracy. Or, at least, the fate of r/awww.
If there are two things that Reddit loves, it's inside baseball (not actual baseball, though) and conspiracy theories. So when a conspiracy story about Reddit surfaced on Reddit on March 19th, 2020, all online hell broke loose. Originally submitted by former user u/rootin-tootin_putin, the posts showed an overview chart highlighting how five very powerful moderators were in charge of 92 out of the 500 most popular subreddits. That these PowerMods are also some of the most upvoted users on the platform, and that these posts were removed almost as quickly as they popped up, further enforcing the fear that there's this shadowy cabal of karma one-percenters who gather on the hidden r/illuminati every evening and decide how to guide/permaban the electronic sheep to benefit their internet dominating schemes.
Unlike other social media platforms, Reddit relies almost exclusively on unpaid volunteers to moderate their vast ocean of puppy fail GIFs and dank earthporn memes. As the actual boots on the ground, Reddit admins treat their volunteer admins like a retiring police captain treats a loose canon: as long as they don't show up on the evening news, they don't care how they get results. And it's not that uncommon for Reddit superusers to have a hand in actual meatspace events. Reddit mods have been observed helping organize political coups and actively recruiting minors into white supremacy terrorism. Only recently, the subreddit r/wallstreetbets managed to shitpost the stock market into submission, leading to the massive enrichment of several mods and power-struggles that wouldn't look out of place in a Silicon Valley boardroom.
So how scared should people be of the unlimited power of PowerMods destroying the last bastion of internet democratic information transfer? Not very. Like a scheming PTA mom or oppressive HOA cabal, PowerMods only have any clout in the pettiest way possible. A quick glance at the kind of subreddits these five mods lord over shows not a single political, financial, or news subreddit in the bunch. The only iron-fisted oligarchy they have is over the Very Online Industry, leaving karma billionaires like u/Awkwardtheturtle to harness their Orwellian powers over oddly wholesome memes and animals being derps.
That's not to say that Reddit doesn't have its share of petty power trippers and tinpot dictator mods -- several of whom have used their online power broking skills to cash in on brand deals and marketing jobs. But a much more likely truth behind the oligarchal foundations of popular subreddits is that these mods were the only ones that stuck around long enough. Moderating social media is terrible PTSD-inducing work, and with Reddit barely offering their volunteers any support or training, most will flee after the 1000th swastika dick pick spam they've had to filter out in a day.
But just because a handful of grizzled veterans have stuck around long enough to form little kingdoms of their own doesn't mean that they don't have a breaking point. With the release of the Feudal Five list, these so-called mighty mods have been traumatized by a non-stop bombardment of hate messages and death threats. Almost a year after it started, two of the five, Cyxie and Gallowboob, have fled Reddit and deleted their nest-egg accounts. If anything shows just how democratic Reddit has remained, it's that no banning finger is strong enough to push back the tide of mob justice.
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Top Image: Manfred Werne, Wikimedia Commons