The Fappening and Reddit’s Digital Policy Evolution


If you’ve seen The Hunger Games movie series, you might have been impressed by Jennifer Lawrence’s performance. However, it’s unfortunate that after becoming a popular movie star, she experienced online victimization. Sadly, online victimization of female celebrities is a common occurrence. It not only harms the victim but can also lead to social division and the spread of hate. In this digital age, social platforms have become one of the main channels for spreading harmful content and causing online harm. Social media is often considered a distinct aspect of life, but there is no longer a clear division between the online and offline worlds, or between the ‘virtual’ and the ‘real’ (Carlson 2013). The digital policies and governance of social platforms are crucial in preventing and combating hate speech and online victimization. This blog discusses the online victimization of American actress Jennifer Lawrence and others in The Fappening incident, as well as the policy changes that Reddit forums have made to prevent and combat related content.

Private Photo Leaks That Rocked The World

In August 2014, a celebrity photo leak occurred, known as ‘The Fappening‘ or ‘Celebgate’. Over 100 popular movie stars were involved, with approximately 200 private photos, including nude photos and other sensitive content, stolen and uploaded to the posting site 4Chan. The photos were then widely circulated by Reddit, Imgu, and Tumblr users. It is important to note that while some of the affected celebrities confirmed the authenticity of the photos, others denied them. Although many famous actresses were affected by the hack, the majority of the photos were about Jennifer Lawrence. Apple’s investigation revealed that hackers gained access to the private photos by attacking account names, passwords, and security questions. The leak sparked widespread discussion and condemnation, with many celebrities and media outlets denouncing the incident. The police intervened in the investigation, after the FBI received allegations of computer intrusion and unlawful release of private information. Ryan Collins and Edward Majerczyk were identified and convicted for the breach during the investigation.

Nude photos of celebrities including Jennifer Lawrence have been leaked online after an apparent hack.

In Vanity Fair‘s November 2014 issue, Jennifer Lawrence spoke publicly for the first time about the theft of her private photos. She stated that it was not a scandal, but a sex crime. She refused to apologize for storing nude photos on her computer and strongly condemned the hackers’ actions, expressing her anger and disgust. Lawrence believes that the hackers who stole her private photos should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. She also expressed that anyone who viewed the photos should be ashamed of themselves.

‘It does not mean that it comes with the territory. It’s my body, and it should be my choice, and the fact that it is not my choice is absolutely disgusting. I can’t believe that we even live in that kind of world.’

-Jennifer Lawrence, 2014

Lawrence emphasized that such an incident is not only an invasion of personal privacy but also a sexual assault. She called for changes in laws to protect the rights and interests of those involved. Lawrence expressed anger and disgust towards the hackers and those who viewed the nude photos. Lawrence strongly believes that everyone should have control over their own bodies and that their privacy should be respected. She has a firm stance against the theft and distribution of private material by others, as reported in Vanity Fair (2014).

During this incident, Reddit became a major hub of activity. Users created a subreddit called /r/TheFappening on which they shared stolen photos. In just one day, this subreddit attracted over 100,000 followers (UnholyDemigod, 2014). Reddit’s administrators were criticized for allowing this to happen and were accused of violating anti-human-search rules. McKayla Maroney claimed to be under 18 at the time of the photo shoot. As a result, Reddit staff removed her photos and warned against republishing them or any underage photos of Liz Lee. According to alienh (2014), any related content that had been circulating prior to this incident would be permanently banned, and those distributing child pornography could face charges. On September 7, Reddit shut down /r/TheFappening, citing copyright issues and stating that they could no longer handle the workload associated with such content. On the same day, Reddit also banned another sub-section called ‘Fappening’.

The Flaw in Reddit’s Handling of The Fappening

Reddit’s algorithm and click-through ranking mechanism contributed to the spread of inappropriate content, including illegally-obtained private photographs (Massanari, 2017). Nude photographs of stolen celebrities appeared prominently on the site’s homepage (/r/all), and the high voter turnout on this content allowed the privacy-invasive images and related discussions to rapidly spread.

Controlling the spread of abusive behavior across subsections is difficult due to the platform’s ineffective content censorship and control mechanisms, Reddit’s reliance on volunteer moderators with limited tools, and its lack of transparency in coordinating harassment/abusive behavior from other sites (Massanari, 2017). Harassers can avoid consequences and continue toxic behavior due to designs like the Karma point system, the ease of creating alternative accounts after being banned, and the aggregation of content across subsections. Reddit administrators are slow to act on reports of private photos, inefficient in handling them, and lack effective tools to manage entire subforums dedicated to sharing illegal content (RobKhonsu, 2015). Reddit’s policy prohibits hosting offensive content directly and only allows linking to it elsewhere online. This circumvents removal efforts (Massanari, 2017).

Reddit takes a neutral platform stance, citing the principle of freedom of speech. It is unwilling to intervene or moderate offensive content (Massanari, 2017), which contrasts with the more proactive moderation policies of platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The management’s failure to take action against non-consensual pornography is justified by their belief in Reddit’s neutrality as a platform. However, this ignores the platform’s responsibility for the dissemination of harmful content.

‘Content moderation is an integral part of the political economy of large social media platforms.’

-Gillespie, 2018

Reddit’s hands-off approach was the root cause of the delayed response, although monetary incentives may have played a role. No changes in content have been made. The design choices, such as the karma system and aggregation across subreddits, implicitly allowed and even promoted the spread of unethical content. Reddit’s management model and policies create an environment that allows for online harm. This is due to a combination of hands-off management, design choices that prioritize anonymity and avoid accountability, and a focus on freedom of speech over user safety.

Reddit’s New Measures

In the wake of The Fappening, Reddit revisited its content management policies and took a number of steps to prevent a similar incident from happening again.

Increased Regulation of Privacy-Invasive Content

Reddit is now more actively regulating user-posted content, particularly content that invades privacy. This means that Reddit will take swift action against any content that violates the privacy of others, including removing the content or implementing other restrictive measures.

Stronger Management of Hate Speech and Inappropriate Content

Reddit has strengthened its management of hate speech, violent content and other inappropriate content. This includes banning content that posts offensive speech, advocates violence, or targets specific social groups (u/landoflobsters, 2019). Through these initiatives, Reddit is attempting to ensure that the content on its platform is safer and protected.

Quarantine Function

Furthermore, Reddit has also introduced a quarantine mechanism. The quarantine safety-valve is a specialised kind of segregation feature that restricts access to specific community sections by only allowing users to opt-in to the area by clicking through a warning notice (u/landoflobsters, 2018). This limiting step works by making a community’s hate and offensive content less visible to the wider Reddit community while also making its content harder to find and access. This minimises the audience that can further spread the banned content across the rest of Reddit. In effect, the quarantine safety-valve isolates the affected offending subreddit and associated hate material from the wider Reddit community. As a result, these subreddits soon turned, mostly, into ghost towns. There was indeed a significant drop in overall activity on the targeted subreddit. Users are dissuaded from participating in the quarantined subreddit because they must proactively opt-in on viewing the warning notice listing the offensive sections of the subreddit. This safety-valve-based mechanism tries to push users towards modifying inappropriate behaviour while retaining as much freer expression as possible (Copland, 2020). (As a side note, advocates of content controls also view safety-valve mechanisms as healthy because they prevent grassroots manufacturing violence and extremism into powerful politico-legal contests, which ultimately prove self-defeating for white supremacists and neo-Nazis. These extremist individuals are in declining fortunes as their idiocy and willingness to make spectacles of themselves makes attempts at political organisation difficult to maintain.)


Reddit has attempted to balance free speech with content management through these measures. The initiatives are intended to prevent incidents like The Fappening from recurring and to improve the safety of the user experience on Reddit. However, these measures still have some limitations in managing harmful content online. The quarantine feature has reduced harmful content within Reddit, but it has also driven some users and content to other unregulated forums and websites. This creates ‘filter bubbles’ (Bruns, 2019) that allow for the unfettered spread of harmful content in other spaces (Chandrasekharah et al., 2017, p. 18). Segregation measures have increased some users’ distrust of Reddit, as they perceive the platform as biased and discriminatory. This has driven them to migrate to alternative platforms (Copland, 2020). Solving the problem of harmful content cannot be achieved through a single technical solution, such as segregation. It requires supporting measures like education, industry self-regulation, and cross-platform collaboration to address the root cause. Copland (2020) suggests that relying solely on technical means is insufficient.

How to Improve?

Implementing censorship and quarantine features on Reddit alone may not be sufficient. To prevent the shift of harmful content to less regulated platforms, it is crucial to have greater cooperation between different platforms and sites, and consistent enforcement of standards. It is important to note that technical measures such as quarantine are not enough. Platforms should invest in educating users and fostering positive community norms and values. They should also discourage harmful behavior from the start. Harsh vetting measures, such as segregation, can breed distrust among users and drive them into unvetted spaces. Platforms need to strike a balance between vetting and building user trust to keep users engaged. Over-censorship that leads to user attrition should be avoided. To tackle online harms, a comprehensive approach involving platforms, users, governments, and civil society groups is necessary. Different stakeholders must work together to develop solutions that combine appropriate censorship with education and guidance, while strengthening industry self-regulation. To mitigate harm while allowing space for legitimate speech, consider exploring more targeted interventions such as deleting specific hateful posts, temporary user bans, or de-networking, instead of blanket segregation.


Hate speech and online victimization are not only a matter of conflict between individuals, but also a test of social morality and public order. Dealing with harmful content online is a systematic project that requires the cooperation of platforms, users, governments, and the community. Therefore, it is essential to work together to combat harmful content online. A single technological tool’s effectiveness is limited, and long-term solutions will require complementary education, regulation, and trust-building measures. Reddit is a content aggregation and community platform. It aims to balance neutrality and responsibility by maintaining freedom of expression while avoiding becoming a hotbed for the dissemination of harmful content.


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Chandrasekharan, E., Pavalanathan, U., Srinivasan, A., Glynn, A., Eisenstein, J., & Gilbert, E. (2017). You Can’t Stay Here: The Efficacy of Reddit’s 2015 Ban Examined Through Hate Speech. Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction.

Copland, S. (2020). Reddit quarantined: can changing platform affordances reduce hateful material online?. Internet Policy Review, 9(4).

Gillespie, T. (2018). Custodians of the Internet: Platforms, Content Moderation, and the Hidden Decisions that Shape Social Media. Yale University Press.

Massanari, A. (2015). Participatory culture, community, and play. Peter Lang Publishing.

Massanari, A. (2017). Gamergate and The Fappening: How Reddit’s algorithm, governance, and culture support toxic technocultures. New Media and Society, 19(3), 329–346.

RobKhonsu (2015) Promote ideas, protect people (comment). Available at: (accessed 6 August 2015).

u/landoflobsters. (2018). Revamping the quarantine function [Post]. Reddit.

u/landoflobsters. (2019). Changes to our policy against bullying and harassment [Post]. Reddit.

UnholyDemigod (2014) The Fappening. Available at: (accessed 6 August 2015).

Vanity Fair (2014) Cover exclusive: Jennifer Lawrence calls photo hacking a “Sex Crime.” Available at: (accessed 6 August 2015).

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