The notorious subreddit trafficked in violent rhetoric, growing a prodigious following over five years. Here’s how—and why—Reddit finally shut it down.
On March 22, 2017, at 2:40 pm local time, a terrorist attacked pedestrians on Westminster Bridge in London with a truck, killing 5 people and injuring at least 50. Thirty-one hours later, a Reddit user named TrumpBeatsHillary wrote a post on the forum page /r/The_Donald. Its title was, “But hey, it wasn’t all bad. In the end a Muslim was shot.”
The post itself was a political cartoon of sorts. It depicted a stylized Westminster bridge covered in dead and bleeding bodies, with a distant truck trailing more blood behind it. Two corpses had signs; one read “Fuck Trump”; another was a rainbow flag. In block letters at the top, the image was captioned: “BRIDGES NOT WALLS.”
The post’s title referred to the attacker, Khalid Masood, who was shot and killed by London police. TrumpBeatsHillary boasted a “flair” (a small image near the username) of Pepe the Frog in riot gear brandishing a gun. Commenters turned out to express their support. “Now just add in a Muslim woman stepping over one of the bodies,” commented user 2termtrump—or /u/2termtrump in the site’s shorthand. The gleeful anti-Muslim banter only grew from there.
Within eight hours, the post attracted 9,519 upvotes and 506 comments, sending it to the top of The_Donald. Within 16 hours, around the time the post crossed the 10,000-upvote threshold, The_Donald’s volunteer moderators added a photograph of President Donald Trump driving a truck, grinning widely and looking excited, to the side of the page. Below the image, the forum’s rules were listed. They included:
Rule III: No Racism/Anti-Semitism
Rule VI: This is a forum for supporters of Trump ONLY
Rule X: Please do not behave in a way outside of this forum that would reflect poorly on it.
Flouting those rules was routine. In the week before the bridge attack, The_Donald’s top posts included one titled, “5 refugees rape a 7 year old girl in Hamburg Germany. anyone who said refugees welcome invited this.” They included, “Sadiq Khan- Terror attacks are ‘part and parcel of living in a big city’. MEANWHILE IN TOKYO, (the largest city in the world) has no terror attacks and no Muslims! Coincidence? I think not!” They included, “David Seaman to be SUICIDED for EXPOSING PEDOGATE. COPY AND BLAST THIS EVERYWHERE.”
Since mid-2016, when The_Donald—or “T_D,” a subsection of the massive social site Reddit.com—came into its own, posts like these made the forum the most notorious in the history of a website with a fair number of skeletons in its closet. By March 2017, when these posts were made, the page’s membership had swelled to more than 350,000 members. It was to double that and more, nearing 800,000 subscribers, before—on June 29, 2020—Reddit’s staff banned the subreddit, and it vanished from the site’s pages for good. (Advance Publications, which owns WIRED’s publisher, Condé Nast, is a Reddit shareholder.)
In the five years of its existence, the subreddit played host to Russian propaganda, launched memes and stories parroted by Trump and his campaign, conducted oppo research on behalf of the president, and harassed (and was harassed by) hundreds of people around the internet. Major media organizations have covered the page again and again. But while Reddit changed its rules and rewrote its algorithms to stop T_D (and other pages) from dominating the site, it resisted banning it. Only now, in the wake of half a decade of online protest and justification after justification by Reddit staff all the way up to CEO Steve Huffman, has that resistance collapsed.
And therein hangs a tale.
The_Donalds’s banishment comes at a cultural inflection point that’s already produced double-digit polling swings on police brutality and black lives activism (against and for, respectively). Reddit has been swept along. On June 5, the company’s co-founder Alexis Ohanian (the husband of Serena Williams) stepped down from the company’s board and urged Reddit to replace him with a black candidate. Reddit did so, naming Michael Seibel, CEO of the startup funding venture Y Combinator. Huffman, who famously said in 2018 that racism was not against the site’s rules (later walking that back), wrote that day that past decisions Reddit had made “eroded our effectiveness in combating hate and racism on Reddit” and vowed change.
Three days later, on June 8, a huge collection of the volunteers Reddit relies on to keep its site running (”moderators” in the site’s parlance) came together to sign an open letter to the company, demanding that it act swiftly against hateful subreddits and add a site-wide policy “against racism, slurs, and hate speech.” (I myself am a longtime moderator.) Volunteers representing subreddits totaling to 200 million users signed the letter; Ohanian tweeted it. On June 29, Reddit announced that it would indeed change its rules to include such prohibitions. That was the day r/The_Donald was banned.
So, too, does T_D’s collapse add a chapter to the unending debate around the role that social giants play in shaping and policing political discourse. Spurred on by the outcry surrounding widespread Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Reddit has already tracked and banned suspicious accounts for years. But like Facebook, Twitter, and other sites which began pulling such content recently, it has been circumspect on stickier questions involving homegrown misinformation and bigotry. Like its peer sites, it long declined to directly ban or remove much incorrect information posted by its users—in most cases, it passed the buck to its volunteers, who make rules for their own sections of the site, telling them to outlaw such content if they so chose.
Though Reddit now has its clearer rules against hate, its policies on misinformation remain foggy at best and downright absent at worst. In this, it joins nearly every large social media company. These questions almost certainly lack an easy answer, but on Reddit—usually not the first name that comes to mind when such issues are discussed, given its rivals’ presence at a new round of congressional hearings—it’s playing out in dramatic fashion with The_Donald’s ban.
As Huffman put it, “These questions aren’t hypothetical for us.”
QUESTION 1: How did r/The_Donald take off?
Taylor didn’t like Donald Trump when they first visited r/The_Donald.
“I read somewhere else on Reddit where Trump was planning to do a rally,” says Taylor, who would eventually become a The_Donald moderator. “People were talking about reserving tickets and just turning their back or not showing up with the intention of making it so people interested wouldn’t be able to attend. I thought that was wrong.”
So Taylor—whose name here, like that of all five T_D moderators interviewed for this piece, is not their real one—created a new Reddit account to post a link to the rally. At the time, T_D had just over 1,000 subscribers and only two moderators. Like every subreddit, its moderators were volunteers, not part of Reddit’s paid staff.
The subreddit had existed for just under four months. It described itself in rather neutral terms as “following the news related to Donald Trump during his presidential run.” On October 20, the post at the top of the subreddit was a sober(ish) policy breakdown. Comments included arguments on the specifics of Trump’s immigration platform: “He’s missing a great opportunity by focusing on building abstract immigration Walls, and not boasting what a great job he could do rebuilding this countries [sic] crumbling infrastructure.”
At the time, Trump led the expansive GOP primary field alongside Ben Carson, who narrowly trailed him in national polls. There were murmurings about his success, but he was widely predicted to flame out. Subreddits for Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio had already existed on Reddit for years. The subreddit for Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders had 124,000 subscribers by October 16.
But on Reddit as in life, something about then-candidate Trump was different. On a site with millions of subreddits—currently 2.2 million, according to Reddit tracker RedditMetrics.com—different is big. “I think a lot of people got into this organically in the same sort of way,” Taylor says. After the October rally that brought Taylor to T_D, Trump tweeted “You Can’t Stump the Trump, vol. 4,” the latest example of a running meme irreverently celebrating Trump’s ability to deflect or ignore difficult questions and criticisms and to bully his foes. “And I was like, ‘What is he doing?’” Taylor says. This was a different kind of politician. Taylor was intrigued: “It just kind of grew from there.”
On a long road trip, Taylor shared the video with their husband. Taylor says the couple appreciated Trump’s apparent sense of humor. “We streamed a lot of those videos on that drive.”
By mid-December 2015, the subreddit’s subscriber base had doubled, and on December 21 it became one of the 10,000 biggest on the platform. That month, Trump called for banning all Muslims from traveling to the United States. Posts on the subreddit defended the proposal as “not fascist and probably not unconstitutional.” The day after his proposal, Trump led New Hampshire polling rival Rubio by 32 percent to 14 percent in the statewide running. Rubio’s subreddit, r/marco_rubio, floundered at a few hundred subscribers.
The day that poll came out, December 8, The_Donald’s moderators—mods, as they are known on Reddit—noticed a spike in their daily viewership. Their unique viewers, usually around one or two hundred per hour, spiked to more than 2,000 per hour. The mods thought they knew why. Users from the r/Politics subreddit, a massive forum with a December 2015 total of 3.1 million users, had found out about T_D. Now they were flocking to it, often harassing and downvoting the regulars. It was among the first of many such incidents over the next four and a half years.
T_D moderator u/NYPD-32, then one of five volunteers on the page, made a post calling the visitors out.
TITLE: “The Great /r/The_Donald Invasion”
POST: “When /r/politics sends their people they aren’t sending their best. They’re losers, they’re Reddit TOS violators, some of them I assume may be good people.
The backlash from the new arrivals was swift and sustained.
REPLY BY u/InitiumNovum: There needs to be a total and complete shut down of libtard /r/Politics users entering this subreddit.
Yet there were also a fair number of positive comments, both about the volunteer moderators and “the admins,” or administrators, Reddit’s paid staff who run the site’s deeper features. u/NYPD-32 wrote that the admins had been “receptive and helpful” in dealing with the brigade.
COMMENT BY u/TRUMPTRUMPTRUMPTRUMP: Admins, wonderful people! Do a great job, high energy people.
When Redditors or their communities misbehave, the site’s paid administrators are the highest court. Volunteers such as T_D’s moderators have substantial power within their fiefs but can do nothing beyond them. The admins, meanwhile, can see everything and do anything. December 2015 marked one of the first interactions between the staff and The_Donald. Like that day’s battle between T_D and r/politics, it was not to be the last.
Reddit today employs just under 700 people. In 2016, as The_Donald began to emerge on the sitewide scene, the company staff stood at under 100, and in an interview with WIRED, CEO Steve Huffman says he wrote some of the site’s early 2016 announcements himself.
No wonder, then, that Huffman was aware firsthand of T_D’s growth. “They were a little dysfunctional,” Huffman says of the T_D moderators, who first received disciplinary messages from the staff in April 2016. He says it was difficult to decide on how to handle T_D—or even to know when its users were for real.
“In the early days of The_Donald—I wasn’t a user myself, so pardon me for this being a little fuzzy—it was like, half troll users saying ridiculous things as if they were Donald Trump supporters, and half actual Donald Trump supporters,“ Huffman says. “I think if you’ve lived in America over the last four years, that’s actually not as far-fetched as it sounds. Not being able to distinguish between parody and satire and reality was actually a truth that we lived.”
In 2016, the “policy team” at Reddit consisted of Huffman and his general counsel. He says there were often debates about the subreddit among the site’s staff, debates which he says “evolved” as the subreddit gained prominence.
We can make an educated guess about what was said in those debates. Over time, Reddit, like many other institutions, gradually stepped up its responses to Trump’s rhetoric. Perhaps everyone at Reddit was united behind this slower response, but it seems more likely that internal division existed over when and how much to censure T_D. When asked what specifically came up in those years of debates, a Reddit spokesperson called Huffman’s statements “self-explanatory” and declined to give further details.
But, as Huffman says, Reddit’s early vacillations will indeed sound familiar to anyone who followed reactions to Trump and his campaign as it won primary after primary down the 2016 stretch to the general election. Was this a new normal? Was it real? And why did so many people seem to like it? Behind closed doors in its California offices, Reddit watched these questions unfold in real time, with its platform playing home to the debate—and fueling it. Huffman emphasizes Reddit’s commitment to political discourse, pointing to the r/Politics subreddit’s ties to the very earliest days of the site.
“Political speech on Reddit, as it is in our country, is sacred“ Huffman says. “I think it’s among the most important speech there is. The_Donald was, in one dimension, a large political community that represented the views of many Americans. That’s something that we weighed quite heavily.”
As a result, the admins were reluctant to shut down conversation on T_D entirely, even as the subreddit branched out from discourse to hate.
“Over the years, we’ve adapted our policies … we’ve changed the technology, we’ve tried working with the moderators, we’ve replaced moderators, we’ve tried all sorts of things,” Huffman says.
He adds, “Some tactics [were] more successful than others, but ultimately none to the extent that we needed.”
Soon, anti-T_D protests on the site began to emerge. In September 2015, the subreddit r/EnoughTrumpSpam was created, and by June 2016 it was the fastest-growing page on Reddit. Other subreddits, including those for political candidates and meta commentary on the site itself, joined in the critique. “If we knew everything we know now, The_Donald wouldn’t have existed in the way that it existed,” Huffman says. “But we had to work our way there.”
Huffman says he did recognize one thing about The_Donald early on, though: Its success was not an accident, and its moderators (dysfunctional or not) had a gift—one shared by candidate Trump himself. “That community,” he says, “was expert at not being technically against the rules.”
On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen entered the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, with a semi-automatic rifle and opened fire, killing 49 people. The main forum for news and discussion of the shooting on Reddit was r/The_Donald. It was another turning point for the subreddit.
Since its conflict with r/Politics in December of the year before, T_D had exploded in size and activity. By June 11, it had 144,000 subscribers. This growth came because the page was increasingly visible—a fact that T_D’s mods well understood, as they were about to demonstrate.
T_D’s moderators were, in many ways, outstandingly skilled. They now set themselves to make T_D visible, with results unlike any other Reddit forum had hitherto attained.
Some quick context: Reddit users subscribe to the subreddits they want to see on their homepage, the same way you follow people on Twitter and like pages on Facebook. Unlike these sites, though, Reddit has a page you can visit to see a sampling of the content from every part of the site, whether you follow it or not. That page is r/all, which measures posts from nearly every subreddit—all 2.2 million—and displays the top ones according to a point system. Posts that reach r/all have, by definition, broken out of the normal conventions of Reddit’s labyrinthian subsections and have a chance to be seen by anyone perusing r/all.
T_D’s moderators were looking for a way to game the system and force T_D onto r/all every day.
The mods realized that a key lay in the “sticky” system, by which moderators could pin a post at the top of their subreddit indefinitely. The system was meant for announcements, rule changes, upcoming events, and other minutia of day-to-day Redditing. But any thread could be stickied, and stickied threads behaved the same way that any other Reddit thread did: They accrued points by vote, and more points boosted the thread closer to the top of the page. This didn’t typically matter, since a stickied thread was by definition artificially held at the top of its subreddit already. But the mods weren’t trying to make threads visible on The_Donald. They wanted to boost them onto r/all.
T_D’s moderators began to sticky threads unrelated to their rules or announcements. Instead, they promoted especially provocative user-created threads. This tactic quickly proved effective. Before long, T_D was elevating a post or two onto r/all day after day.
Another T_D mod, Alex, says the team kept in close touch not only with which threads were successful, but also how mods could encourage their users to vote on stickied threads and drive them higher in Reddit’s r/all rankings. “We trained our subscribers to upvote and comment in every thread,” Alex says. “That is how we originally gamed the algorithm.” Jessie, a third mod, says T_D’s mods made “repetitive requests” to the user base to vote and boost threads. They used memes, gifs, and jokes to push users to act. It worked.
Often the posts T_D pushed to r/all were provocative: On May 20, 2016, it elevated a conspiracy theory that the Clintons had murdered the husband of sexual assault accuser Kathleen Willey. On June 8, it elevated an article on election rigging from pseudoscientific website TheMindUnleashed. At other times, however, the posts weren’t any more provocative at face value than anything else on Reddit, charged as it was in the midst of a contentious primary election season.
June 12, the day of the Orlando massacre, was such a day. By the titles of several posts T_D elevated, many readers wouldn’t have been able to place the subreddit they came from. Nonetheless, T_D commanded half of the top 25 posts on r/all after the Pulse shooting.
TITLE: Islamic State claims responsibility for Orlando nightclub shooting
TITLE: Officials in Los Angeles report a person with an arsenal of guns and explosives was arrested on his way to #LAPride.
TITLE: Information for blood donors
In elevating posts that played to no apparent political angle, T_D’s mods again showed tactical acumen. Taylor says the mods had noticed other subreddits limiting conversation about the shooting due to their sub-specific rules and internal confusion. They seized on the opportunity to present T_D as a place for open conversation.
June 12 also established T_D as not only a Trump subreddit, but also, paradoxically, an anti-Reddit subreddit. Some of the posts T_D elevated to r/all that day directly attacked the site, accusing r/news—with 21.4 million subscribers, one of Reddit’s largest current events subreddits—of censoring the shooting. Searching for a place to talk, Redditors turned away from the heavily moderated comments sections on r/news, and migrated to T_D. Some of them liked what they found.
COMMENT BY u/Faultless: I’m not that big of a fan of the guy, But shout out to r/thedonald for calling out r/news on the censorship.
“The_Donald would see its biggest growth when other people saw Reddit acting in, what they perceived to be, an unfair manner,” Taylor says. On June 12, T_D gained more than 10,000 subscribers.
Finally, its exposure that day gave T_D plenty of room to tout its usual messaging. Alongside the anti-Reddit and current events discussions, the sub stacked up post after post of anti-Islamic sentiment.
TITLE: Caught on Video=> “Gays Must Die” Says Islamic Speaker at Orlando Mosque
TITLE: Milo Yiannopoulos on Twitter: “Western capitalist democracy gave women and gays equal footing in society. Islam is here to roll the clock back.”
To the end of their second and third-highest-ranked posts of June 12, the mods added text: “DEPORT ISLAM” on one, and “#NEVERISLAM” on the other.
The Pulse shooting ended up a coup de maître for T_D’s volunteer moderators. In the next two days, the sub again gained thousands of subscribers, and news outlets around the country mentioned the page. It was T_D’s greatest implementation yet of the lesson it had learned months before: Play for attention where you can. Now, less than a year after its creation, T_D was riding high.
POST: A meme image with text “I captured his envoys and had them impaled on spikes.
POST: A child holding a sign reading “If you see me with John Podesta call the police.
“That was fun,” Taylor says.
Through the summer and fall of 2016, T_D kept rolling. In a demonstration of the momentous effect the mods’ strategies had on the entire direction of the site, Reddit’s staff took direct public action in June of that year, changing Reddit’s algorithm and preventing the sub from reaching r/all as frequently. Nonetheless, T_D crossed 200,000 subscribers in August and entered the ranks of Reddit’s top 200 biggest subs by October.
Candidate Trump rolled on, too, cementing victory at his party’s national convention and making a string of racist, sexist, and ableist statements trumpeted by his Reddit fanbase. By the time of Trump’s victory in November, T_D was among the most prominent political communities on the web
The Trump win was, naturally, yet another turning point. On November 11 and 12, T_D was among the fastest-growing pages on Reddit that users weren’t automatically subscribed to. In just over a month, it added another hundred thousand subscribers, and it continued to provoke. Famously, Huffman was caught in late 2016 editing insulting comments about himself that users had posted on T_D, an unheard-of action by a big tech CEO that brought a wave of media attention. Shortly thereafter, Reddit again changed its policies and added a filter to r/all, which allowed its users to exclude T_D from the section entirely. In early 2017, Reddit shifted focus to a new section of the site, r/popular, a staff-curated list of pages in which T_D did not appear.
The same accusations of harassment and coordinated attacks that T_D’s mods made against Reddit were increasingly made against T_D itself. T_D’s content was increasingly problematic, too. From March, 2017:
TITLE: Vlad The Impaler wrote the book on how to deal with Turkish rioters.
TITLE: So Spicy It Burns Like Lava
Meanwhile, T_D added between 500 and 1,500 new subscribers a day, week after week. The subreddit was now exerting influence outside Reddit itself. During the campaign, Trump digital communications director Brad Parscale said he checked the page “daily.” Trump has often retweeted memes that originated on T_D, notably a 2017 incident in which he spread a video of himself edited into a meme where he beat up a man labeled “CNN.”
T_D combed through leaked documents from Wikileaks for extra information, and in July 2017, staff for Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz crowdsourced ideas from the page. The moderators continued to set up “AMAs”—Ask Me Anything question-and-answer sessions that gave their users access to prominent conservative figures. Alex Jones, Roger Stone, and even Trump himself had already stopped by. Reddit, and America, looked on.
“Do I wish we’d come to conclusions sooner? Do I wish we’d figured out the tactics that ultimately worked more quickly? Of course,” Huffman says. “There is no difficult decision that I wish I hadn’t made sooner. The_Donald was a series of difficult decisions.”
QUESTION 2: How did it collapse?
Possibly the most beloved moderator in The_Donald’s history is u/OhSnapYouGotServed. Nearly every T_D volunteer interviewed for this piece spoke fondly of her. “She was well-respected,” Jessie says. “By users and mods … She did a sandwich day for International Women’s Day, gave out flairs for best sandwich ideas. Very triggering. Ha.”
“I was incredibly close to OhSnapYouGotServed,” says Jordan, who stepped down as a T_D volunteer in 2017 after OhSnapYouGotServed was removed from Reddit. “She was incredible.”
OhSnapYouGotServed led The_Donald through a time of increasing pressure both from Reddit staff and other parts of the site. To her and her team, Reddit’s actions were contradictory: It punished The_Donald for harassing others but didn’t do enough to stop others from harassing The_Dondald. On May 20, 2017, she had had enough: OhSnapYouGotServed called her subreddit to action. “Unlike all of you shitlibs and globalists, The_Donald does not live on its knees,” her post began. “Reddit will lift all restrictions on us, or we’ll make absolutely sure this is the beginning of the end for Reddit: shitlibs and fat SJWs can’t stand themselves. All SJW businesses die. Without us, there’ll be nobody to shill against and Reddit will be branded as an extreme-SJW shithole. Trust me.”
The post continued by calling out multiple other Reddit users by name, and urged The_Donald’s denizens to “make sure we repay everything in kind.” She concluded: “This mod cannot be threatened. I conceal carry and I’d love to show any one of you my skills.”
In this post, OhSnapYouGotServed broke several sitewide rules: One of Reddit’s longest-standing global guidelines prohibits inciting harassment against other users, while another bans manipulating voting or otherwise encouraging misuse of the site’s functions. The next day, her account, and the accounts of two other top T_D volunteers, were removed from their positions. OhSnapYouGotServed was later suspended from Reddit outright.
T_D volunteers pointed to this incident as a turning point in their relationship with the site. In her post, OhSnapYouGotServed took the page’s anti-Reddit sentiment to a new level: She directly called for T_D to move off of Reddit and find another home. She mentioned Voat, a Reddit clone made by users unhappy with the site. In the coming days, others took up the call to abandon ship—signs that pointed to the eventual fate of the community, some two years later.
T_D approached its newly more contentious relationship with the staff uncertainly. While vile content continued to proliferate, at least a few volunteers were concerned with the state of the team’s relationship with Reddit’s staff. To this end, they asked to establish a private group chat with the admins. Such admin-mod chat servers, while not unheard of for Reddit, are not commonplace. However, T_D was polite, and the admins acquiesced—yet another extraordinary step, showing the influence T_D had gained.
But this, too, didn’t last.
“We subsequently left those discussions after it became clear that the mods at the time were not willing to work with us in good faith,” Reddit spokesperson Anna Soellner says.
T_D’s mods tell a different story, one in which they repeatedly reported rule-breaking posts around the site to the admins in their private chat.
The mods were as organized as ever at this point. They established and delegated committees for training new volunteers, community engagement, and rules enforcement from among their dozens of unpaid workers. They made flowcharts to explain their hierarchy to one another; they graphed their posts’ performance on r/all to try and find ways to continue gaming the system. But intra-team conflicts continued to fester following OhSnapYouGotServed’s suspension.
“We went from OhSnap to Treteste (or whatever his name was, he was trash),” Jordan says, “to PrinceCamelton (who was the absolute worst, left under him) … I left on my own, which was a hard choice. But there’s things internally that cause you to leave.”
Around this time, the railroading growth of T_D began to slow. That isn’t to say it stopped—on the contrary, the page continued to see hundreds of new subscribers every day. But Reddit Metrics, a tracking site that analyzes subreddit growth, reported fewer and fewer days of massive growth spikes (it calls them “trends”) starting in the middle of 2017. In May of that year, T_D trended five times. Over the next few months, it trended one to three times each month. In December 2017, it didn’t trend at all.
Nonetheless, T_D had grown huge. It crossed 500,000 subscribers in September 2017, and the boom went on for month after month as thousands more users flowed in and the mods talked about moving offsite even as they dedicated hundreds of hours to curating a community on the platform their former leader had disavowed. These arguments would continue, throughout 2018 and into 2019, until Reddit’s staff took an action the volunteers couldn’t forgive.
By June 2019, Reddit’s policy arm was no longer limited to Huffman and his general counsel. In the years that The_Donald had run rampant across the site, Reddit had introduced an “anti-evil” team to deal with sitewide rule breaking. This team turned its attention to T_D.
And the staff saw plenty of evil there. Far from calming down and working with Reddit, the page was as ripe as ever. But even with its new and growing staff, Reddit still relied—and relies—on its volunteers. With millions of subreddits and billions of yearly views, the site (which is more active, by some metrics, than more famous social outlets such as Twitter and Instagram) relies on its volunteer army to function. The still-small staff cannot afford to spend its time actively removing and vetting every post. “One of the things that makes Reddit really special is that the communities are self-governed,” Huffman says.
It was here that T_D got very crossways. Reddit says that it repeatedly found posts and comments on the sub that broke its few global rules—restrictions on so-called brigading (organized harassment campaigns) and on speech that encourages violence, to name two. By mid-2019, conflicts of this sort were old hat for the staff and T_D both. And the admins were losing patience.
In 2015, Reddit had introduced a new weapon to use when a subreddit was particularly vile—“Quarantine.” It functioned like a combination warning label and NSFW tag. Users visiting a quarantined subreddit would be warned that it was a problem child, in much the same way that Twitter and other sites “flag” problem information in posts without expressly removing them. Even more stinging, however, is the edict that posts from a quarantined forum won’t appear anywhere on Reddit except for the home page of expressly subscribed and logged-in users. That means nobody without a verified Reddit account can see them—and that no posts there can appear on r/all.
The incident that led to T_D’s quarantine started in June 2019, when Republican state lawmakers in Oregon walked out of a legislative session to deny quorum over a climate change bill they opposed. Democratic governor Kate Brown ordered state police to go after the missing legislators, some of whom threatened to retaliate violently if pursued.
The_Donald pounced. Jubiliantly, commenters praised the prospect of a violent conflict.
COMMENT BY u/PsychicRussiaSpy: Rifles are the only way we’re going to get an peace in our lives ever again these people will not stop because they’re [sic] got crazy people energy crazy people energy you know what that is they don’t have a life so it’s just this bullshit it’s either war and we get rid of these guys or a lifetime of listening to this shit over and over again start getting yourself ready I think this should happen cuz I want some fucking piece [sic] from these people
COMMENT By u/john_denvers_dick: 4th generation Oregonain here, I have seen my beloved state turn into North California. They only way to get it back is to burn Portland and Eugene to the ground.
Those comments appeared on T_D on June 24, alongside countless others threatening both Oregon politicians and the state police sent after the legislators. In response, on June 29, Reddit staff quarantined T_D. “Your next steps,” staff wrote to the volunteers, “are that you unambiguously communicate to your subscribers that violent content is unacceptable.”
The mods were furious at the rebuke. But how they ought to react was unclear: While Jessie appealed to the admins and asked them to lift the quarantine, at least one high-ranking volunteer had long had a professed desire to return to “the old T_D,” Alex says—a T_D which didn’t try to curb its members’ darker impulses. And multiple mods viewed the T_D quarantine as deeply unfair.
“They quarantined the subreddit and stated it was ‘due to threats against police,’” Jordan says. “I just want you to think about that. They state that The_Donald of all places was against the police.” Jordan points out ongoing anti-police messaging from other Reddit users into the current day. “My view on it shouldn’t matter,” Jordan says. “You should be reasonable enough to recognize the hypocrisy.”
Beginning in early 2020, after Reddit removed more of its moderators, T_D’s volunteers locked the page completely. They began to direct their users off of Reddit and to an external site, thedonald.win, which they had created themselves.
Huffman says Reddit began to work on revamped hate speech rules for the site in January 2020. Crafting such rules was difficult, he says. “The question of a policy against hate on Reddit has been something we’ve long wrestled with,” Huffman says. “Defining hate is really difficult. Well, let me take that back. Defining hate for a policy was really difficult. So instead we focused on, what are the more objective behaviors that a hate speech policy would prohibit? Around inciting violence, bullying, harassment. And we focused on those.” He adds, “The challenge is, at the same time, that both we and our users kind of know what we mean when we talk about hate. And so there’s a tension there, and the tension would come through in my own words, where I think it was sometimes difficult to defend.”
Then came May and June, and with it the murder of George Floyd and co-founder Alexis Ohanian’s calls for Reddit to do more. “One of the big evolutions in my own thinking is not just talking about free speech versus restricted speech, but really considering how unfettered free speech actually restricts speech for others, in that some speaking prevents other people from speaking,” Huffman says. “It’s easy to get wrapped up in hypotheticals on this topic, but these aren’t hypotheticals for us. We have many communities dedicated toward people sharing their vulnerabilities and being authentic and turning to Reddit for support.”
On June 29, Reddit revealed its new anti-hate speech rules, now labeled as “Rule 1” of the entire website, binding on every group of volunteers. That same day, The_Donald was banned.
Looking at Reddit’s new system for reporting hate speech, one volunteer in another subreddit said: “I’m so happy to use this report option.”
QUESTION 3: Could it happen again?
As we speed into the second half of 2020, one question remains. What’s to stop a subreddit like The_Donald from emerging anew?
T_D is dead on Reddit, and research suggests it will stay that way. In 2015, after Reddit banned the hate community r/fatpeoplehate, researchers from Georgia Tech tracked where the subreddit’s users went next, and what they did. The researchers found that many users simply left the site, and those who remained reduced their usage of hate speech by as much as 80 percent. The smaller replacement subreddits which sprang up in place of the big bad were also easier to deal with quickly. In other words, deplatforming works, and now that Reddit has done it, it’s unlikely T_D will return.
It’s uncomfortable to think about a ban like this in the abstract—indeed, uncomfortable to think about many of Reddit’s decisions. While some Redditors protested T_D, others protested every step the staff took against it on grounds of censorship. T_D wasn’t the only subreddit banned on June 29: Hundreds of others were eliminated at the same time. There’s a whiff of police state-ism to it.
A user on another banned community, the left-leaning r/ChapoTrapHouse (banned under the same new anti-hate rules that Reddit wielded against T_D), wonders about a big tech company having that kind of control over a community space. “I’m sad it’s gone,” the user says. “For a large corporation to have such sweeping influence on what is essentially a large media platform for people to speak on, that as a concept is something I’m not completely ok with.”
He adds, “But a leftist edgy meme sub is a small price to pay to nuke a ton of subs that actively spread hate.”
Before “nuking” T_D, Reddit gave its moderators months of time to advertise its new home on thedonald.win. It’s impossible to say how much of the traffic there came from Reddit. But tracking apps estimate that the new website has the approximate daily traffic of a subreddit with 2.5 million subscribers.
It will have to cultivate those users on its own, free of the Reddit tools—like r/all—that long enabled T_D’s operators to amplify its message. Reddit has disavowed it, labeling it a purveyor of hate. Other large companies seem poised to take similar steps against their users. “I think it comes down to incentives,” Huffman says. “A community like The_Donald and the man the Donald, the president, feed off of attention. We should look at, are they effective in getting attention through this sort of toxic behavior? If the answer is yes, I think we’re doomed to repeat what we just went through. If the answer is no, I think we’ll be OK.”
The_Donald’s ban is the most direct action a major social media site has taken against Trump or his supporters. And it only took Reddit five years to do it.
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