In June of 2015, Donald J. Trump rode down the golden escalators of Trump Tower in New York City and announced his intention to run for President of the United States. Shortly thereafter, on the popular news aggregation website Reddit, r/The_Donald was born.
It quickly became a favorite hangout for influencers, politicians, pundits, gamers, trolls, and your average, everyday Trump supporter. The burgeoning online community was vibrant, engaged, and vocal; it was, in many ways, the digital embodiment of America’s enthusiasm for the alternative to establishment politics that Trump represented.
The Donald had it all under one roof.
The burgeoning online community was vibrant, engaged, and vocal; it was, in many ways, the digital embodiment of America’s enthusiasm for the alternative to establishment politics that Trump represented.
What made The Donald unique was that—cloistered in the world of Reddit—none of the negative coverage or misrepresentations of the mainstream media were ever able to dampen the spirits of its members. While the members of r/politics (another popular group) would lose their collective minds about every new piece of fake news, The Donald was steadfast—busy mocking each and every person who dared to stand against their leader, who users lovingly referred to as “The God-Emperor Trump.”
It was a rowdy, nonstop Trump extravaganza, replete with dank memes, “redpills” (a reference to taking the red pill in The Matrix), testimonials, campaigns, and encouragement for those doing great work in the online world. A profound sense of community and camaraderie was fostered by this atmosphere that is rarely seen online. The Donald grew at breakneck speed; quickly growing to more than 760,000 members. The fellowship was strong and the mission was clear: get Donald Trump elected to the White House.
And in this mission, The Donald was wildly successful, earning one of the top two spots in all of the internet for creating and disseminating the most effective viral content the world had ever seen. The Donald played an important role in meming President Donald Trump into the White House.
But Reddit’s progressive administrators couldn’t tolerate that, so they decided to put their thumb on the scale.
ENTER THE HALL MONITORS OF SILICON VALLEY
Before discussing how Reddit’s administrators have throttled The Donald, we should discuss how Reddit works. Users create posts in groups (referred to as a “subreddits” or “subs”) such as The Donald, and other users can upvote or downvote the post. It’s a form of social crowdsourcing—the more upvotes that a post receives, the higher it appears on the newsfeed for that group. The most upvoted posts on Reddit receive the coveted honor of appearing on the front page of the website. This provides a spotlight not only to the content of the post, but also the subreddit from which it originated. Appearing on the “front page of the internet,” as it is called, means that any visitor can see it, not just people who subscribe to The Donald. Due to this incentive structure, the goal of every subreddit is to create content that reaches the front page.
In a single weekend more than 85,000 people unsubscribed from r/news and similar subreddits because their questions and posts were being unjustly removed.
Back to the story at hand.
On June 12, 2016, the Pulse Nightclub shooting occurred, horrified reddit users were legitimately in search of answers regarding the tragedy. The Donald was one of the only subreddits where comments and posts were not being aggressively censored to galvanize the false media narrative alleging the attack was perpetrated by a homophobic Christian conservative—a claim that was later debunked.
In a single weekend more than 85,000 people unsubscribed from r/news and similar subreddits because their questions and posts were being unjustly removed. In that week, 13 of the top 25 posts on Reddit originated from The Donald. Unsurprisingly, just 3 days later Reddit altered the website to prevent posts from The Donald from reaching the front page—ever.
Beyond suppressing content, posting restrictions were also placed on The Donald. In conversations with a number of The Donald’s moderators, they told me that they were informed by Reddit administrators that the subreddit would be banned if users were found linking to other subreddits. This limitation is only placed on select reddit communities.
This limitation had a dramatic impact on The Donald. If r/politics features a post claiming, for example, that Trump is a white supremacist and Russian spy who should be executed, users cannot link to that in The Donald or the entire subreddit could be banned. A flaw (or perhaps from Reddit’s point of view, a feature) of this policy is that users of The Donald are unable to respond to the falsehoods being spouted by users of other subreddits, even if the lies are directly about The Donald subreddit.
The reason for these limitations on The Donald, Reddit claims, was to prevent “brigading,” a term that refers to users from one online community organizing to cause chaos on another forum. Reddit’s Site-wide anti-brigading policy prohibits abuse of the upvote/downvote system, meaning users are not allowed to go into a community and simply downvote everything that they see. But a simple search of Reddit reveals that users opposed to The Donald routinely engage in this activity themselves.
And yet, despite all the throttling by Reddit administrators and brigading by hostile Reddit users, The Donald is still thriving. It maintains 10,000 active users at almost all times, making it still one of the most active communities on all of Reddit.
It’s no wonder that Reddit’s administrators decided to drop the hammer.
On June 26, 2019, the entire subreddit was placed in a “quarantine,” indefinitely. A “quarantine” on Reddit is exactly what it sounds like: the subreddit is removed from search results both on Reddit and Google, content from the subreddit does not appear anywhere else on the site, and users must agree to a large disclaimer before they can view the subreddit. In effect, a 50-foot DANGER sign greets you at the door, cautioning against your entry.
Reddit has established a template that other social media companies can model to effectively silence conservatives. This strategy slowly turns down the volume on conservative users and platforms instead of banning them outright.
Reddit justified the “quarantine” on the grounds that The Donald tolerated posts containing “violent threats” toward police. That assertion was ludicrous. As a pro-Trump subreddit, users of The Donald are overwhelmingly supportive of the U.S. military and the police. Regardless of how hard moderators work to delete comments that violate Reddit’s rules, some will inevitably slip through the cracks. It is, after all, a group open to the public with more than 750,000 users. And yet, predictably, other subreddits are not punished for similar violations. The Donald users managed to compile 30-pages of threatening comments that violate of Reddit’s terms; most of these posts are still up on other subreddits. Those subreddits have not been quarantined or punished in any way, which suggests that Reddit selectively enforces its rules to prejudice conservatives.
As of publication, The Donald remains in quarantine after two appeals. In researching this piece I spoke with three moderators of The Donald who independently confirmed that despite the team implementing the changes and meeting the benchmarks demanded by the Reddit administrators, both appeals were denied. In fact, at each appeal, additional restrictions were placed on the subreddit, effectively moving the goalpost each time. Today, September 26th, The Donald will have its third and final appeal of the year.
STRATEGIC AMBIGUITY: THE TEMPLATE FOR SLOW & SUBTLE CENSORSHIP
Reddit’s strategy is transparent. It has established a template that other social media companies can model to effectively silence conservatives. This strategy slowly turns down the volume on conservative users and platforms instead of banning them outright. By breaking their censorship into varied opaque components, it becomes more difficult to pinpoint, challenging to prove, and nearly impossible to oppose.
Other prominent social media platforms are already adopting this template. Twitter, for example, is banning fewer people now than they were just a year ago. Why? Perhaps because they can much more easily restrict who can see your tweets, limit how many people retweet and interact with you, put you in quarantine, and pressure you to leave out of frustration.
The largest Pro-Trump community in existence, outside of President Trump’s Twitter account, has been systematically silenced, and you likely never even knew about it. Many of the biggest stories in conservative media break there first, before being disseminated to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Moreover, The Donald is responsible for at least 15 of President Trump’s viral meme tweets. The expansive influence of The Donald is evident.
The slow strangling of The Donald is not just a story about a subreddit—it is a blueprint for what is to come.
STAND AND FIGHT
What can be done?
[The Donald’s] very existence is proof of how important platform access is to the conservative movement.
First, the subreddit will receive its final appeal of the year on September 26th. If you’re a user of The Donald or just a supporter of free speech and platform access, you can make your voice heard. Focus and attention projects importance, the best way to help The Donald is to spread the word and unite behind it. That includes prodding the President and his team to speak out against the quarantine. President Trump has done an “Ask Me Anything” event on the subreddit, and his campaign manager Brad Parscale visited the site daily during the 2016 campaign. Encouraging them to support The Donald could prove fruitful.
Second, while I hope the day will never come when The Donald is outright banned from Reddit, we have to prepare for that eventuality by creating rival platforms. I created www.MemeWorld.com to serve as a backup for myself and other creators as one example. We should also support alternatives to the major social media platforms, while still maintaining battle readiness in the liberal strongholds and promote any other sites that allow conservatives to express themselves freely.
That said, nothing could replace The Donald. The Donald is an island afloat in a sea of liberal tears and it offers a raft to anyone willing to reach for it. It probably cannot be recreated in a new platform, in the same way that Twitter alternatives can’t seem to replace the real thing. Many prominent conservatives have been pushing to make platform access a civil right, and that is where we must start.
Though the ultimate fate of The Donald is still uncertain, it should remain a historic testament to the scale at which online organizing has flourished for conservatives. The Donald may potentially be the largest example of a distinct internet community to be stifled by a Big Tech platform. Its very existence is proof of how important platform access is to the conservative political movement. Reddit’s quarantine, on the other hand, is a microcosm of internet censorship against conservatives that can teach us how to succeed in the future.
The biggest story, it turns out, was one that never could have reached the “front page of the internet,” because it was banned from doing so.
We must fight tooth and nail against a world in which dark tech lords like the Reddit administrators can flagrantly manipulate the rules of online engagement to achieve their desired political ends. Conceding any territory on this issue all but guarantees a future where conservatives are forced to live as second-class members of any online community. There is a war being waged for the First Amendment in the age of the internet, and compromise only strengthens the position of the enemy.
It’s up to us to make the internet great again.