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The inside story of Reddit’s struggle to deal with its most toxic pro-Trump users

The company’s fierce internal debates over how to handle The_Donald, one of its most popular subreddits, are recounted in this excerpt from Christine Lagorio’s new book, We Are the Nerds.

The inside story of Reddit’s struggle to deal with its most toxic pro-Trump users
[Photos: C Flanigan/FilmMagic; Flickr user Cody Glenn/Web Summit via Sportsfile]

Donald Trump’s internet virality engine lurks deep in a section of Reddit known as The_Donald. It has more than 600,000 subscribers and was–along with Facebook, Twitter, and other sites–one of the spawning grounds for the Russian disinformation campaign in the lead-up to the 2016 election. Reddit noted much later, as other social media platforms were answering tough questions from Congress on foreign influence online in April 2018, that it had identified 944 user accounts it believed were associated with the Russian Internet Research Agency, noting that it had banned them all, the majority prior to the election.

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Last week, new accusations of attempted foreign influence surfaced. A user posted an explainer that claimed he’d tracked a successor to the IRA’s earlier activities on the site. Reddit banned four of the main suspect domains–but was widely criticized for not having previously caught them. A Reddit spokesperson said the investigation into suspicious content is ongoing: “We have dedicated teams that enforce our site-wide policies, proactively go after bad actors on the site, and create engineering solutions to prevent them in the future.” Reddit would not confirm that the four domains it had banned were connected to Russian disinformation campaigns, only that they had broken site rules.

This was nothing new for Reddit, a site that has since its earliest days attracted the brightest and most toxic elements of the internet. CEO Steve Huffman, who hand-coded the site when he launched it with Alexis Ohanian in 2005 and who returned in 2015 to the company to try to save it in the wake of a scandal that threatened to topple it, has overseen the purges of many other types of noxious content on Reddit. Since 2015, the company has banned violence against animals, threats against individuals, gun sales, and sections of the site (“subreddits”) dedicated to the alt-right.

While r/The_Donald has been subject to much scrutiny, it has escaped such drastic punishment. Since its inception, Redditors opposed to Trump or activities of his online supporters, or opposed to its casual misogyny and uncivil discourse, have called for Reddit to ban it. In plenty of cases, they’ve had a point: Users and moderators of r/The_Donald have broken many, if not all, of the site’s rules.

I’ve been interviewing Huffman for my book since 2011. I’ve not only witnessed the evolution of his thinking in creating a “free speech” site, but have had a close-up view into the site’s working as its policies have changed. He’s told me he dislikes much about The_Donald, including its political views and tone. But he still argues that Trump supporters deserve an online home. “Now, I don’t always factor in ‘what’s good for the United States’ into my decisions,” Huffman told me. “But Reddit’s getting to a point where our actions do have an impact.” (It’s the fifth most popular destination on the American internet. One-third of all Americans view at least something on the site every month, by Reddit’s estimates.)

What follows is the story of r/The_Donald, a weird, insular world that helped give rise to President Trump and which has for years presented a singular challenge to Huffman and his team.

This book excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.

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The bruising 2016 election cycle was almost at its end, and although [Reddit CEO Steve] Huffman and his teams had made some attempts at cracking down on the hate speech that Reddit had become associated with, new gates that enclosed the worst content on Reddit barely masked the reality: There was still a lot of awful stuff.

There were lightly veiled white supremacist subreddits, such as r/european, with a distinctly anti-Muslim sentiment. Others were dedicated to spreading a strain of ultra-right-wing, pro–”Western culture misogyny, such as r/PussyPass, which tallied allegations of women receiving preferential treatment, and a small universe of subreddits dedicated to “taking the Red Pill,” a reference to The Matrix, which in the movie signaled becoming indoctrinated with an uncomfortable, unpopular truth. More recently, the term had been appropriated by the “manosphere” to describe the epiphany one would undergo once coming to see their viewpoint on gender inequality against men, or men’s rights. R/TheRedPill and r/Incels were particularly sexist and overlapped with the alt- right and neoreactionary communities, with which they shared a vocabulary. They were places where women were treated as submissive, stupid possessions who should be trained to bow down to their “king” or “alpha” and where disgruntled young white men ranted about perceived ills. R/hitler still existed, though Huffman, when confronted with that fact, shrugged. He said he was confident that if that subreddit became popular or grew, his teams would cut it off.

None of these, however, attained the level of notoriety or popularity that did r/The_Donald.

R/The_Donald began as a straightforward, if slightly tongue- in-cheek forum dedicated to news about and advocacy for the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. It was created in June 2015 after Trump announced his candidacy, and immediately, posts mimicked his blunt, hyperbolic speech patterns. Growth was slow initially, which made sense—Bernie Sanders had seemed to be Reddit’s candidate of choice early in the 2016 election cycle.

In December 2015, r/The_Donald was still a mostly mild place, though infused with some of the wall-building rhetoric spouted by the candidate himself. Its extensive set of rules, maintained by the moderators, forbade most bigotry and racism, with the exception of Islamophobia, which it expressly permitted. Then the brigading and memetic warfare started.

Brigading is the invasion of a topic, thread, or entire message board by a group of individuals who have organized themselves online with the purpose of manipulating content or its visibility. This sort of plotting happens in massive private-message threads on Twitter, in Facebook groups, on private chat servers such as Discord, and, very overtly, on 4chan’s /pol, a “politically incorrect” board that had been created by 4chan’s founder in 2011 to siphon off and contain the overtly xenophobic and racist comments and memes from other wings of 4chan. This mostly off-Reddit organizing then plays out on Reddit as vote brigading, or attempting to silence individual voices by downvoting them into oblivion. Other products were meme generation and dissemination, harassment campaigns, and propagation of disinformation, largely aiming to disseminate far-right viewpoints. Brigading had long been against the site’s rules, but this activity was difficult to track, and almost impossible to differentiate from regular Reddit activity due to the fact that it looked an awful lot like normal Reddit activity: Those taking part were coming from disparate IP addresses, mostly domestic, and most of which otherwise interacted typically with the site.

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The_Donald’s subscriber list grew in fits and lurches—and examining its growth patterns helps explain both its constituency and why it became both an outsized force on Reddit and Trump’s most active and vocal base of support on the entire Internet.

Early on, an influx of brigaders came from 4chan’s /pol board, and its Reddit counterpart, r/pol. There was more crossover of /pol users to Reddit after 4chan was abandoned by its creator, Chris Poole, in January 2015, after he’d  lost any semblance of ability to control the sprawling, vile communities it harbored.

Over the following year, Reddit’s political boards, most prominently r/The_Donald, experienced a substantial influx of traffic from former channers. They brought with them some of what became The_Donald’s signature vernacular, as well as meme- proficiency and lots of keks, which is 4chan slang for laughs and possibly a reference to the frog, sometimes Pepe the Frog, an image that thanks to memetic strategizing on 4chan and 8chan had been infused with anti-Semitic meaning and that the Anti-Defamation League subsequently declared a hate symbol.

A wave of likely racists had also joined in the late summer of 2015, after Huffman and his teams shuttered r/CoonTown. Its constituency subsequently migrated to other subreddits “where racist behavior has either been noted or is prevalent,” a study by six researchers associated with the Georgia Institute of Technology, Emory University, and the University of Michigan found. One of the top places it was discovered that these users migrated to during their time on Reddit was The_Donald. (A later semantic analysis by FiveThirtyEight confirmed that the nonpolitics subreddits on Reddit most closely related to The_Donald were r/fatpeoplehate, r/ TheRedPill, and r/CoonTown.)

Another constituency growing around this time, it would later become known, was Russian propagandists, apparently in an effort to sow disinformation and discord among the American electorate. Reddit later identified 944 user accounts associated with a Kremlin- tied troll farm; the largest posters were active on The_Donald, using upvoting schemes to make their posts more popular. While most of the accounts’ efforts were ineffective, a few were successful; one posted a sex video that falsely claimed to include Hillary Clinton, and it received more than one hundred thousand upvotes.

As the 2016 campaign season wore on, Donald Trump’s big tent on Reddit was his largest online supporter group, and it included a constituency of: racists; the 4chan migrants, largely in it for the keks; alt-righters; Gamergaters contributing sexism and conspiracy theories; some former Bernie Sanders supporters; Russian propagandists; and anyone lured by the promise of a place that tolerated Islamophobia. R/The_Donald was their clubhouse, a thriving “safe space” that blossomed into one of the most absurdist and influential communities in all of Reddit. With all this in mind, perhaps it makes sense that by mid-2016, The_Donald had become a two-hundred-thousand-strong community producing a steady stream of far-right talking points, coded racism, casual misogyny, Islamophobia, and the now-well-established alt-right “free speech” and hatred of the mainstream media.

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Since its inception, Reddit’s community team had flagged T_D (for short) as problematic and devoted regular resources to monitoring it. But as T_D devolved into a place with its own rapidly evolving vernacular in part to code its extremism, and shitposting became a norm, the forum’s moderators and the Reddit admins keeping an eye on them together slipped into stranger and stranger territory.

The limits of free speech were indeed being stretched here— deftly and deliberately. Plenty of content and thousands of users were banned by T_D’s rotating cast of thirty-some volunteer moderators—users with usernames such as sublimeinslime, ivagi- naryfriend, and pm_me_yo_doggos, whose profile photo was a cartoon hybrid of Donald Trump and Pepe the Frog aiming an automatic rifle. “News” from questionable sources such as Infowars and Breitbart abounded; many of the far-right’s messages were honed here, and primed for appearance on Twitter and other social media where major news outlets might pick them up.

As memes, slang, and acronyms metastasized, the subreddit’s lingua franca evolved so far from what others might recognize as common usage—daily, even hourly—that it became onerous to track its lightning-fast online etymological evolution. This language was a key part of their defiance of the mainstream: “If you’re using the left’s buzzwords like ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’ then you’re gonna find yourself following leftist thought patterns,” one moderator wrote. “However, it’s very hard to accidentally align with SJWs by using words like ‘cuckold’ or ‘faggot.’ Our culture exists for a reason and we’re gonna cherish it, and enjoy the power it gives us.” The massive effort, in all its extremism, wasn’t lost on Donald Trump’s campaign. In the lead-up to the election, Donald Trump on his Twitter account reposted memes and videos that bubbled up on T_D, including, as far back as 2015, an image of Pepe that had been altered to resemble Trump. Former campaign staffers have admitted that from the war room that had been set up in Trump Tower in New York, they relentlessly monitored the huge forum for content to push out to Trump’s followers online. Before long, though, the subreddit’s moderators were directly in touch with campaign staffers, and, according to Reddit staffers, together they arranged for Trump to participate in an Ask Me Anything in July 2016.

Other portions of Reddit were apoplectic. Posts on r/TheoryOfReddit, a forum dedicated to meta-examination of on- site phenomena, had long pondered The_Donald’s meteoric rise, with posts ranging from “is it a cult?” to “is it an anti-muslim, anti-immigration subreddit?” On one day in late April 2016, as Trump moved toward securing the Republican nomination, ninety- three of the top one hundred posts on r/all originated from The_Donald. Even r/TheoryOfReddit gave up. It had just four moderators and said they didn’t have the bandwidth to deal with the backlash to every post that mentioned T_D.

By mid-2016, T_D was the most active community on Reddit, and therefore, among the site’s most influential. But the extreme engagement of its various factions was far from organic. When a post from T_D rocketed to the top of r/all, often it was the intentional result of an orchestrated campaign. The extensive slate of The_Donald moderators had developed an intricate and highly regimented structure, one that members of Reddit’s community team have referred to as “bureaucratic,” “coordinated,” and “militaristic.”

While most subreddits’ mod teams operate as volunteers—each dabbling in their free time in reading modmail and flagging spam— on The_Donald, moderators developed a communication system and hierarchy, wherein tasks were more cleanly divided; everyone had their role. Over IRC, Discord, other message boards, and on in-depth documents, editorial calendars of sorts, they developed a new system for ensuring that their content could gain steam in a controlled fashion.

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Moderators of T_D harnessed and manipulated simple Reddit site customizations, using them in unorthodox ways to disseminate T_D content far beyond its pages. First, the typical Reddit downvoting function was cut off throughout T_D—meaning a post could only gain, not lose, traction. To gain subscribers, at times the moderators created a large Trump pop-up that visitors had to click on to make it disappear—but by clicking, they became subscribed to the forum, meaning they would regularly encounter its content on their custom homepage. At one point, the most problematic subsite hack T_D moderators utilized was locking a post of their choosing on the top spot on the site, where typically the subreddit’s current most popular post is found. Moderators referred to this as “stickying” a post; it is akin to “pinning” a tweet to the top of a Twitter feed. T_D had gamed the sacred algorithm. They had unlocked a way to disseminate content handpicked by moderators.

On June 12, 2016, T_D recruited more than eleven thousand new subscribers through exposure on r/all. Moderators of r/news had made a bizarre decision in the wake of a deadly attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando to disallow posts and comments about the attack, compiling all information into a single “megathread.” It resulted in a dearth of news about the attack on Reddit’s front pages, which are usually dominated by the day’s top news headlines. T_D swooped in to fill the void. With what amounted to planned brigades of upvotes, it propelled several posts to the home page. T_D had found a weak spot and used it to grow, again. “Of course, the subreddit was already well-versed in Islamophobia, so it was a particularly apt place to wildly speculate about [the shooter’s] motives, involvement with the Islamic State, and what should eventually happen with all Muslims in this country,” Vice News wrote at the time.

Huffman attempted to engage the broader Reddit community about the handling of the release of news after the nightclub shooting, on Reddit’s blog. In it, he made a tweak to how “stickied” posts could be employed, now dubbing them “announcement” posts and requiring they be text-based and created by a moderator. That brought the direct ire of The_Donald, which retaliated with the Internet equivalent of a raised middle finger: a bunch of swastikas in the headline of a post that contained nothing other than a subtle ask for upvotes from others who wanted to retaliate against u/spez. The_Donald subscribers gamely upvoted it—and it soared to the top spot on r/all. It read: “Don’t mind me, just taking my admins for a walk. Dear cucked admins, stop lying to people on the internet.”

Swastikas on the front page was unambiguously not a good look for Reddit. Angry, Huffman decided to double down. On June 16, he posted to r/announcements that over the past day Reddit had tweaked the algorithm that determined hotness on r/all. Now, rather than competing against one another for popularity, each given community would be judged against itself and its own recent viral activity in order to achieve front-page status. “Our specific goal being to prevent any one community from dominating,” Huffman wrote. “This undermines Reddit, and we are not going to allow it.” It was a direct move to limit the reach of T_D. Later, to further rein in T_D, Huffman specifically banned posts stickied by T_D from r/all, calling the subreddit’s tactics “antagonistic to the rest of the community.”

But by that time, T_D had more than three hundred thousand subscribers. There was no stopping it. Not that Huffman actually wanted to.

Donald J. Trump was elected 45th president of the United States on November 8, 2016.

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Huffman said he should have seen it coming.

When asked at the end of November whether he believed Reddit had a role in the election’s outcome, Huffman was open to the possibility, saying, “It’s hard to say.” He said The_Donald, specifically, was a reflection of the conversation that was happening nationwide—only amplified, thanks to the nature of the see-what- you-want-to-see social web. “I think that’s one of the challenges you see when you democratize media and news consumption,” he said. “The feedback loop gets louder and louder and louder.”

Reddit investor Dave McClure had a near meltdown onstage at the Web Summit in Lisbon the day after the election, saying that social networks built by Silicon Valley are “a propaganda medium” that “assholes like Trump” use to get into office. “We provide communication platforms for the rest of the fucking country and we are allowing shit to happen just like the cable news networks, just like talk radio.” Later that day, McClure lamented, “Sometimes I feel like we’re just a bunch of nerds who don’t know how to play the game.”

A few weeks later, onstage at a conference in Brooklyn, Huffman was confronted with the question of whether Facebook’s longtime defense—that it was not a publisher of content, which would require editorial control, but rather merely a technology platform, useful for distribution of individuals’ content—was valid.

“They are filtering what we see,” the interviewer said of Facebook. “If you look at Reddit, do you see yourself becoming a social network or as a publisher, or—what is Reddit?”

Huffman gave a standard line, that Reddit is home to thousands of communities, which each choose what they see and discuss. He said that Reddit is a reflection of humanity in that way, but noted that like Facebook, what Reddit had done was open up communications between individuals to a before-unseen level, which meant a hugely greater breadth of conversation than the world had ever known. “I see our role as a communications platform, primarily, bringing people together.”

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Afterward, in a private discussion, Huffman opened up a bit more. He said he did not believe that Facebook has a moral obligation to exert a sweeping hand of editorial judgment over what its users posted. “Right now what I see is a lot of self-righteous ‘Somebody’s to blame for this,’ ” he said. “They’re looking for a scapegoat.”

To Huffman, at the time, the existence of T_D and its divisive, uncivil, often conspiracy-theory-minded discourse was a matter of free speech—on which his once-absolutist thinking had begun to evolve—and would continue to evolve. He and Reddit had begun to treat different types of content differently. Noxious communities aimed at antagonizing Reddit were subject to banning by Huffman and his team. So was content of the crying-“fire”-in-a-crowded-theater stripe: Anything inciting violence or harm, regardless of its validity or intent, he’d empowered his teams of administrators to cut off. It has banned r/incels, r/european, r/hitler, r/pol, and put behind a no-advertising wall r/TheRedPill. But overtly political speech: This, to Huffman, was at least somewhat separate. It was what the First Amendment at its core was contrived to protect.

But it would not be simple to protect—nor even comprehend. “Political speech” had been redefined by savvy, aggressive trolls. And that left Huffman in the wake of the election a bit flabbergasted. “Do I force equal time to candidates during election season? Do we ban communities? No, no, no,” he said. “It just doesn’t make sense.” But he knew that what was unfolding on Reddit was consequential. He didn’t agree with it, but he was pretty sure he should protect it. “I mean, Trump won, right? Fifty percent of people voted for him, let’s not pretend that this is some aberration, that The_Donald is some freak occurrence.”

Excerpted from the book We Are the Nerds: The Birth and Tumultuous Life of Reddit, the Internet’s Culture Laboratory, by Christine Lagorio-Chafkin, to be published on October 2, 2018 by Hachette Books, a division of Hachette Book Group. Copyright 2018 Christine Lagorio-Chafkin.

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