How r/the_donald became the ‘least free place on the internet.’
In June of last year, a new subreddit was created called r/the_donald, a place for "following the news related to Donald Trump during his presidential run." The curious thing is that's kind of exactly what it was—a relatively inoffensive list of links, cordial political discussion, and viewpoints from both Trump supporters and naysayers. Just over a year later, the_donald has become … well, it's hard to say what it's become.
If you check out the_donald now, it's a disconcerting melting pot of posts that run the gamut from InfoWars-style conspiracies, men's rights activist- and GamerGate-style real and faux outrage, memes and shitposts (basically, jokes that are only meant to be understood by those in the community), and, yes, Donald Trump news. On the_donald, you will find "high energy centipedes" who are sick of "SJWs," "BernieBots," and "Shillary" Clinton; anti-Trump conservatives are "cucks" who are happy to watch idly as "liberals fuck America."
For the last few months, the_donald has been one of the most powerful and influential communities on one of the most powerful and influential websites in America. Its posts so regularly took over Reddit's most popular posts that the company's administrators decided to rush through a change to the site's algorithm in part to make the community less visible. Slowly but surely over the last year, the_donald has evolved from a straightforward political community focused on the goings-on of the Trump campaign to an authoritarian one full of memes and in-jokes, far right talking points, coded racism, misogyny, homophobia, and Islamophobia, and a hypocritical "free speech" rallying point.
The subreddit has been important politically, too: Trump's official Twitter account has tweeted memes and videos that originally circulated on the subreddit, though his campaign says he found them only after other Twitter users circulated them. Most recently, after photoshopping a Star of David onto a Hillary Clinton meme, Trump based his defense on the idea that a Frozen sticker book did the same thing, an idea that originally circulated on the_donald.
Nailing down who the community's 172,000 subscribers are is a difficult, perhaps impossible endeavor that's nonetheless both fascinating and worth exploring as we consider how a relatively small community has become one of Reddit's most controversial, least understood, and most disruptive groups. Are they trolls? Are they GamerGate spinoffs? 4chan posters looking for a new outlet? Racists and xenophobes? Members of the #AllLivesMatter movement? Free speech obsessives? Could they impossibly all just be true Donald Trump believers?
"A lot of people are genuinely pissed off economically and socially, but you have people who are engaging in this for different reasons, and then there's the people who are misguided and just racist. The problem with pseudonymous and anonymous internet communities is that it's hard to parse when someone is genuinely feeling these things and who is mining a weird moment in American history to get some laughs on the internet," Whitney Phillips, a Mercer University professor and researcher who spent four years embedded in 4chan as part of her doctoral thesis and eventual book about the trolling subculture, told me.
"It's kind of like trying to talk about the whole of the American public in the singular, but it's even harder, because you have layers of anonymity and people who are just trying to provoke," she continued. "It's fascinating stuff, but it does not limit itself to tidy analyses or conclusions about what it all means."
Phillips says that though we can't necessarily tell who these people are, we can analyze, critique, and draw conclusions from their online behavior. I've spent the last several months monitoring the_donald's interactions with the greater Reddit community and reading posts to the subreddit. Perhaps more interestingly, by combing through the Internet Archive, reading into the subreddit's rule changes, and tying major Reddit events and news stories to the subreddit's statistics, you can see the subreddit's slow evolution into the insular echo chamber that it is today.
August 13, 2015: The Early Days
The Internet Archive's first snapshot of the site is from about two months after it was formed. It had just 228 subscribers (called "Americans" at the time), and it traded in "interesting topics including polling, campaign-related comments, reactions, and push backs." Within days of being created, it was handed over to a mod called jcm267, whose username dates back to the days when Digg was popular. Jcm267 would later change his name to tehdonald, and he still mods the subreddit.
"We didn't have the best name for a Trump subreddit so I actually figured it would just be a nice place for a small group of supporters to have fun triggering anti-Trump people and, frankly, laughing with Trump at the same time," jcm267, now tehdonald, told me in an email. A complete transcript of my email with him is available here.
The subreddit traded in run-of-the-mill news articles that were mainly posted by jcm267. Of particular note, jcm267 specifically banned a white supremacist, then publicized the fact, setting an early tone that racism would not be tolerated on the sub.
October 20, 2015 - February 10, 2016: The rules begin and the_donald takes shape
For all its users' talk of "free speech" (a stance the moderators do not share), the_donald has rules that are among the most strict on all of Reddit. In October of 2015, the slowly growing subreddit of about 1,000 users had rules that noted "trolling, bigotry," and, most notably, "anti-Trump sentiment" were bannable offenses.
Rules are not inherently bad—in fact, "no bigotry" rules are important for fostering free speech, Phillips explains. But depending on how the rules are enforced, how they're written, and the wink-wink manner in which they can be circumvented, they can be used to allow coded racism, misogyny and hate speech, foster an insular community, and crush dissent.
The moderators of the_donald have a long history of banning people who overtly break "rule three," which is the community's "no racism" rule, but allow coded racism that has long been used by white nationalists.
In October, the_donald was still a small subreddit and it was still mostly civil and focused on Donald Trump. But the candidate's inflammatory rhetoric of course led to discussion of his comments and, this being a Donald Trump fan forum, was frequented by people who agreed with a candidate who wants to build a wall between the US and Mexico, ban Muslims from entering the country, and deport undocumented immigrants.
In December, some of Reddit's other communities, which have traditionally been liberal-leaning, began to "brigade" or invade the subreddit. The_donald became known to Reddit's r/politics subreddit and 4chan's /pol/ board at around the same time, and members from those sites started down voting and otherwise harassing the_donald's members. The important takeaway, though, is that some of them stayed.
"/pol/ found us and has given us a tremendous amount of energy and some fantastic content," tehdonald told me. "The people from /pol/ who can behave, which is probably most of them, stay. The people who don't behave usually wind up getting banned for rule 3."
On December 8, the_donald gained 300 new subscribers, the most popular day it had up to that point. In a post called "the great r/the_donald invasion," a moderator started the subreddit's now infamous us-against-the-rest-of-reddit ethos: "When /r/politics sends their people they aren't sending their best," NYPD-32, a moderator of the subreddit wrote, playing on Trump's comments about Mexicans. "They're losers, they're Reddit TOS violators, some of them I assume may be good people."
"The 300+ new Trump-ites can stay. But those who came from an illegal brigade and manipulated votes .. you have to go, sorry," the mod wrote, deporting those who didn't agree with the subreddit's candidate of choice.
The brigades continued, and, by February the community began to look a lot more like it does today. As Trump led in polls and began to actually win primaries, the subreddit began to grow in earnest. February 10, the day after the New Hampshire primary (Trump's first victory), the subreddit had ballooned to 10,000 subscribers. That was when the subreddit started becoming a place where Islamophobia was not only tolerated, but was cheered on, and the extent of the subreddit's "no racism" rule, which replaced "no bigotry" in February, was explained.
A moderator told users to stop reporting instances of Islamophobia, indicating that the subreddit was a safe place for people who hate Muslims: "Jesus Christ people, stop reporting Islamophobia. We don't fucking care about our 'Islamophobia problem' AT ALL!" The post further explained that "anything short of Stormfront is not rule three," referring to the terrifyingly popular white supremacist forums and the subreddit's new "no racism" rule.
Phillips says that by having rules against bigotry but implicitly allowing it if coded correctly, the_donald can argue to Reddit's administrators (and detractors) that it's not a racist misogynistic place. But that's of course not the case.
"They use these existing rule structures as a front—if they're not directly saying something hateful and violent they can argue that it's in a gray area," she said. "They have these rules against racism and antisemitism, but if you look now at the page, I mean, come on—is this is a joke? It's totally bizarre."
February 11 - June 10: the_donald takes over Reddit
This was the "boom period" of r/the_donald, where it both hit a critical mass turning point and learned how to game the Reddit algorithm to its own advantage. At the beginning of this period, the subreddit was still primarily made up of early adopters of Donald Trump who had found it by searching for it, mixed with brigaders from 4chan's /pol/ and r/politics. Of those who came from /politics and /pol/, it can be reasonably assumed that some of them were classic shitposters and trolls, some were converts, and some just liked causing a ruckus.
Importantly, the_donald's mods learned how to manipulate the still very small community onto the top of reddit's /r/all page, which is a list of the most popular posts across the entire site. Basically, moderators would "pin" posts to the top of r/the_donald, artificially putting it at the top and encouraging people to vote for it. Because Reddit's algorithm has a chronological element—posts that get a large number of votes soon after they're posted are more heavily favored—the subreddit's "high energy" posters were capable of creating "high velocity" posts (the_donald's lexicon was quickly expanding and becoming more in-jokey during this period) that could get to the top of r/all, giving them an exponentially higher visibility than they'd have on the subreddit alone.
"new centipedes must assimilate"
These posts, combined with Trump's early electoral success, led the community to be "trending" four separate times in February alone. In the last two weeks of February, the subreddit grew from 10,000 users to 40,000 users, and posts from r/the_donald regularly dominated r/all, raising awareness of the subreddit. It's during this time where the_donald began having many more memes, shitposts, and general nonsense—tehdonald tells me he moderated a Mitt Romney subreddit "which was a failure back in 2012 because it tried to be too serious."
"When Cis [a since banned mod] pushed for stuff like using the sticky to push shitposts to the front page I was able to buy into it because I've seen first hand that easily digestible content and a fun culture do well on reddit," tehdonald said. "'Serious' does not. The way that /r/the_donald is run simply works."
The explosion in popularity also led to more brigading, which led to more strict moderation (in the sense that outsiders were forced to assimilate to the community's in-jokes and manner of posting or be banned). Spam and brigading from Bernie Sanders subreddits led to a "no BernieBots" rule, even as the subreddit attempted to convert Sanders supporters to the Trump cause. "Concern trolling" was also banned, which means that no one was allowed to question the direction of the subreddit. Posts to the effect of "Hey guys I think this subreddit is getting really racist and that makes me uncomfortable" are not tolerated, and making them became a bannable offense.
"We have rules but those are needed to keep left wing SJWs, concern trolls, and 1488ers [white supremacists] out of the subreddit," tehdonald said. "/r/the_donald is a 'safe space' for those who support Trump. This is a community that promotes the candidacy of a great candidate."
The first media pieces on r/the_donald—including one in the New York Times—began to be published during this period as well, and sometime in February (Reddit's awful search function makes this date hard to pin down), Breitbart's Milo Yiannopoulos, a hero to the GamerGate movement and ardent Trump supporter, also became aware of the subreddit. He tweeted his support of the subreddit and the movement to his supporters (and casually mentioned the subreddit in his articles on Breitbart), and did an AMA on the subreddit as well.
At this point, if you're keeping track, the subreddit contained Donald Trump supporters, people who were allured by its lax rules toward racism and its outright support of Islamophobia, migrants and trolls from /pol/, r/politics, and various Bernie Sanders subreddits, and anyone who was pulled in from the numerous posts on r/all.
"Do all the ordinary every day 'transphobia' you want"
With GamerGaters added to that lovely mix, the_donald took a formal stand against "Social Justice Warriors" in April, referring to politically correct liberals. The rules were edited to ban "SJWs," and a post by the moderators specifically took a with-us-or-against-us stance:
"We're gonna keep using words we like. Language is so powerful that it can determine the entirety of how you think. If you're using the left's buzzwords like 'racist' and 'sexist' then you're gonna find yourself following leftist thought patterns, even if you're saying something like that men face sexism. 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."
At the end of April, a rule was added noting that "new centipedes must assimilate," meaning anyone posting to the subreddit must fit in or be banned. There was a bit of a dustup around this time, as well, as many people on the subreddit felt betrayed by Trump's statement that he didn't really care what bathroom transgender people used. Publicly disagreeing with Trump's stance on this issue was banned on the subreddit—not out of a concern for LGBT rights, but because "this sub supports Donald Trump" regardless of stance. Comply or leave. The mods didn't ban jokes about trans people, of course: "Do all the ordinary every day 'transphobia' you want … but that view is officially one of Trump's and I'm not going to allow this to be a place where Trump fans are getting shat upon for supporting Trump's views. White knight virtue signaling is gay, but this sub has no official problem with thinking trannies should pick their bathrooms."
The moderator who wrote this post, CisWhiteMaelstrom (who was responsible for the subreddit's /r/all strategy), was later de-modded for posting he could "definitely get away with raping the illegals near me" and for proposing to create a network of white supremacist subreddits.
June 11 - present: The meteoric rise and sudden silencing of the_donald
On June 12, the_donald gained 11,712 subscribers, by far its most popular day of all time. In the aftermath of the shootings at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Reddit's r/news subreddit engaged in mass censorship of news articles and comments about shooter Omar Mateen. Because the_donald had mastered how to get to the top of r/all, it became one of the de-facto news subreddits for the shooting. Of course, the subreddit was already well-versed in Islamophobia, so it was a particularly apt place to wildly speculate about Mateen's motives, involvement with the Islamic State, and what should eventually happen with all Muslims in this country.
June 12 was an important day for the_donald because it's also the day that the subreddit turned militantly anti-Reddit. Many of the 11,712 new subscribers likely had little interest in Donald Trump, but they did have interest in railing against Reddit's censorship policies. Because the_donald allowed people to discuss the Pulse shooting essentially without moderation, it became what one redditor called "the last bastion of free speech on Reddit."
If you're keeping score, that means you can add anti-censorship "free speech" folks to the_donald's stew. The_donald's moderators, however, have rightly said that subreddit management is not interested in free speech—how could it be, with so many rules?
"/r/the_donald is a 'safe space' for those who support Trump. This is a community that promotes the candidacy of a great candidate," tehdonald said. "We have rules that are necessary for preserving our culture. 'Free speech' applies to governments, not subreddits."
"That's what's so funny about it. These kinds of spaces are really the least free on the internet"
Backlash to the_donald's dominance was swift. A new subreddit, r/EnoughTrumpSpam, gained 14,000 subscribers on June 15. Reddit changed its algorithm to force more variety on r/all.
"Many people will ask if this is related to r/the_donald," Steve Huffman, Reddit's CEO wrote in a post announcing the change. "The short answer is no, we have been working on this change for a while, but I cannot deny their behavior hastened its deployment. We have seen many communities like r/the_donald over the years—ones that attempt to dominate the conversation on Reddit at the expense of everyone else. This undermines Reddit, and we are not going to allow it."
"Interestingly enough, r/the_donald was already getting downvoted out of r/all yesterday morning before we made any changes. It seems the rest of the Reddit community had had enough," he continued. "Ironically, r/EnoughTrumpSpam was hit harder than any other community when we rolled out the changes. That's Reddit for you. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯"
For all of the attention the_donald has gotten, with 172,000 subscribers it's a relatively small community numbers wise (it's the 253rd-largest subreddit—the essentially defunct Bernie Sanders subreddit has 230,000 subscribers).
All evidence suggests that the_donald's popularity is beginning to wane. Its new subscriber numbers are the lowest they've been since the beginning of the year, when the subreddit had fewer than 10,000 members. Reddit's algorithm change has made it so only one or two the_donald posts make it to r/all on any given day, which is beginning to affect the subreddit's overall page views.
While the_donald's members freaked out about the change, and cried Reddit censorship, tehdonald says he knew such a change was inevitable: "The algorithm change had an effect on our traffic and number of new subscribers. I really don't blame reddit for doing that, though. We were taking up two-thirds of the top 25 of /r/all and it looked like this was a 'new normal' and not just a quick bounce from the Orlando event."
"It is a mishmash that was only made possible by the candidacy of Donald Trump for President of the United States"
The_donald is a subreddit that supports the candidacy of Donald Trump, but only because Trump's tendency to say whatever the hell he wants has given voice to people with usually unspoken biases, has given easy scapegoats to people who blame immigrants and muslims for their lot in life. The subreddit will take your tired, your poor, your weak, as long as they hate SJWs.
"It is a mishmash that was only made possible by the candidacy of Donald Trump for President of the United States," tehdonald said. "There is a kind of energy behind Trump as a candidate that has not been seen from the right since probably Reagan."
Ironically, the community's tough-to-penetrate memes, jokes, and broken-record style of ranting and raving about Muslims, Mexicans, Black Lives Matter, Social Justice Warriors, Hillary Clinton conspiracies, Reddit censorship, and little else makes it one of Reddit's most tightly controlled zones.
"They can bray about free speech all they want, but they're discussing the issue in the wrong way. If the pervasive mode of discourse marginalizes by allowing only the harshest, most degrading people and viewpoints to participate, then you don't really have free speech," Phillips told me. "That's what's so funny about it. These kinds of spaces are really the least free on the internet."