Taken together, the new policy and the bans could represent a turning point for the platform, which has long weakly refuted its general reputation as a safe place for hate. In other words, Reddit is no longer pretending not to understand the real problem with subreddits like r/The_Donald, which isn’t so much that members of such forums say horrible things to one another—but rather that those communities run other people off of the site. Today’s ban is less about any specific recent posts and more about r/The_Donald’s history of coordinated attacks on other subreddits, as well as its brazen subversions of Reddit’s rules over time.
r/The_Donald has been a pain point for Reddit for years. It was created in June 2015 to discuss and promote Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and quickly became a hotbed for extreme political rhetoric. Members of the subreddit amplified the Pizzagate conspiracy theory in late 2016, and in August 2017, they promoted attendance at the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The Southern Poverty Law Center published a detailed report on r/The_Donald in April 2018, highlighting the subreddit’s paranoia about “white genocide” and its support of ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Myanmar, its vicious antiblack racism and anti-Semitism, and its fascination with imagining violence against the media. Still, the community was a favorite of Trump himself, who hosted a question-and-answer session there during the Democratic National Convention in 2016 and appeared on several occasions to pull content directly from the subreddit to use in his tweets.
Reddit previously took a series of actions to corral r/The_Donald—including limiting the subreddit’s ability to boost its posts onto the site’s homepage—but it has consistently defended its choice not to ban it. In November 2016, Huffman said that keeping r/The_Donald up was a choice he was making so that “communities that feel alienated” could be heard. By that point, the subreddit already had hundreds of thousands of members, the attention of the president, and a claim to protection as a home for political speech. Even when former interim CEO Ellen Pao called for r/The_Donald to be banned last year—and when she did so again earlier this month—she received no public response.
To be sure, r/The_Donald’s activity was limited by the site quarantine. Regularly, fewer than 1,000 members are online at a time, and the pinned post in the forum links to a new anonymously run off-site platform—where the original spirit of the subreddit is more than maintained, and where users still coordinate occasional harassment campaigns back on Reddit.
But the ban is a big move nonetheless. Reddit’s stance against r/The_Donald could very well draw negative attention from Republican politicians, who have accused both Facebook and Twitter of anti-conservative bias. It could even draw the ire of the president himself. Trump, after all, signed an executive order against “selective censorship” on online platforms last month, specifically calling out Twitter’s move to put warning labels on some tweets—labels it has placed on some of his recent tweets.