Reddit Is Done Pretending The Donald Is Fine

The social platform just banned the president’s most notorious internet fan club, as part of a sitewide purge of forums that “promote hate.”

r/The_Donald in red, pixelated text
The Atlantic

Reddit is banning one of its most notorious communities today, the subreddit—or forum—dedicated to discussion of President Donald Trump.

The ban comes after years of controversy around r/The_Donald and its promotion of racism, anti-Semitism, conspiracy theories, and violent memes starring a cartoon frog. Reddit is also removing 2,000 other communities today, including the 160,000-member subreddit associated with the popular left-wing podcast Chapo Trap House. And alongside the purge, Reddit is debuting an updated content policy that is significantly more detailed than its previous list of rules—a change that was promised three weeks ago in response to conversations about Black Lives Matter.

The new policy’s preamble states in part that “no community should be used as a weapon,” and that users should not “interfere” with communities they are not a member of—a reference to the long-standing tradition of “brigading,” or coordinated trolling. r/The_Donald, which had 790,000 members at the time of the ban, was well known for this behavior, and Reddit’s bare-bones policies and sporadic enforcement of them often meant that the moderators of targeted subreddits had to come up with their own jerry-rigged tools to prevent harassment. r/The_Donald was quarantined in June 2019—meaning that it would no longer show up in site search results and couldn’t display ads—but Steve Huffman, Reddit’s co-founder and CEO, has vocally resisted calls to remove the subreddit until now.

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.

“There are political views from the far left to the far right represented on Reddit alive and well,” Huffman emphasized in a call with reporters on Friday. The company’s history with r/The_Donald, Huffman added, should prove “we’ve done literally everything we could think of … to keep that community in line with our policies.”

In part because of Reddit’s struggle with subreddits like r/The_Donald, the site’s new content policy includes discussion of behavior patterns and bad-faith actors. For example, the old rules already prohibited sharing someone else’s personal or confidential information—often referred to as “doxxing”—but the new policy explicitly recognizes the way that information gets weaponized on the platform, and forbids “instigating harassment” with personal info.

The most notable change is the rewriting of Reddit’s first rule, which previously asked that users “show enough respect to others so that we all may continue to enjoy Reddit.” That blasé language has been replaced: “Reddit is a place for creating community and belonging, not for attacking marginalized groups,” it now reads. “Everyone has a right to use Reddit free of harassment, bullying, and threats of violence.” The rule gives Reddit more latitude to say when a group is acting maliciously, even if it has managed to creatively contort around a simple bulleted list of forbidden actions and even if it cries censorship or speculates about admin overreach. (“We spend a lot less time on hypotheticals now,” Huffman told reporters last week.)

Of course, Reddit’s problems won’t be solved with one purge or one policy update. But the changes are, at least, evidence of a belated willingness on the company’s part to respect the lived experience of its users and to acknowledge context—not just the letter of a sparse content policy or the phantom of a slippery slope.