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The Hate-Fueled Rise of r/The_Donald—and Its Epic Takedown

The Hate-Fueled Rise of r/The_Donald—and Its Epic Takedown

On a long road trip, Taylor shared the video with their husband. Taylor says the couple appreciated Trump’s apparent sense of humor. “We streamed a lo

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On a long road trip, Taylor shared the video with their husband. Taylor says the couple appreciated Trump’s apparent sense of humor. “We streamed a lot of those videos on that drive.”

By mid-December 2015, the subreddit’s subscriber base had doubled, and on December 21 it became one of the 10,000 biggest on the platform. That month, Trump called for banning all Muslims from traveling to the United States. Posts on the subreddit defended the proposal as “not fascist and probably not unconstitutional.” The day after his proposal, Trump led New Hampshire polling rival Rubio by 32 percent to 14 percent in the statewide running. Rubio’s subreddit, r/marco_rubio, floundered at a few hundred subscribers.

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The day that poll came out, December 8, The_Donald’s moderators—mods, as they are known on Reddit—noticed a spike in their daily viewership. Their unique viewers, usually around one or two hundred per hour, spiked to more than 2,000 per hour. The mods thought they knew why. Users from the r/Politics subreddit, a massive forum with a December 2015 total of 3.1 million users, had found out about T_D. Now they were flocking to it, often harassing and downvoting the regulars. It was among the first of many such incidents over the next four and a half years.

T_D moderator u/NYPD-32, then one of five volunteers on the page, made a post calling the visitors out.

TITLE: “The Great /r/The_Donald Invasion”

POST: “When /r/politics sends their people they aren’t sending their best. They’re losers, they’re Reddit TOS violators, some of them I assume may be good people.

The backlash from the new arrivals was swift and sustained.

REPLY BY u/InitiumNovum: There needs to be a total and complete shut down of libtard /r/Politics users entering this subreddit.

Yet there were also a fair number of positive comments, both about the volunteer moderators and “the admins,” or administrators, Reddit’s paid staff who run the site’s deeper features. u/NYPD-32 wrote that the admins had been “receptive and helpful” in dealing with the brigade.

COMMENT BY u/TRUMPTRUMPTRUMPTRUMP: Admins, wonderful people! Do a great job, high energy people.

When Redditors or their communities misbehave, the site’s paid administrators are the highest court. Volunteers such as T_D’s moderators have substantial power within their fiefs but can do nothing beyond them. The admins, meanwhile, can see everything and do anything. December 2015 marked one of the first interactions between the staff and The_Donald. Like that day’s battle between T_D and r/politics, it was not to be the last.

Reddit today employs just under 700 people. In 2016, as The_Donald began to emerge on the sitewide scene, the company staff stood at under 100, and in an interview with WIRED, CEO Steve Huffman says he wrote some of the site’s early 2016 announcements himself.

No wonder, then, that Huffman was aware firsthand of T_D’s growth. “They were a little dysfunctional,” Huffman says of the T_D moderators, who first received disciplinary messages from the staff in April 2016. He says it was difficult to decide on how to handle T_D—or even to know when its users were for real.

“In the early days of The_Donald—I wasn’t a user myself, so pardon me for this being a little fuzzy—it was like, half troll users saying ridiculous things as if they were Donald Trump supporters, and half actual Donald Trump supporters,“ Huffman says. “I think if you’ve lived in America over the last four years, that’s actually not as far-fetched as it sounds. Not being able to distinguish between parody and satire and reality was actually a truth that we lived.”

In 2016, the “policy team” at Reddit consisted of Huffman and his general counsel. He says there were often debates about the subreddit among the site’s staff, debates which he says “evolved” as the subreddit gained prominence.

We can make an educated guess about what was said in those debates. Over time, Reddit, like many other institutions, gradually stepped up its responses to Trump’s rhetoric. Perhaps everyone at Reddit was united behind this slower response, but it seems more likely that internal division existed over when and how much to censure T_D. When asked what specifically came up in those years of debates, a Reddit spokesperson called Huffman’s statements “self-explanatory” and declined to give further details.

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