(Photo by Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
It all began in Oregon with a climate change bill.
Refusing to vote on the legislation, Republican lawmakers actually left the state and police officers were sent to corral the delinquents back to the statehouse. In customary fashion, boisterous users on Reddit’s The_Donald, the largest pro-Trump online community, which boasts of being a “never ending rally dedicated to President Trump,” pounced on the opportunity to condemn the Democrats and stand behind the Republican lawmakers.
Two days after the liberal news monitor Media Matters published an article highlighting user comments on The_Donald like “None of this gets fixed without people picking up rifles,” Reddit quarantined the niche forum, citing repeated “rule-breaking” behavior. For those unfamiliar with the term: a quarantine is when Reddit requires an “opt-in” to view content deemed to contain potential hoaxes or to be “highly offensive and upsetting.” It is not an outright ban.
Several months have now gone by since the quarantine was imposed. Since then, the moderators of The_Donald have been working to prove to Reddit that they have reformed their culture and deserve to have the quarantine lifted. They’ve recruited additional volunteers to their moderator staff and have collectively acted on over 50,000 pieces of content. They’ve also upgraded their “modbot to better identify potential trolls, resulting in 2,000+ manual user reviews.”
Confident in their efforts, on July 24, the moderators of The_Donald submitted their formal appeal to Reddit. Yet despite Reddit administrators “acknowledging the changes made to the rules, mod(erator) team and practice,” their request to have the quarantine removed was denied. That leaves the question—how much reform will be needed in order to be considered adequate?
In denying The_Donald, Reddit administrators cited the subreddit’s lack of a “more proactive plan” in combating potentially violent content. Yet due to the nature of the quarantine, any response by the moderators had to have been reactive. This response went beyond the moderation policies of other controversial subreddits.
Of course, no online forum is ever going to be completely free of “rule violating content”—it’s the nature of the internet. However, since the appeal, The_Donald says it has been working in good faith to take measures against any posts that incite violence, demonstrating an interest in reforming their culture. Since the quarantine, they have made made “178 automod adjustments to better target potential violations and prevent false positives.”
But given the lack of specificity by Reddit in what is actually considered “more proactive,” no matter how well reformed the subreddit becomes, the goalposts can always be moved back further until there is no field left. Even if they did have a perfect plan, the chips are not stacked in The_Donald’s favor.
Example: in order to finally get the quarantine removed, Reddit is looking for “a significant reduction in policy-violating content, as well as racist, sexist, or other content that average redditors may find highly offensive or upsetting.” The hurdles, such as enforcing a no-racism and no-sexism rule, are well within reason, yet the insistence on only inoffensive content is vaguely defined and sets up the community to fail. After all, to some, simply uttering a positive statement about President Trump is offensive and bigoted.
When Reddit CEO Steve Huffman recently sat down with Vox and discussed the quarantine, he acknowledged that The_Donald’s “ethos is less in hate and more in pissing off liberals.” And certainly everyone can acknowledge that The_Donald trafficks in largely benign “spicy memes,” which are meant to be interpreted as digital entertainment and a poke at the political opposition.
And while other absolutely deplorable sites are rightfully condemned for their encouragement of violence and illegal activity, one should not conflate the annoying behavior of The_Donald with the contemptible conduct of, say, 8chan. They are two different beasts. 8chan is complicit in criminality, while The_Donald is actively working towards rehabilitation and the restoration of its image.
But are they doing it in vain? For nearly a year, between 2017 and 2018, moderators had a generally open dialogue with two Reddit admins on a private discord server. However, since March 2018, those administrators have gone silent. This doesn’t seem entirely fair, as The_Donald administrators seek to reopen a channel of communication in order to better understand Reddit’s denial of their appeal.
Reddit appears to be inching towards banning the subreddit completely, as no subreddit that’s been quarantined has ever come back into the site’s good graces. Some users on The_Donald don’t even want the quarantine lifted, as they deem it a badge of honor. On the other hand, perhaps there is hope. Even Reddit’s Huffman acknowledges that “removing a community that represents political views of a large percentage of our population [I think] is deeply problematic.”
Especially when that community represents an active network of the president’s base ahead of the 2020 election. According to a recent Human Events take, The_Donald’s contribution to his 2016 win was extraordinary:
The fellowship was strong and the mission was clear: get Donald Trump elected to the White House.
And in this mission, The Donald was wildly successful, earning one of the top two spots in all of the internet for creating and disseminating the most effective viral content the world had ever seen. The Donald played an important role in meming President Donald Trump into the White House.
Therefore this conflict between Reddit and one of its largest forums raises the same troublesome question of what constitutes political free speech in the online “public square.” Ever since the sharp rise of The_Donald during the 2016 elections, Reddit has sought to quell it’s impact. And the closer to 2020 we get, the higher the chances that the community will face extinction.