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The iconography created and disseminated by the pro-Trump battalions to target his political opponents during the 2016 US elections.
The iconography created and disseminated by the pro-Trump battalions to target his political opponents during the 2016 US elections.

Reddit’s fight against Donald Trump’s troll army

As social media misuse puts democratic elections across the world in peril, what happened on Reddit in 2016 offers important lessons

The bruising 2016 US election cycle was almost at its end, and although Reddit co-founder and chief executive officer (CEO) Steve Huffman and his team had made some attempts at cracking down on the hate speech that Reddit had become associated with, new gates that enclosed the worst content on Reddit barely masked the reality: There was still a lot of awful stuff.

There were lightly veiled white supremacist subreddits, such as r/european, with a distinctly anti-Muslim sentiment. Others were dedicated to spreading a strain of ultra-right-wing, pro–“Western culture" misogyny, such as r/PussyPass, which tallied allegations of women receiving preferential treatment, and a small universe of subreddits dedicated to “taking the Red Pill", a reference to The Matrix, which in the movie signalled becoming indoctrinated with an uncomfortable, unpopular truth. R/TheRedPill and r/Incels were particularly sexist and overlapped with the alt-right and neoreactionary communities, with which they shared a vocabulary. (Redpilling was simultaneously becoming used online as a description of the conversion of an individual to far-right or alt-right beliefs, and as slang “redpilled" was at times the conservative version of liberals’ “woke.")

None of these groups, however, attained the level of notoriety or popularity that did r/The_Donald. R/The_Donald began as a straightforward, if slightly tongue-in-cheek, forum dedicated to news about and advocacy for the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. It was created in June 2015 after Trump announced his candidacy, and immediately, posts mimicked his blunt, hyperbolic speech patterns. Growth was slow initially, which made sense—Bernie Sanders had seemed to be Reddit’s candidate of choice early in the 2016 election cycle.

In December 2015, r/The_Donald was still a mostly mild place, though infused with some of the wall-building rhetoric spouted by the candidate himself. Its extensive set of rules, maintained by the moderators, forbade most bigotry and racism, with the exception of Islamophobia, which it expressly permitted. Then the brigading and memetic warfare started.

Vote brigading

Brigading is the invasion of a topic, thread, or entire message board by a group of individuals who have organized themselves online with the purpose of manipulating content or its visibility. This sort of plotting happens in massive private-message threads on Twitter, in Facebook groups, and, very overtly, on 4chan’s /pol, a “politically incorrect" board that had been created by 4chan’s founder in 2011 to siphon off and contain the overtly xenophobic and racist comments and memes from other wings of 4chan. This mostly off-Reddit organizing then plays out on Reddit as vote brigading, or attempting to silence individual voices by downvoting them into oblivion.

The iconography created by the pro-Trump battalions earned a name: the Great Meme War. Supermemes became political weapons-

Other products were meme generation and dissemination, harassment campaigns, and propagation of disinformation, largely aiming to disseminate far-right viewpoints. Brigading had long been against the site’s rules, but this activity was difficult to track, and almost impossible to differentiate from regular Reddit activity due to the fact that it looked an awful lot like normal Reddit activity.

The_Donald’s subscriber list grew in fits and lurches—and examining its growth patterns helps explain both its constituency and why it became both an outsized force on Reddit and Trump’s most active and vocal base of support on the internet.

Moderators of subreddit r/The_Donald
Moderators of subreddit r/The_Donald

Early on, an influx of brigaders came from 4chan’s /pol board, and its Reddit counterpart, r/pol. There was more crossover of /pol users to Reddit after 4chan was abandoned by its creator, Chris Poole, in January 2015, after he’d lost any semblance of ability to control the sprawling, vile communities it harboured.

The 4channers brought with them some of what became The_Donald’s signature vernacular, as well as meme proficiency and lots of keks, which is 4chan slang for laughs and possibly a reference to the frog, sometimes Pepe the Frog, an image that thanks to memetic strategizing on 4chan and 8chan had been infused with anti-Semitic meaning and that the Anti-Defamation League subsequently declared a hate symbol.

Another constituency growing around this time, it would later become known, was Russian propagandists, apparently in an effort to sow disinformation and discord among the American electorate. Reddit later identified 944 user accounts associated with a Kremlin-tied troll farm; the largest posters were active on The_Donald, using upvoting schemes to make their posts more popular.

As the 2016 campaign season wore on, Donald Trump’s big tent on Reddit was his largest online supporter group, and it included a constituency of racists; the 4chan migrants, largely in it for the keks; alt-righters; Gamer-gaters contributing sexism and conspiracy theories; some former Bernie Sanders supporters; Russian propagandists; and anyone lured by the promise of a place that tolerated Islamophobia. R/The_Donald was their clubhouse, a thriving “safe space" that blossomed into one of the most absurdist and influential communities in Reddit.

Stranger territory

Since its inception, Reddit’s community team had flagged T_D (for short) as problematic and devoted regular resources to monitoring it. But as T_D devolved into a place with its own rapidly evolving vernacular, in part to code its extremism, and shitposting became a norm, the forum’s moderators and the Reddit admins keeping an eye on them together slipped into stranger and stranger territory. MAGA was the rallying cry, and epithets abounded. Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton was simply “Crooked Hillary". anchor Megyn Kelly, “Dopey Megyn". Little frog icons and centipede flair (to decorate their usernames when posting) were designed for top users; posts featured extra tags reading “HIGH ENERGY" or “Praise Kek". “News" from questionable sources such as Infowars and Breitbart abounded; many of the far-right’s messages were honed here, and primed for appearance on Twitter and other social media where major news outlets might pick them up.

The rash of iconography created and disseminated by the pro-Trump battalions earned a name: the Great Meme War. And its decentralized troops were at work on symbols that were individually absurd, but collectively as poignant to their audience as was the Obama “Hope" poster eight years earlier. This election season’s “grassroots" activity was now entirely online, masterminded by savvy, subversive trolls who engineered pro-Trump and anti-Clinton supermemes, designed to be spread on Reddit and through networks of Twitter accounts.

Once Trump won, an ex-Twitter engineer asked online, ‘What did we build?’ Another replied, ‘A machine that turns polarization into $’-

By mid-2016, T_D was the most active community on Reddit, and therefore, among the site’s most influential. But the extreme engagement of its various factions was far from organic. When a post from T_D rocketed to the top of r/all, often it was the r/The_Donald intentional result of an orchestrated campaign. The extensive slate of The_Donald moderators had developed an intricate and highly regimented structure, one that members of Reddit’s community team have referred to as “bureaucratic", “coordinated", and “militaristic". It was very unusual for Reddit, on which serendipity and natural virality is championed—and it was born in part because it was mandatory for the forum’s survival. The_Donald was a tough-to-manage community full of bigotry and, at times, rule-breaking hate speech and doxing, which they knew put them at risk of being shut down by Reddit.

Moderators of T_D harnessed and manipulated simple Reddit site customizations, using them in unorthodox ways to disseminate T_D content far beyond its pages. First, the typical Reddit downvoting function was cut off throughout T_D—meaning a post could only gain, not lose, traction. To gain subscribers, at times the moderators created a large Trump pop-up that visitors had to click on to make it disappear—but by clicking, they became subscribed to the forum, meaning they would regularly encounter its content on their custom homepage.

Philippe Beaudette led Reddit’s community team at the time. He and his colleagues got to know the moderators of T_D well; opposing subreddits, such as r/EnoughTrumpSpam, were also familiar, as they frequently barraged Reddit staff with questions and complaints. Beaudette said over time, T_D became not only one of the most extreme examples of subculture development on a forum he’d ever witnessed, but also one of the most highly organized.

Particularly admirable, said Beaudette, was the moderator team’s playbook for the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in late July, which he’d viewed. “They had it scheduled out in fifteen-minute increments for the entire week what they were going to be posting and taking action on, timed to the speakers," he said. He’d never seen such balletic coordination on a subreddit. “I found that to be absolutely splendid to watch."

That precision was almost entirely undetectable to the community, though—to a casual viewer T_D was visual chaos. Even regular readers felt the whole thing was organic. “Weirdly, the rest of the community isn’t aware they are being organized," Beaudette said. “They aren’t realizing how closely tied to the actions the moderators are."

On 12 June 2016, T_D recruited more than 11,000 new subscribers through exposure on r/all. Moderators of r/news had made a bizarre decision in the wake of a deadly attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando to disallow posts and comments about the attack, compiling all information into a single “megathread". It resulted in a dearth of news about the attack on Reddit’s front pages, which are usually dominated by the day’s top news headlines.

T_D swooped in to fill the void. With what amounted to planned brigades of upvotes, it propelled several posts to the home page. T_D had found a weak spot and used it to grow, again. “Of course, the subreddit was already well-versed in Islamophobia, so it was a particularly apt place to wildly speculate about (the shooter’s) motives, involvement with the Islamic State, and what should eventually happen with all Muslims in this country," Vice News wrote at the time.

On 16 June, Reddit’s CEO Huffman posted to r/announcements that over the past day Reddit had tweaked the algorithm that determined hotness on r/all. Now, rather than competing against one another for popularity, each given community would be judged against itself and its own recent viral activity in order to achieve front-page status. “Our specific goal being to prevent any one community from dominating," Huffman wrote. “This undermines Reddit, and we are not going to allow it." It was a direct move to limit the reach of T_D. Later, to further rein in T_D, Huffman specifically banned posts stickied (akin to Twitter’s “pinned Tweet" feature) by T_D from r/all, calling the subreddit’s tactics “antagonistic to the rest of the community". But by that time, T_D had more than 300,000 subscribers. It would soon thereafter begin to use stickied posts as organizational memos of sorts, highlighting the top Trump-centric news and its objectives for the day. There was no stopping it. Not that Huffman actually wanted to.

What did we build?

Donald J. Trump was elected 45th President of the US on 8 November 2016. Huffman says he should have seen it coming. When asked at the end of November whether he believed Reddit had a role in the election’s outcome, Huffman was open to the possibility, saying, “It’s hard to say." He said The_Donald, specifically, was a reflection of the conversation that was happening nationwide—only amplified, thanks to the nature of the see-what-you-want-to-see social web. “I think that’s one of the challenges you see when you democratize media and news consumption," he said. “The feedback loop gets louder and louder and louder."

Within a week of the election, both Facebook and Google came under intense scrutiny for having allowed the propagation of blatantly false articles, videos, and stories about political candidates and polarizing issues that may have influenced how the American electorate voted. Facebook took the brunt of the accusations for spreading misinformation and allowing blatantly fake stories to be treated as factual news. Employees of the social network were concerned not only about the false or misleading articles, but also about the rampant spread of the The_Donald–style racist memes. As early as election night, a group of Facebook vice presidents asked one another in a private online chat what role their company had played in this outcome. They called a meeting with the company’s policy team, pledging also to address the issue at an all-hands meeting.

Twitter, too, was embarking on a soul search. As the election results were coming in, one former Twitter engineer asked online, “What did we build?" Another replied, “A machine that turns polarization into $." Reddit investor Dave McClure had a near meltdown onstage at the Web Summit in Lisbon the day after the election, saying that social networks built by Silicon Valley are “a propaganda medium" that “assholes like Trump" use to get into office. “We provide communication platforms for the rest of the f *** country and we are allowing shit to happen just like the cable news networks, just like talk radio." Later that day, McClure lamented, “Sometimes, I feel like we’re just a bunch of nerds who don’t know how to play the game."

(Excerpted with permission from We Are the Nerds by Christine Lagorio-Chafkin, published by Hachette.)

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