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Behind Reddit's Decision To Boot 'The_Donald' Forum

Jul 4, 2020
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SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

This has not been a good week for President Trump on social media. On Monday, the live-streaming platform Twitch suspended the president's account for posting what it labeled hateful content. It's not clear how long that suspension will last. Also on Monday, the discussion website Reddit announced it was banning its largest community devoted to President Trump. That community is called The_Donald. And Reddit said it had consistently broken the company's rules against hate speech and inciting violence.

This comes a year after Reddit put a warning on The_Donald to caution that it was out of line with the platform's policies. Back then, we spoke with Robert Peck about this. He's a lecturer in rhetoric at the University of Iowa, and he volunteers as a moderator for Reddit. Robert Peck joins us again.

Welcome back.

ROBERT PECK: Thank you for having me.

PFEIFFER: Robert, for our listeners who don't spend time on Reddit or aren't familiar with this particular subreddit called The_Donald, would you describe, what is it? What type of group discussion happens there, and how wide is its reach?

PECK: Of course. Reddit is a little bit unlike other big social media sites - things like Facebook and Twitter. Those sites often are based around an individual person's profile. On Reddit, conversely, most people follow topics rather than individual people. And Reddit calls those pages dedicated to those topics subreddits.

The Trump subreddit, which is called The_Donald, is dedicated ostensibly to President Trump and his doings. And at the time of its recent ban, it had just under 600,000 current subscribers - though at its peak usage, which was within the last couple of years, it had three quarters of a million.

The subreddit has become somewhat infamous. In fact, I would go so far as to call it maybe the most infamous page that has ever existed on Reddit. Over the course of the last few years, it has been home to Russian propaganda efforts that were caught both by volunteers on the site and by Reddit's own staff.

There have been several incidents of the appearance of hate speech and hateful memes on the page that were then taken up by Trump himself and spread by his own campaign workers and by the president's own Twitter account. It's become a somewhat unpleasant place, as you can probably imagine. And that led into these recent actions that Reddit has taken against it.

PFEIFFER: We mentioned that this Reddit community had gotten ugly enough that it had been disciplined before. But what changed that caused it to be outright banned?

PECK: I don't know that anything in particular changed about the way the page itself was being used. Most of the actual activity that led to this ban has been unfolding over some years. I think what changed to lead to the ban is Reddit itself. And I think that it changed in response to recent happenings in the United States - things like the Black Lives Matter protests that have been unfolding over the last few months.

In response to those things, Reddit has made several changes. And one of those changes is adding significantly to its rules about hate speech and discrimination on the site. And it seems to be in response to those changes that Reddit has also decided at last to act against The_Donald in a final way by banning the page outright.

PFEIFFER: Does this put peer pressure on other social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to crack down more aggressively than they are on their own sites?

PECK: I think it may well do so. The question in my mind is how similar Reddit is to those sites - sites like Twitter. We know Twitter has been taking actions to expose the president's hate speech recently. It's been doing things like flagging his tweets as rule-breaking and trying to correct information that it finds there without outright removing those posts itself.

Now, Reddit has banned this group of supporters of the president. That's not quite the same to me as actually limiting the president's own ability to use social media. This is nonetheless an enormous action for Reddit to take. Whether other sites will follow or not, I can't say. They might feel they have other circumstances. But Reddit, at least, has been willing to take just about the most significant step it could against this group.

PFEIFFER: Robert, from your perspective as a Reddit moderator, could the moderators of The_Donald have done something to try to prevent it from being banned?

PECK: (Laughter) Oh, absolutely, they could. And it's - in addition to my perspective as a moderator, it's also something that the site's owner has made known both to the volunteers who ran that section of the site and to the users of the site more broadly. The site's owners, who are called the administrators of the site, frequently reached out to The_Donald's moderators, told them what was going wrong in their eyes on this subreddit and asked them please to make changes in the way they were enforcing the rules, both of their own page and of the site as a whole.

But that's something the moderators of The_Donald obviously weren't willing to do. And as a result, their community has been banned.

PFEIFFER: So for the time being, at least, people who used to share thoughts on the site no longer have that outlet. But that doesn't mean they can't go somewhere else. Is this a chance for a lesser-known site to gain that traffic?

PECK: It certainly is. We know fairly confidently that this kind of thing from users of The_Donald is unlikely to take off on Reddit anymore. However, The_Donald's moderators have already tried to create an alternative platform. They've created a website called thedonald.win that they've for months already been redirecting users of their subreddit over to use.

The best estimates I can find suggests that that page is fairly active and that use may spread that way. But limiting this activity on a big social media site is certainly a step in the right direction, even if it does spread to a privately-owned website with less resources and less exposure than Reddit itself.

PFEIFFER: That's Robert Peck. He's a volunteer moderator for Reddit and a lecturer in rhetoric at the University of Iowa.

Thanks for talking with us.

PECK: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.