Getty Images / Kieran Walsh
Since 2015, more than 790,000 people have congregated over at the r/The_Donald subreddit, posting memes, videos and messages in support of their hero, US then-presidential candidate and current president Donald Trump – who does not support the group but once blessed it with an Ask Me Anything – and debating head-scratchers like “is there a difference between white nationalism and white supremacy?”
On Monday, Reddit decided to take action. r/The_Donald is no more. The ban results from an update to Reddit’s hate speech policies. Users must now abide by eight new rules, which prohibit, among other things, targeted harassment and revealing the identities of others. r/The_Donald, along with 2,000 other mainly dormant communities, including a subreddit for the fans of leftwing podcast Chapo Trap House, fell foul of these new standards, which require users to “remember the human” and claim that “Reddit is a place for creating community and belonging, not for attacking marginalised or vulnerable groups of people“.
The ban marks a gradual but clear policy reversal. Reddit has long been criticised for hosting hate speech and other harmful content – it famously stood by users who posted stolen nudes back in 2014 – and has been sluggish to enforce the rules dealing with these offences, which it brought in over five years ago.
r/The_Donald, by far the most active of the removed groups, was a deft purveyor of the ugly online rhetoric that circles the US president. The ban will certainly have an impact on how other Reddit users behave, explains Nicolas Suzor, an associate professor at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane. Both online and off, it sets new, stricter limits on acceptable online speech.
Deplatforming has proven to be effective online. Even though r/The_Donald’s moderators set up a mirror website where those who were still active on the subreddit are now migrating, this group can no longer congregate on a major hub with a gravitational pull like Reddit, and few among the uninitiated will find the new community.
“They end up becoming much more of an echo chamber,” says Joe Mulhall, a senior researcher at the political action group Hope Not Hate. “If they do, it’ll take them a long time to rebuild on that platform, but mostly they’ll migrate to smaller platforms where they are less likely to engage with as many people.”
Former dwellers of r/The_Donald will likely run into robust resistance if they try to colonise new subreddits. “The unique cultures of other subreddits will likely not tolerate hate speech that was reported to be rife on the banned subreddits,” says Rosalie Gillett, a research associate for the Australian Research Council. “Ultimately, these are the moves we need to see platforms making in order to engender cultural change online.”
The problems with the ban are well known – timing and reasoning. r/The_Donald has been around – and had periods of far greater activity – for years, yet Reddit has only acted now. The move is likely motivated by the twin upheavals of the pandemic and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, both of which have been prompting internet companies to take unprecedented measures. Twitter has permanently banned far-right provocateur Katie Hopkins. YouTube has banned six channels for violating its policies, including far-right racists David Duke, Richard Spencer and Stefan Molyneux. (Facebook has refused to play arbiter, which resulted in its losing many of large advertisers, including Coca-Cola, Levi Strauss, and Unilever.)
“Both the street protests and the pandemic have elicited heavy doses of misinformation and conspiracy theorising online,” says Paul Barrett a disinformation and content moderation expert and adjunct professor at New York University. “Taken together, all of these events apparently contributed to Reddit’s motivation for cleaning up its platform.“
Seen through this lens, the bans are more an exercise in reputation-management than an act of moral clarity. “I would love to think it was more thought out and based on a kind of moral conversation about what should and shouldn’t be available,” says Mulhall. “But generally speaking, it happens in waves when there is a moment of public pressure.” This inconsistency has repercussions, he says, allowing the far right to frame their removal as a capitulation to lefty public pressure, rather than a legitimate corporate decision.
And while these policies are evolving, they still need work, as they try to apply global solutions to local, context-sensitive problems, explains Bharath Ganesh, a political geographer at the University of Groningen. “If I was running [Reddit’s] policy team I would have very specific guidelines about white supremacy in specific geographies, like for instance, Hindu nationalist hate speech if I was working in India,” he says. “That’s one of the issues that these platforms haven’t grappled with.”
The size of the moderation task isn’t an excuse, either – so far, social media platforms have still been pretty hands-off in regards to the kinds of moderation they will engage in. And with the US presidential election looming in November, this hands-off approach to moderation will, once again, be put to the test. How platforms respond then will be the real test – and one that, to date, they’ve failed.
“They are not too big to moderate, they’re just not prioritising moderation” says Mulhall. “These platforms must place moderation at the very heart of their policies, meaning they are constantly vigilant for new groups that pop up, rather than waiting till there’s a moment of public pressure and a conversation about advertisers.”
Will Bedingfield is a staff writer for WIRED. He tweets from @WillBedingfield
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