How the Most Toxic, Notorious Pro-Trump Online Community Tricked Reddit and Got Back Online

Private chats show how The_Donald’s banned users continue to manipulate the site.

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By the time Reddit banned r/The_Donald in June, the community had become one of the most notorious in the platform’s history. The pro-Trump message board, home to a noxious group of his supporters, wasn’t necessarily the most toxic community on a site that, at points, has hosted subreddits for white nationalist groups and sharing suggestive photos of children. But, of the site’s toxic communities, it arguably had the most reach and impact.

Over the last several years, hundreds of thousands of posts by members of the group have helped shape the web’s information environment, as they’ve pumped out scores of Pro-Trump memes each week that sometimes made their way into the social media feeds of Donald Trump Jr. and the president himself, contributing to a flood of seemingly grassroots content boosting his political efforts. In 2016, a “war room” at the campaign’s Trump Tower headquarters monitored the subreddit for memes worth elevating; Brad Parscale, Trump’s former campaign manager, once wrote that he checked the message board daily.

Critics of Reddit’s moderation policies publicly wondered for years why r/The_Donald hadn’t been banned, despite consistently breaking the company’s rules on racism, bigotry, and the spread of disinformation. In June, after its track record had already earned it a long period in quarantine—Reddit’s term for a state of restricted access imposed on problematic communities—the site banned it completely. But by the time that happened, members had already decamped months earlier for a homemade forum designed to mimic Reddit called TheDonald.win, which had been in the works since the quarantine was introduced, as well as to servers hosted by Discord, an internet chat service.

Even though their subreddit has been banned from Reddit for over four months, The_Donald’s former members continue to wreak havoc on the site. Mother Jones has gained access to two servers hosted by Discord where former members of the banned subreddit gather, including a private server that requires members to be vetted. Chat messages posted there show how former members of The_Donald have found new homes on Reddit and continue to coordinate and plan the spread of hate, vitriol, and disinformation on the site and in other venues, despite the company’s ban.

With more than 3,000 members, The_Donald Est. 2017, which was listed as r/The_Donald’s official Discord before the subreddit was taken down, is the smaller of the two Discord servers. Unlike a separate “The Donald” Discord server, which is partially open to all and has over 21,000 members, The_Donald Est. 2017 server claims to tightly vet its members, restricting users that have not cleared its process to a waiting room where they cannot post. Before r/The_Donald was banned, admittance to the subreddit’s official Discord required two months of posting history in the subreddit. Nowadays, the requirements listed in its “extreme_vetting” channel, where new applicants to the Discord are investigated, specify having a history of “pro-MAGA tweeting/retweeting.”

The moderators of this private Discord channel appear to be former moderators of r/The_Donald subreddit, based on their own claims and an analysis of their social media accounts. They purport to be a group of Trump supporters who moderated The_Donald until they lost control of the board to another faction at some point in the past year.

Those moderators regularly use the private channel to organize its users, many of whom came directly from r/The_Donald. While moderators have encouraged members to flout Reddit’s ban and join subreddits including r/trumpteam and r/donald_trumpthey most frequently push r/donaldtrump as the group’s new subreddit. Members use the Discord to disseminate memes, boost pro-Trump posts on Reddit and other social media platforms, go after their political opponents online, and spread disinformation.

“Shortly after this mod team was removed from r/The_Donald, we began a journey of making sure that we did our best to serve President Trump and help him get reelected,” one moderator wrote on the Discord’s announcement’s channel, explaining that they had “[f]ound a way to reach new voters on Reddit with https://www.reddit.com/r/donaldtrump” and claiming that a former r/The_Donald moderator had helped establish that new subreddit. In another early announcement in the chat, the same moderator explained that “we are partnering with r/DonaldTrump exclusively on Reddit” and boasted of the group’s close relationship with the subreddit.

“[W]e have all of the mods that are there in here and it is IMPORTANT to expand the base for Trump,” the moderator explained, outlining a hope that the new forum could reprise their banned subreddit’s role in reaching new supporters. “The real success of r/The_Donald was how fast and how many normies it reached and you win elections not by just retaining your base, but by expanding it.”

Users of the original r/The_Donald were extremely effective at gaming Reddit’s algorithms to get its content on to the company’s algorithmically aggregated front page. That prominence helped the subreddit expand its base and expose more people to bigotry and disinformation. Robert Peck in Wired outlined how moderators of r/The_Donald harnessed the site’s “sticky” feature, intended to pin informational or welcome posts to the top of a subreddit, to harness upvotes from the subreddit and boost its content. 

With r/donaldtrump, according to its moderators’ Discord messages, they hope to replicate the success they had bringing r/The_Donald into the mainstream. “We are regularly making it to r/all and r/popular rising on a frequent basis, sometimes multiple times daily,” a moderator wrote about the new board on July 25. “The chat there is up to 10k also, making it one of the largest chats on Reddit. Keep it up!”

There’s nothing necessarily wrong about trying to raise the profile of a subreddit dedicated to a presidential candidate, however, the specific tactics that r/The_Donald engaged in to do so violate the site’s policies: Reddit bans vote manipulation through coordinating upvotes on posts, on or off-platform. But r/The_Donald was punished because it became a stomping ground for noxious trolls to test out avant-garde racial slurs, justify or call for violence against groups of people based on their politics or race, and spread a never-ending stream of disinformation.

Before it was banned from Reddit, r/The_Donald put in place a notice telling members that “No Racism/Anti-Semitism” posts were welcome, and moderators worked to remove violating items. But their efforts amounted to little—just chewing gum shoved into the crevices of a dam crumbling under a torrent of bigotry. In 2017, after a terrorist drove into pedestrians in London, killing five, the subreddit erupted into Islamophobic hate. After the 2019 Christchurch, New Zealand mosque shootings and the 2017 terrorist attack on London’s Westminster Bridge, users again flooded the subreddit with Islamophobic posts. When Republican members of the Oregon state legislature staged a walkout to avoid voting on environmental legislation, members of the subreddit violently threatened Democratic officials and the state police tasked with retrieving the lawmakers.

On r/donaldtrump and the The_Donald Est. 2017 private Discord channel, that hate has continued. Posters on the subreddit have used the term “jogger,” a stand-in for the n-word that was born on 4chan after Ahmaud Arbery, a Black American man, was killed by white men in Georgia while exercising. In other instances, they’ve shared memes about “rooftop Koreans”a thinly veiled call to wield arms against Black protestors that references armed Korean and Korean American store owners who took to their business’s roofs during protests after Los Angeles police beat Rodney King in 1992.

In other posts on r/donaldtrump, users have justified killing innocent children caught in the crossfire of America’s Middle Eastern military interventions, praised ICE for allegedly serving pork to Muslim detainees, posted content lauding Kyle Rittenhouse’s killing of protestorscalled for “ending the riots with excessive force,” and spread baseless conspiracies about antifa starting wildfires in Oregon.

While Reddit says it bans communities and users from making posts that “incite violence or that promote hate based on identity or vulnerability,” Sierra Gamelgaard, a Reddit spokesperson, declined to comment on the hate posts found on the subreddit or on indications the company’s ban was being circumvented. Instead, she pointed to the site’s content policies, writing that they “explicitly prohibit users from cheating or engaging in content manipulation, including ban evasion.”

On the closed Discord server that has promoted r/donaldtrump, members spread less guarded versions of the same kind of bigotry, disinformation, and incitements of violence they share on Reddit—posts that ostensibly also violate Discord’s terms of service. Moderators have repeatedly pleaded with members to stop using the “jogger” slur, and users have created a vast library of lewd, sexist memes attacking Kamala Harris and depicting her inviting and engaging in various sex acts.

One user offered tips on how to kill protestors and get away with it, citing the case of a Nebraska bar owner who was indicted for manslaughter after shooting and killing James Scurlock, a racial justice protestor, in Omaha in late May. “If you have shot someone and make the (incorrect) decision to fire a warning shot don’t admit to it being a warning shot,” he wrote, “because when you have time to fire warning shots and shout obscenities at the attack it isn’t hard to bring charges against you that indicate it wasn’t purely in self defense.” Instead, he suggested to readers in such a situation that they should say “you simply missed twice.” Others argued the killing was justified.

The larger, open Discord hosts even more content likely in violation of Discord’s policies. In September one user of the The Donald posted that “we should shoot all BLM.” After demonstrators rallied in the streets of Louisville following a grand jury’s decision to not to charge police officers in the killing of Breonna Taylor, another member suggested local law enforcement “need to use live rounds.” When the same user later repeated that call to violence, several people reacted with approving emojis. “Run over BLM protestors with my Tesla,” another joked.

Unsurprisingly, religious bigotry and overt racism targeting a range of groups are easy to find on the larger Discord server. At beginning of September, one user posted an anti-Jewish slur, and wrote “jew=filthy trickster.” Others frequently post Islamophobic messages, including iterations of “remove kebab,” racist internet shorthand for the ethnic cleansing of Muslims. In late September, another user joked about marrying a Muslim woman and then killing them if the relationship didn’t work out. Others pine for the days of the anti-Muslim Crusades, a common refrain among white nationalists. In the midst of one Islamophobic back and forth on Discord, a user posted a GIF of what appears to be aerial footage of several men, possibly in the Middle East, being killed by an airstrike. 

Unlike the private discord, the moderators of the larger The Donald Discord server don’t appear to have formal links to any message boards hosted back on Reddit. However, there does seem to be crossover between users of the server and the r/donaldtrump subreddit, another indication that former members of r/The_Donald are getting around Reddit’s ban of their old community. Members of the Discord make occasional references and post links to the subreddit.

Discord’s rules bans users who “organize, promote, or coordinate servers around hate speech” and say it is “unacceptable to attack a person or a community based on attributes such as their race, ethnicity, national origin, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, or disabilities.” They also bar making “threats of violence or…harm” including “indirect threats.” After Mother Jones asked Discord to comment on activity taking place in the two chats, the company said it took steps to remove users violating its rules. “Our Trust & Safety team investigated these servers, identified the bad actors / users, and subsequently took the appropriate action of banning them,” Paul Cafiero, a company spokesperson, wrote in an email. He said the company had “warned the server moderators that this type of activity cannot be tolerated on our service.”

Discord’s actions, taken late last week, appear to have had some impact. But they could also serve as a heads up allowing the people behind the pro-Trump chat servers to plot their next move. After receiving a warning from Discord, the moderators of the larger of the two chat servers, The Donald, responded directly by closing all of its public chat servers. It will now only let its vetted members use its private chats “at least until after the election.”

“If you were banned prior to today, 16 October 2020, you will not be unbanned prior to the election. Contact us after November 3rd,” a moderator posted in another channel, addressing the individual users banned after Mother Jones’ inquiry.

On The_Donald Est. 2017, following a warning from Discord, moderators encouraged users to join a backup chat on a different platform, where they could reorganize in the face of any possible full Discord ban.

The fallout of Discord’s actions illustrate a dynamic that shows how it may have been inevitable that Reddit’s ban on The_Donald would be so easily circumvented by the board’s users. Rishab Nithyanand, a computer science professor at the University of Iowa, published a paper last year analyzing Reddit’s moderation practices across 3,000 subreddits. His research found that Reddit seemed to inconsistently enforce its own rules, which allowed members of banned subreddits to simply migrate to still-operating toxic communities with similar ideologies.

Reddit’s decision to quarantine r/The_Donald all but ensured that it would crop up elsewhere. Quarantined subreddits often end up getting banned, and members of the subreddit took the step as a warning sign that r/The_Donald would eventually meet the same fate. Accordingly, members of r/The_Donald started planning, funneling their members into other social media channels, including Discord, so that they could receive instructions on where to migrate to when the ban finally came down.

“A sudden ban would have been much more effective to keep them from setting up a new community,” says Jacob Silver, a senior researcher at the media and tech investigations consultancy Memetica. “They’re anonymous, so if they don’t have a community, it’s hard for them to coordinate.”

Silver, like Nithyanand’s research suggests, argues that it was only a matter of time before The_Donald would figure out how to re-manifest itself on Reddit. “It’s almost like a game to them,” says Silver, who has been analyzing Reddit communities since 2017. “They’re always going to be plotting in the background as to how they can be more public-facing and subvert platforms’ rules.”

Reddit’s mistake, according to Silver said, is in treating dangerous communities as one-off instances that can be banned for a quick PR boost. Instead, he says they should focus on the comprehensive networks of users who power and frequent them. Doing otherwise, he says, amounts to trimming weeds instead of ripping out roots.

“If you have one side in dark corners of the internet always plotting how they can gain more influence, and another side who is effectively operating on the basis of notching public wins with occasional, piecemeal bans,” Silver warns, “one side is going to keep winning.”

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FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2020 demands.

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