Following the cold-blooded slaying of 50 Muslims in Christchurch last month, social media companies were forced to grapple with their role in spreading hate speech and many began cracking down. While Facebook expanded the scope of its prohibited content, Reddit responded by quarantining several of its white nationalist subreddits. However, admins once again declined to act against r/The_Donald, the site’s single largest venue for violent anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Islam is a perennial target of vitriol on the pro-Trump subreddit. It’s not uncommon to see posts calling Muhammad a “pedophile” or referring to Muslims as “inbred,” “goatfuckers,” “ragheads,” “rapefugees,” “mudslimes” and “sand monkeys.”
Despite the horrific events in Christchurch, this steady stream of racist demonization continued unabated. The bodies of those murdered in New Zealand weren’t even cold before comments filled the subreddit claiming that the slaughter was justified or that the victims brought it on themselves. Some examples:
“Every single one of those in the Mosque were at least terrorist sympathizers. There is no such thing as a moderate Muslim.”
“You can only call for the death and destruction of people so long before they start fighting back”
“Sometimes vigilantism is necessary because the system only works to protect the guilty. I’m not saying this is one of those times, but ‘never’ is a strong word from [Senator Fraser Anning]”
“Muslims rape and pillage native populations, and murder innocent people. Terrorism isn’t so fun when you’re on the recieving [sic] end. Between the rape gangs, murders, drugs, etc, it was only a matter of time before people struck back against the invaders.”
“Please. Islam is on a constant, 24/7 killing spree. Every day they butcher people. Are we all to stop and feel sad for them when they get a taste of their own medicine? Pardon me for saying FUCK THEM!”
The_Donald not only shares the Christchurch murderer’s virulent hostility toward Muslims—they’re also part of the same sick white nationalist subculture. Brenton Tarrant titled his manifesto “The Great Replacement.” Synonymous with “white genocide,” the Great Replacement refers to a white nationalist conspiracy theory that alleges Jews are trying to subvert and destroy the white race by encouraging miscegenation, abortion and mass immigration. Nearly 1,700 threads referencing “white genocide” or the Great Replacement can be found on the The_Donald.
And The_Donald has the same taste in memes. Tarrant wrote “Remove Kebab” on his weapon, referencing a song by a Serbian nationalist that’s popular in alt-right spaces. He played the song in his car shortly before his rampage.
Along with phrases like “Deus Vult,” “remove kebab” is used frequently on The_Donald as a “playful” euphemism for ethnic cleansing:
“Remove kebab” regularly appears in threads about Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who has lately been the target of a non-stop campaign of Islamophobic vilification by conservatives as well as members of her own party. Subscribers to The_Donald joined in the feeding frenzy over the Muslim representative’s comments at the Council on American-Islamic Relations conference, which prompted a flurry of death threats.
Most recently, when news broke about the fire at the Notre Dame cathedral, The_Donald became a hotbed of Islamophobic conspiracy theory, leading to threats of violence both coded, i.e. “deus vult,” and overt.
Saying “action needs to be taken,” users called for armed militias and tricking Muslims “into unknowingly identifying themselves and gathering in a large group.”
Subreddits have been quarantined or banned for much less. In the last month, Reddit moved to quarantine r/SargonOfAkkad, a forum dedicated to Carl Benjamin, a so-called anti-SJW Youtuber. Though he frequently deals in anti-Muslim content and adopts a number of other far-right positions, Benjamin rejects many key white nationalist beliefs, like “race realism.” Compared to the average user on The_Donald, he’s tame.
Reddit also recently quarantined r/DebateAltRight. While the subreddit is explicit in its support for white nationalist ideas, its mods are fairly stringent about compliance with the site’s content policies regarding incitement to violence, even in meme form. The phrase “remove kebab” appears more than 1,300 times on The_Donald. On DebateAltRight? Not once.
This points to an inconsistency in Reddit’s content policy, which is ostensibly intended to be “free speech absolutist,” as per CEO Steve Huffman. There are two exceptions to this “anything goes” approach. The first is disruption, which includes behaviors like brigading—sending users from one subreddit to another to troll—and harassment. The second is incitement to violence.
The decisions about which subreddits meet this criteria are left up to admins and often they appear to be entirely arbitrary. Indeed, the sole consistent aspect of Reddit’s administration is its tendency to act on hate speech only after violence is committed. Its policies on incitement were put in place after the murder of Heather Heyer at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. The sub r/incels was only banned after the deadly Toronto van attack.
In each of these cases, a handful of toxic subreddits were removed while the tumor that is The_Donald was allowed to metastasize. After Unite the Right, Reddit banned r/PhysicalRemoval, a radical rightwing sub that specialized in helicopter memes paying homage to Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, who was famous for “death flight” executions of leftwing activists. Such memes are just as common on The_Donald.
But unlike these other subreddits, The_Donald has had one of its regular users convicted of a violent crime. Lane Davis, who posted under the name seattle4truth, was a Pizzagate truther sentenced to 17 years for stabbing his father to death.
Computer-assisted analysis of the language used on The_Donald shows it to be strikingly similar in content to several subreddits that Reddit has banned, so why does the site allow it to remain? Rishab Nithyanand, a researcher who studies hate speech on Reddit, told Mother Jones recently that it likely has to do with the subreddit’s massive size.
The_Donald currently sits at 700,000 subscribers and continues to grow—in part due to the fact there are few spaces left on Reddit where one can go to spew this kind of hateful rhetoric. Nithyanand speculates that admins might be reluctant to ban such a large community because of the blowback that could result. “The_Donald has evolved far beyond other subreddits that have been banned. It wouldn’t be unprecedented to ban a subreddit with content like this. What would be unprecedented is banning a subreddit of this size,” he said.
The risk is especially great considering its ties to a number of prominent conservative media figures who have done AMAs (Ask Me Anything) on the subreddit, including Tucker Carlson, Bill Mitchell and Ann Coulter. A banning or quarantine would surely result in hundreds of pieces on Fox News, the Daily Caller and Breitbart crying foul over “discrimination” against conservatives.
There’s another possible reason Reddit might be slow to act against The_Donald, which is also related to its size: money. The subreddit was a significant source of ad revenue until a Reddit-based campaign forced the site to exclude it from ad placement last year.
Still, Reddit generates part of its revenue from selling “gold” that can be “paid” to users when they make quality posts. Reddit gold is billed as a way to support and sustain the site as a free service, hence it is quantified in “server time.” The_Donald users buy and use lots of gold. On a per capita basis, they spend roughly as much as their liberal rival r/politics. At the time this was written, subscribers to The_Donald had paid for more than four years of server time and paid 112 gold directly to Huffman.
Reddit is not only providing a platform for hate speech but also profiting from it directly. One gilded post calls Muslims rapists and “parasites.” Several posts perpetuating “white genocide” narratives have also earned income for the site. Another called for a renewal of the “8-year domestic arms buildup under Obama” in anticipation for the “coming civil war.” Here, a poster is gilded for lamenting the fact that it’s politically unpopular to deport or “exterminate” Muslim women and children:
Defending his decision to continue allowing hate speech, Huffman said once that there is “value in the conversation.” But, rather than any high-minded ideal, the continued presence of The_Donald on Reddit likely has more to do with the corporate leadership’s cowardice, greed or some combination of the two.