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When President Donald Trump last week encouraged his supporters to “fight” and march to the Capitol, it was hardly surprising to anybody who followed his rhetoric. And when his supporters acted on the president’s words and stormed the Capitol, it wasn’t surprising to those watching extremist corners of the internet.
For years, the most extreme versions of Trumpism have flourished on internet chat rooms and social media. Unchecked, this violent brand of nationalism that culminated in the storming of the Capitol incubated largely on Reddit's The_Donald, a now-banned subreddit that's was home to the president’s most online adorers.
On the reconstituted forum, now hosted under a .win domain, members of The_Donald were apparently involved with planning the attack on Capitol Hill and the rage that fueled the domestic terrorists behind it. Days before the storming of the Capitol, a post appeared with the headline “most important map for January 6th. Form a TRUE LINE around the Capitol and the tunnels.” That post included a detailed schematic of Capitol Hill with the tunnels surrounding the complex highlighted.
Although they are on a different home now, the membership and audience is similar to when it was the most popular internet community in Trumpworld, with an audience that went right up the White House's Deputy Chief of Staff Dan Scavino, Trump's head of memes.
The subreddit began the way most viral things on the internet begin—with shitposting and memes. And in Trump, redditors found a candidate who loved posting dogwhistle memes from other wretched corners of online. From the day they found each other (Trump did an AMA with the subreddit in Summer 2016), the two formed a symbiotic relationship.
From GIFs of CNN's logo being bodyslammed to old Rosie O'Donnell tweets, Trump elevated the message of a group of people who, from the beginning, were at war with the mainstream. The group became infamous for trying to poison Reddit's own trending topics after the Orlando shooting, pumping anti-Muslim propoganda to the front page, an audience of millions.
The president does not reportedly use a computer and it’s unlikely that he scans Reddit himself. Yet there has been plenty of evidence that the Trump campaign and administration staffers visit the site frequently and that Trump frequently amplifies the same lines of disinformation found on The_Donald. In June 2016, then-Trump campaign digital media director Brad Parscale said he visited the subreddit “daily.” Politico later reported that the team in the war room of Trump Tower had been monitoring the subreddit during the campaign.
The disinformation chain from The_Donald to presidential tweets was easy to spot but also larger than people realized. Here was a group that worked its hardest to rile up the president, and when he noticed it and shared memes, it further fired them up to continue to troll and antagonize.
In the months surrounding the 2016 election, the subreddit became a haven of talking points. One former Trump campaign official told the Daily Dot, “At one point, a lot of stuff he was taking from Tucker Carlson,” adding that Carlson’s writers frequented the site.
One former writer for the Daily Caller (the right-wing website that Carlson founded) told the Daily Dot that they were on The_Donald, “every day,” adding that prior to the 2016 election, “The_Donald influenced conservative media.” One former Daily Caller writer was fired from government-funded news agency Voice of America after Mediaite reported that he was posting racist jokes on the subreddit.
It's easy to see how a perpetual motion machine like that may one day explode, which it did last week on the Capitol. Key to that was the widely spread false belief that Trump had the election stolen from him. It came from a playbook perfected by The_Donald.
The_Donald's legacy of meme chaos
The behavior of memes and The_Donald has been the subject of a number of peer-reviewed papers by a group of professors who study the subreddit alongside fringe social media network Gab, 4chan (the first home of QAnon), and Twitter. In a 2018 paper titled “On the Origins of Memes in Fringe Communities,” professors from five schools including King’s College London, Boston University, and University College London wrote: “We find that /pol/ [4chan] substantially influences the meme ecosystem by posting a large number of memes, while The Donald is the most efficient community in pushing memes to both fringe and mainstream Web communities.”
Over a period stretching from July 1, 2016 to July 31, 2017, the group categorized 160 million images, subdivided them into clusters using KnowYourMeme and ranked the most popular on The_Donald. The top entry was “Donald Trump,” a cluster that makes up images of the president. But the memes quickly became ripe for pushing disinformation, and just as importantly, stirring hatred.
Some of the memes included in the paper’s references section include a photo of Donald Trump as Perseus holding aloft the head of Medusa, which is depicted as Hillary Clinton. The_Donald was also the leading purveyor of “racism-related memes,” according to the paper.
Professor Jeremy Blackburn, an assistant professor at Binghamton University and one of the authors of “On The Origins of Memes”—a paper that studied The_Donald, 4chan, and Gab—told the Daily Dot: “The_Donald is like an evolutionary selection, so it’s not that the stuff there gets upvoted more or downvoted more, it’s that the craziest shit on 4chan never even shows up on The_Donald.” That became a defining factor in The_Donald’s role in the misinformation ecosystem: It's a clearinghouse for conspiracy theories.
Blackburn’s remark highlights the deepening layers of disinformation that circulate through right-wing sites. The_Donald is the tamest of those sites and the posts on the forum often regurgitate bits of misinformation from more extreme places like 4chan. You won’t usually find more extreme misinformation like Holocaust denial (which is common on 4chan) or allegations that the Chinese secretly elected Joe Biden so that they could harvest Americans’ organs. Bordering on accessibility, this let it thrive during the Trump years... and become a hotbed for international trolling.
Using the list of 944 accounts that Reddit announced in 2018 had suspected ties to the Russian Internet Research Agency, Blackburn's group also studied the activity of Russian and Iranian trolls on the ecosystem from 2015-2018. They found that The_Donald was the 13th-most-popular subreddit for foreign trolling activities. In that study, the professors wrote that their findings “highlight that The Donald is an impactful actor in the information ecosystem and is quite possibly exploited by trolls as a vector to push specific information to other communities.”
Essentially, the Trump administration was allowing itself to be wilfully manipulated via intentionally deceitful memes, which it was happy to put out into the world.
Professor Savvas Zannettou of Saarland University, who has been the lead author on a number of the group’s papers, told the Daily Dot in no uncertain terms: “The_Donald subreddit was the incubator or amplifier of this misinformation and it’s like a gateway that leads to the mainstream.”
The_Donald's next frontier
By the time that Reddit banned The_Donald in June, it had almost 800,000 subscribers. The ban came a year after it was quarantined for repeated violations of policies. At that time, a Reddit spokesperson said, “recent behaviors including threats against the police and public figures is content that is prohibited by our violence policy."
Professors also found that the new home decreased the number of new users but increased the toxicity of the group.
In anticipation of a ban, The_Donald moved over to a .win domain months prior. Compiling all submissions and comments on The_Donald.win between Feb. 26, 2020 and June 24, 2020, researchers found that those on the platform were posting more and there were “significant increases in radicalization-related signals.” In coming to this conclusion they compiled “fixation dictionaries”—words like "trans," "commie," "socialist," and "diversity"—that were more likely to appear on The_Donald than other forums still hosted on Reddit.
Outside of the confines of mainstream internet, everything got worse. And the Trump administration watched it.
One former Trump campaign official recently told the Independent that Trump would have been aware about the online plots to storm the Capitol, saying that Trump’s social media team has “their fingers on the pulse of any and everything that is unfolding [online] in Trumpworld,” including the new revamped .win site.
And while most of America wants to turn down the temperature, that isn’t the case among the hardcore Trump supporters posting as you read this. A few days after the riot, the same user who posted the detailed map of the Capitol posted again, writing, “No unity. War. They killed 4 of ours.”