For the past 11 years, an eternity in internet time, Reddit has touted itself -- repeatedly, and loudly -- as the place to have "authentic conversations" online. For a variety of reasons, that sentiment has always rang hollow. Now, Reddit, in its goal to be a laissez-faire haven of (relatively) free expression, has been overrun by nationalist trolls. Its staff of volunteer moderators is losing hope in the site's future.
Illustration: Sam Woolley/Gizmodo
Gizmodo spoke with five high-ranking volunteer moderators of some of Reddit's biggest communities, as well as a Reddit spokesperson. We discovered the site's unusual working relationship with its most problematic community -- r/The_Donald -- a community which, by exploiting poor enforcement of Reddit's already limp user protections, has effectively been holding the rest of the site hostage.
The site's subreddits serve as fiefdoms organised around a specific interest. Reddit's The_Donald subreddit was founded a year ago as the premier online meeting place for Trump supporters. It has since sought to -- in CEO and co-founder Steve Huffman's words -- "dominate the conversation" on the site. Its members spread coded hate speech, openly antagonise other Redditors and break the site's most basic rules with impunity while moderators feel the brunt of the abuse, and Reddit leadership fail to adequately address the problem.
Reddit is one of the most-trafficked websites in the world. Its culture reflects the culture of the time, and what performs well on Reddit has widespread ramifications for what is considered interesting, shareable and news-worthy. So how did things get this bad?
Reddit's Cosy Relationship With The_Donald
"There have been multiple iterations of The_Donald," a Reddit spokesperson, who did not wish to be identified by name, told Gizmodo in a phone call. (CEO Steve Huffman previously said that The_Donald's team of top mods had turned over at least four times over the year.) "The [moderator teams] that I've been involved with for the last six months or so, we've actually had a very close working relationship with. We share a Discord channel with them -- their private chat. It's been highly responsive when we need to ask them to take things down that are probably rule violations," Reddit contended. (The moderation team of r/The_Donald did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
If Centipede Central is the chat Reddit is referring to -- a chat room within the Slack-like Discord program, the one linked in the sidebar of The_Donald and one of the largest servers on Discord -- its users have encouraged the harassment of other moderators, artificially inflated the vote count on posts, rigged off-Reddit polls and posted John Podesta's personal Netflix login information for the chat's 1000+ members to use at will.
Screengrabs from Centipede Central.
Several current and former high-ranking moderators of Reddit's other communities told Gizmodo they had no knowledge of Reddit's "collaboration" with The_Donald. Although Reddit, as a platform, prides itself on a hands-off approach, Reddit claims that there are "probably two dozen of these type of collaborations set up" between Reddit corporate and subreddit mods.
Reddit did not elaborate on which specific communities were in regular contact with the Reddit leadership, or in what capacity, but most of these "close working relationships" are, according to Reddit, with the "default" subreddits -- the ones logged out users will see, which tend to be the biggest, oldest and best-moderated, encompassing neutral interests like art, fitness, gaming and music. If Reddit is a city, the default subs are a flawlessly-manicured public park, while The_Donald is a crumbling tenement next to a sewage plant.
Yet somehow, The_Donald is part of the select few. Usually, "there is very little interaction or support" between the moderators and corporate, a veteran volunteer Redditor who helps to run a default community told Gizmodo in a lengthy email. "It's a free-for-all... which led to the trolling nature and (I would say) takeover by groups like r/The_Donald."
"What is more surprising [than the Discord chat between the_Donald and Reddit] is that their behaviour is allowed even with having that close of admin communication," a moderator of r/politics -- one of the communities which has been hit the hardest by The_Donald users -- told Gizmodo.
The_Donald is not uniquely dysfunctional in the history of Reddit, but it is unique in Reddit leadership's continued tolerance of its behaviour. "Like many other subreddits before it (FatPeopleHate, CoonTown, etc) it's having a negative impact on other subreddits, but nothing is happening to it," another high-ranking moderator told Gizmodo in an email. "The moderators of the sub will 'work' with the admins in regards to situations that pop up, but then turn around and won't actually enforce it."
Reddit claims that "Because of… their close working relationship with us, they couldn't really get away with a lot of the things they're being accused of." And yet, they do.
A Website Overrun
Voting posts up or down is the very mechanism that allows the site to function and dictates what shows up on the top of each page including r/all, Reddit's front page. "Asking for votes or engaging in vote manipulation" is the very first "prohibited behaviour" listed on the Reddit's Content Policy, and is reiterated on the Redditquette page -- it is a site-wide rule.
A possible consequences of breaking content policy rules, according to Reddit.
Besides leaving Reddit links in their public Discord to direct users to promote those posts, The_Donald regularly makes use of title constructions which invite aggressive upvoting. "Wouldn't it be a shame if r/all saw this" is perhaps the most common variation on the theme.
A smattering of The_Donald's title constructions.
"It is arguably a wink wink nod nod attempt to bypass our vote manipulation rules although quite frankly that is a rule that is fairly largely ignored by our community as a whole and it's really not one that we as a company enforce that much," Reddit told Gizmodo. Even if a hands-off attitude is one of the reasons users flock to Reddit, it's deeply concerning that this ironclad vote brigading tenant is not enforced.
According to a default moderator, "r/The_Donald used to make up 30-40% [of r/all] in the past." In spite of Reddit's tepid acknowledgement of The_Donald as a problem, site-wide changes have sought to limit the subreddit's disproportionate visibility. In an announcement post earlier this year, Huffman rolled out changes to the algorithm that surfaces popular posts to r/all -- effectively the frontpage of "the frontpage of the internet" -- to specifically mitigate The_Donald's propensity to upvote posts as a hivemind. Arguably block voting makes conversation and interaction on the site inauthentic, and Huffman would seem to agree.
Many people will ask if this is related to r/the_donald. The short answer is no, we have been working on this change for a while, but I cannot deny their behaviour hastened its deployment. We have seen many communities like r/the_donald over the years -- ones that attempt to dominate the conversation on Reddit at the expense of everyone else. This undermines Reddit, and we are not going to allow it.
Even with this more aggressive algorithm in place, the community's posts still float to the top with clockwork regularity and rack up extraordinarily high vote totals. Most egregiously, on the day of the US election, an all-caps post directed towards the LOSER SJWS OF REDDIT asked the site's diverse users HOW DOES OUR DICK TASTE on the front page.
Reddit's frontpage on the day of the US election
The thread's author -- rsashe1980 -- is a moderator of The_Donald, as well as TheNewRight, HillaryMeltdown, our_politics (created to directly oppose the default r/politics) and le_pen, a community which is attempting to help install far-right candidate Marine Le Pen as France's president in their upcoming election.
In addition to the volunteer moderators who create and enforce rules in their communities, Reddit employs a number of administrators to enforce the site's broader bylaws. When asked what instances merit intervention by admins, the Reddit spokesperson gave three examples: Targeted harassment or doxxing of an individual, two mod teams requesting mediation to resolve a conflict with each other or the breach of a site rule.
"I know there's always been a 'dark side' to reddit. But the dark side used to be confined to the corners," a default moderator told Gizmodo in an email. "It was manageable. What The_Donald has become, and what it's doing to the site isn't."
"Reddit is the internet's home for conversation," Reddit told us. "Not all conversation is comfortable." Unfortunately, that mantra has allowed trolls and bigots to gain a foothold on the site in the past, and protects The_Donald today. The problem lies in Reddit's own narrowly defined harassment policy, which addresses individuals only -- harassment against whole groups or identities is not included:
Harassment on Reddit is defined as systematic and/or continued actions to torment or demean someone in a way that would make a reasonable person conclude that reddit is not a safe platform to express their ideas or participate in the conversation, or fear for their safety or the safety of those around them.
As a result, bigotry, painted with a broad enough brush and the same "wink wink nod nod" tactics employed for block voting is perfectly acceptable. "The mods and leadership in r/The_Donald know how to troll. To dance the line between what clearly constitutes hate speech and what goes for something CLOSE but not quite," a default mod told Gizmodo in an email. But Reddit knows full well that such policies are ultimately damaging to the site.
According to a 2015 Reddit user poll, "The number one reason redditors do not recommend the site -- even though they use it themselves -- is because they want to avoid exposing friends to hate and offensive content." While leadership is generally content to allow troublesome communities to coexist with neutral ones on Reddit, banning of whole communities does have precedent.
During her time as interim CEO, Ellen Pao famously booted five "harassing subreddits", most notably the 150,000-subscriber-strong r/FatPeopleHate. (Those evicted communities went on to set up shop on Reddit knockoff Voat.) "We want as little involvement as possible in managing these interactions but will be involved when needed to protect privacy and free expression, and to prevent harassment," Pao's announcement post read, "Today we are removing five subreddits that break our reddit rules based on their harassment of individuals."
Though he was not employed by Reddit at the time, the site's spokesperson did not characterise the banning of those communities as a result of harassment. "I'd actually posit that those were unhealthy in that there was no respect for the other side, there was no respect for the conversation as an entity, there was no respect for anything but advancing a particular, stilted incredibly prejudicial agenda in those cases," Reddit told Gizmodo.
The_Donald falls squarely into that very definition. "No Dissenters or SJWs," is among the community's rules -- limiting who from "the other side" can post there from the get-go. Users are, according to the New York Times, banned by one of the roughly 47 moderators from The_Donald subreddit at rates much higher than any other on the site, for such grave offences as expressing civil but dissenting opinions. Conversation takes a backseat to loyalty. And where a prejudicial agenda is concerned, the well-documented and regressive beliefs held by Trump's own transition team are reflected in The_Donald users, who gleefully attack people on the basis of their religion, race, heritage, sexuality, gender identity or political leanings.
"r/The_Donald mods have set their subreddit up as a safe space. One where dissent or questioning is not tolerated. You either follow or you are banned," a default mod wrote to Gizmodo, "That rule does not apply if you make a statement on Reddit elsewhere. The brigade will both downvote, doxx, and go after those who do post something that is against the r/The_Donald hivemind."
How bad does it have to get before a community gets banned? "I think that if a community culture was so toxically broken that we saw no hope of resolving it, then we would proceed to shut down the community," Reddit told Gizmodo.
Before last weekend, Reddit banned r/pizzagate, a community with close ties to The_Donald which existed to investigate the ludicrous and debunked notion that Comet Ping Pong, a Washington, DC pizzeria, was a Clinton- and Podesta-run front for child-trafficking. The site's statement claims r/pizzagate was banned due to "repeated violations of the terms of our content policy". A now-deleted post suggests the only reason Pizzagate was given the axe while The_Donald remains alive and well is moderator cooperation. (Like other banned communities, Pizzagate has found a new home on Voat.)
Following the ban, displaced pizzagaters caused a stir on The_Donald that merited a post by a moderator. "I want to gently remind everyone that The_Donald is a sub about Donald Trump," IFIFIFOKIEDOKE wrote, "too often, discussions about topics such as pizzagate will completely dominate the sub and drown out any thoughtful discussion or Trump related content." The irony, it seems, was lost on them.
Last week, co-founder and CEO Steve Huffman, after months of harassment and "getting called a pedophile constantly" by The_Donald users, finally cracked. He made a childish, poorly-advised and quickly-uncovered attempt to edit the offending users' posts in retaliation -- "trolling the trolls for a bit," as he described it. In retaliation, a mod leaked the internal chatlogs from a Slack channel for default moderators and admins.
"There have been unquestionably instances [where] moderators of other subreddits were targeted by users in The_Donald," Reddit told Gizmodo, and the leaked chatlogs reveal the extent.
A screenshot from leaked chatlogs.
Some moderators had been flooded with constant harassing messages. "One threatened to kill my fucking dog," a moderator pleaded in the leaked Slack chat. A The_Donald user hacked r/politics and booted half of the moderation team, another told Gizmodo in an email.
"We have had multiple moderators doxxed and sent death threats, we had one moderator who had his truck broken into and vandalised," an r/politics mod told Gizmodo over Reddit private message.
A screenshot from leaked chatlogs.
One of the moderators named in the chat told Gizmodo he experienced a deluge of racist and abusive messages after the leak. "The vast majority had mentions to me being a traitor, how I should be deported, and how I was going to be hunted down and killed… It got so bad, in order to give themselves some room, [the admins] had to 'black hole' my inbox. Basically, any messages that were sent to me were instantly deleted."
One of the messages sent before the inbox was "black holed".
"Myself, and others, are frustrated with the inaction of the admins as a group, especially in regards to The_Donald," a default moderator told Gizmodo. Another went as far as to say that "we mods have had a series of duds and corporate bureaucrats supporting us for years".
The chatlogs, as well as our correspondence with some high-ranking moderators, suggest The_Donald has been a known problem for a long, long time. So what's keeping administration from taking action?
One possible explanation for Reddit's inaction is money. The_Donald is, by Reddit's own admission, "one of our most popular subreddits and most active subreddits," and like almost every community on the site, sponsored ads appear alongside user posts. The content of most posts on The_Donald should raise deep concerns with most advertisers paying for space on Reddit, if their ad ends up on The_Donald, regardless of how popular or active the page is. (At the time of this writing, Uber ads are appearing on The_Donald.)
More likely it comes down to fallout and optics. After the ban of r/FatPeopleHate Reddit became near-unusable. The displaced users, with nothing left to lose, stirred up as much trouble as they could, and likely the Reddit admins fear a repeat. "Trying to take action against 4 million unique subreddit visitors (300,000 subscribers) will be impossible," an r/politics moderator told Gizmodo. "Even if only 1% of their total visitors are a problem, that leaves 40,000 accounts to be handled. Glance around the community, it is much more than 1%."
A maelstrom of bad blood and digital vandalism, no matter how bad, is always temporary. But some moderators felt the leadership's attempts to plaster a gaping wound came down to potential claims of political bias. "[The_Donald] was the sub for a major political candidate even from a small size, and there would have been fallout if they'd banned it then, and will be far more if they do so after the election," a default moderator wrote to Gizmodo.
Even former CEO Yishan Wong chimed in on a thread last week regarding The_Donald's behaviour:
I can understand that the admins probably wanted to avoid any outright "you're banned" type of shutdown and instead opted to try and contain rule-breaking behaviour on an individual basis. As it happens, doing that is extremely difficult because users will try to push the line and incur essentially no consequence for doing so. /r/The_Donald has the additional unique attribute of being a subreddit that isn't going to "go away" [...] it is likely to continue or grow in prominence.
The impunity The_Donald's users act with is as alarming as it is obvious. "That is a toxic subreddit," the r/politics mod told Gizmodo. "All of our moderators want a strong Trump subreddit. It is good for communities to exist for that kind of thing. [The_Donald] is not it, they have gone too far in so many different ways."
As it stands, moderators have been holding back an unprecedented tide of abuse, backed by an administration that won't admit there's a problem and headed by a CEO acting in his site's worst interest.
Facebook, Google and Twitter spent the days following the US election at least trying to do some soul-searching. Reddit has been conspicuously silent in shouldering blame for giving an audience and a recruitment centre to this groundswell of bigotry, despite harbouring its most prominent community -- one which openly mocks the leadership and rules of the very platform that allowed it to proliferate. Reddit needs to contend with its own shrieking tide of ignorance and hatred now, and outgrow the notion that fewer rules is the shortest distance to greater authenticity.
"At this point, I think reddit is a lost cause because of the admins inability to take action on the group while simultaneously being overwhelmed with dealing with the individual," a moderator told us. "No other subreddit has been able to be used [as] a platform for harassment for this long in Reddit's history. And it's likely going to be what kills it." Said another: "The social experiment has run its course."
The names and pseudonyms of multiple sources in this story have been omitted to protect their anonymity due to credible threats.