Benjy Sarlin, NBC News, July 1, 2016
For months, Trump supporters have been a ubiquitous presence on Reddit, an online message board that’s among the most visited websites in the world. The subreddit r/the_donald, a user-created section of Reddit with no connection to Trump’s actual campaign, became a grassroots sensation during the Republican primaries with more than 50 million monthly page views at its peak in March.
The subreddit, managed by a handful of mostly anonymous fans, is a breakout success. But it’s also plagued by constant infighting among its leaders, infiltration by white supremacists and clashes with the site’s administrators over complaints that its users game the system to make their content more visible.
Last week, its leaders announced they were kicking out moderator CisWhiteMaelstrom, widely credited with popularizing the subreddit, over allegations he planned to join forces with prominent white nationalists like Jared Taylor and Richard Spencer to coordinate support for Trump.
“They are people that Trump would want nothing to do with,” r/the_donald’s founder, JCM267, said in a post announcing the decision. “Just as Trump would, we disavow them.”
CisWhiteMaelstrom, who like all Reddit moderators interviewed for this story asked to be identified by their username to avoid harassment, criticized Reddit’s handling of the Orlando episode in a phone interview last month. He did not respond to e-mails requesting comment after his removal as moderator, however, and his Reddit account has been deleted since the news broke.
The ouster was the latest flare-up in a longstanding battle over how (and whether) to keep far right and racist users from congregating in r/the_donald.
The subreddit rose to prominence by billing itself as a meeting place for Trump supporters and as a haven for Reddit users to bait liberal “social justice warriors” with mocking posts about topics like feminism, religion and immigration. This anti-PC ethos made them popular, but it also made it hard for moderators to draw lines between garden-variety trolling designed to provoke and blatantly white supremacist material designed to attract new followers.
Initially, CisWhiteMaelstrom took steps to ban users who exhibited signs of extremism. But the standards were inconsistent: During a feud between r/the_donald and Swedish subreddit r/Sweden in April (it’s a long story), he announced he was dropping his policy of blocking racist content so long as it targeted Muslims. What followed was a wave of unprintable Photoshopped images and cartoons depicting sexual violence against Swedes by dark-skinned immigrants and railing against interracial marriage, some of them submitted by users with names that referenced neo-Nazi terms.
CisWhiteMaelstrom quit the group shortly afterward after complaining a rival was threatening to leak his true identity. Under new leadership, the subreddit swung the other direction as moderators tried to more aggressively ban content that was offensive or unrelated to Trump. That sparked a backlash of its own, with some users forming a breakaway subreddit r/Mr_Trump that promised a more lax censorship policy.
White supremacists, however, discovered that the censorship debate was a perfect chance to slip their propaganda into the mix again. One popular post on r/Mr_Trump actively promoted by one of the subreddit’s moderators was a video parodying the song “Make A Man Out Of You” from Disney’s “Mulan,” which a user retitled “Troll The Cuck Out Of You” and paired with white nationalist lyrics. A sample from one (surprisingly well-sung) verse: “Look at demographics / they’re not on our side / Vote your racial interests / or we won’t survive.”
More recently, the subreddit’s moderators invited white nationalist publisher Jared Taylor to join the subreddit for a chat with users, but cancelled the event after concerns Taylor’s views went too far.
Viking83, a moderator for r/Mr_Trump told NBC News in an email that Taylor was dropped because “we do not endorse racist views.” Still, Viking83 seemed to acknowledge that the distinction could get blurry in their corner of conservatism.
Reaction to the changes among r/the_donald users has been mixed, but many followers indicated they were supportive of removing CisWhiteMaelstrom in order to avoid distracting fights over racism and misogyny.
“Sometimes you have to pivot to the general,” user Nimble_Nav_Fan wrote in a comment thread on the decision. “He was our [Corey] Lewandowski and now we need a [Paul] Manafort.”