The Industry

Why Reddit Finally Quarantined r/The_Donald—and Why It’s Probably Scared to Ban It

A crowd of people, many wearing MAGA hats, holding their phones up.
Supporters take pictures and video with their cellphones as Donald Trump makes his entrance at the National Rifle Association Annual Meeting on April 26 in Indianapolis. SETH HERALD/Getty Images

One of the biggest pro-Trump forums on the web, Reddit’s r/The_Donald, has been walled off. As of Wednesday, the social media site put the subreddit (which has more than 754,000 subscribers) under “quarantine” because of threats of violence made on the message board against police officers, which Reddit does not allow. The threats were in reaction to a statehouse fight in Oregon involving GOP lawmakers who refused to vote on a climate bill and fled the state.

A hub of MAGA-themed memes (and the frequently hateful trolls who make them), r/The_Donald has run afoul of Reddit’s moderation policies before. “The reason for the quarantine is that over the last few months we have observed repeated rule-breaking behavior in your community,” a letter from Reddit that was posted to the front page of r/The_Donald read. The subreddit’s moderators apparently haven’t done enough to keep the Donald Trump fan club in line with the site’s policies, and despite the overwhelming popularity of the page, Reddit decided to to take down the offending posts and hide the page behind a warning wall.

More than other major social sites, Reddit has the reputation of being a free-for-all. So the quarantine may seem out of the ordinary. But it’s actually a refreshing example of a social media company actually following through with enforcing its community moderation policies and explaining what broken rules led to the action. This is something that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have frequently shown themselves to be bad at. It was only a few weeks ago that YouTube couldn’t even decide if repeated homophobic remarks from a famous YouTuber, which led to the harassment of Vox journalist, were actually in violation of its policies. It was painful to watch the platform, owned by one of the most powerful companies in the world, publicly flail in deciding whether it had to actually enforce its rules. (Ultimately, it didn’t ban or suspend the user, but did demonetize his channel.)

But let’s keep Reddit’s move in context. The company hasn’t taken down the subreddit despite multiple severe rule violations. Instead, it’s hidden the forum behind a screen you have to click through. The screen asks, “Are you sure you want to view this community?” and encourages visitors to downvote and report any posts that violate the rules.

It’s possible the quarantine could cause visitors to navigate elsewhere—I’m doubtful—and it may even lead to a decrease in rule violations. (If it does, Reddit should share those findings with journalists and researchers.) But if the click-through prompt doesn’t lead to reform in r/The_Donald, that wouldn’t be surprising either. After all, the quarantining function on Reddit isn’t designed as a tool for enforcing rules against threats of violence. The purpose of a quarantine, as Reddit explains on its announcements page, “is to prevent its content from being accidentally viewed by those who do not knowingly wish to do so, or viewed without appropriate context.” Threatening violence isn’t the same as NSFW images or off-color jokes.

Still, the company has certainly banned communities for repeated violations of its rules before—like in 2018, when a raft of pages about the QAnon conspiracy theory were all axed. And r/The_Donald has repeatedly been a place where doxing and harassment campaigns against journalists have been organized, an explicit violation of the company’s rules. Before the deadly Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacist rally in 2017, r/The_Donald pinned a post encouraging members to attend. Reddit has been struggling to contain the page for years—the company even overhauled its voting system after it was systematically gamed by posters on r/The_Donald to percolate content to Reddit’s front page. After years of struggle, it’s no surprise that the page is now under quarantine. It took long enough.

Nor should anyone be surprised by Reddit’s reticence to ban r/The_Donald. It isn’t only a major subreddit. It’s also one that’s been condoned by the now-president of the United States—Trump hosted an open interview with his supporters there when he was a candidate in 2016. When Trump tweeted a video of himself wrestling CNN to the ground, that GIF came from r/The_Donald. Trump’s 2020 campaign manager has said he’s a regular visitor of the page. At the moment, when social media companies are being chastised by GOP members of Congress and Trump himself for censoring conservative content, of course Reddit is going to tiptoe here. We can expect the quarantine will be seen as another act of anti-conservative bias from Silicon Valley—which will only serve to make this massively popular subreddit even more so.