Donald Trump on Wednesday will answer questions from supporters on Reddit, one of the most visited sites in the world and one whose Trump fan page has become an unlikely viral sensation.
Trump’s “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) session is a crowning achievement for r/The_Donald, a user-created “subreddit” that’s attracted tens of millions of pageviews a month since rising to prominence in February. The site serves as a hub for a prankish and sometimes outrageous band of conservative users who skew young and male and take special pleasure in tweaking liberal sensitivities on topics like gender, race and immigration.
“First Reddit ignored our sub,” r/The_Donald moderator Viking83 wrote in a post announcing the AMA. “Then Reddit laughed at our sub. Then Reddit fought our sub with Hillary’s paid haters. And now we are winning with our God Emperor, the Nimble Navigator, Mr. Donald J. Trump!”
The Trump campaign has no formal relationship with r/The_Donald, which is run almost entirely by anonymous moderators, like JCM267, who are known only by their username. An exception is Milo Yianappoulos, the famed “alt right” provocateur who holds a mostly ceremonial position and was recently banned from Twitter for harassing Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones.
“It’s a great group with lots of millennials from all different walks of life,” Reddit user JCM267, the 32-year old founder of r/The_Donald told NBC News. “It’s huge for the future of the country, because if you look around the Internet, everywhere you go is another safe space for the left enforcing their norms and views and political correctness.”
The seeds of the AMA were planted when one of Trump’s moderators, Velostodon, reached out to Trump’s digital director Brad Parscale, who had previously indicated on Twitter he’s a daily visitor to r/The_Donald.
With Parscale’s encouragement, the team of amateur moderators drafted a four-page memo to present to Trump at the GOP convention making the case for how a visit to Reddit might benefit the campaign. An AMA, they wrote, would “provide a unique opportunity for Mr. Trump to speak directly to the millennial demographic,” to “generate significant earned media,” and offer a chance to “interact on his own terms without the filter of the biased mainstream media.” The campaign announced its participation just days after Trump accepted the nomination.
The event won’t be open to everyone. To keep out the digital equivalent of protesters, moderators are only allowing established users to participate and plan to carefully screen comments. The plan is to let Trump supporters vote for their favorite suggested questions before Trump joins at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday.
“My team can expect a record amount of trolls, shills and rule-breakers; but Mr. Trump won't have to deal with any of that,” Velostodon told NBC News.
Unlike other candidate sites — Bernie Sanders has a large Reddit presence as well — r/The_Donald is primarily devoted to online agitprop rather than campaign organizing. Users spend their time spreading memes, videos and news about Trump’s campaign while feuding with his enemies online, often over Reddit’s arcane internal politics.
Moderators believe their material influenced Trump’s campaign even if Trump isn’t personally familiar with their site. Trump regularly retweets supporters and JCM267 and Velostodon both noted that some of his own account’s tweets bore similarities to popular talking points among r/The_Donald users.
What’s beyond dispute is that r/The_Donald has had a significant impact on Reddit itself. Reddit promotes content based on how many users “upvote” a post and r/The_Donald users regularly dominated the site’s r/all front page. It eventually prompted a backlash from critics who accused them of violating site rules by coordinating efforts to push their material. In June, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman announced that the company was changing its algorithm for the front page in part to prevent r/The_Donald from flooding it with content.
The rise of r/The_Donald also spawned a popular anti-Trump subreddit, r/EnoughTrumpSpam, which garnered attention this month with a viral post listing dozens of news stories to argue, “Trump is a fascist.”
Like Trump’s campaign, r/The_Donald has faced significant growing pains transitioning from a ragtag political campaign into a nationally relevant force. Its moderators have clashed over its direction and at times struggled to keep the site from being overrun by white supremacist and neo-Nazi Trump supporters who have developed an online presence of their own on sites like 4Chan. Last month, moderators ousted r/The_Donald’s charismatic onetime leader CisWhiteMaelstrom over accusations he planned to coordinate with white nationalist leaders to promote Trump. Moderators say the subreddit is under more stable leadership now.
“The fact something I helped put together has most of the internet buzzing has me pretty nervous, but I'm very confident in the team I work with,” Velostodon told NBC News. “We've handled some of the worst the internet and media can throw at us with ease, so I think we can keep this event under control.“