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How an Army of Pro-Donald Trump Trolls Are Taking Over Reddit

How An Army of Pro-Donald Trump Trolls Are Taking Over Reddit.
Image: Donald Trump
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump arrives for a rally at the Times Union Center on Monday, April 11, 2016, in Albany, N.Y.Mike Groll / AP

Donald Trump is taking over Reddit.

Seemingly out of nowhere, the site dubbed “the front page of the Internet” has been flooded with pro-Trump material over the last two months.

Reddit, a forum that consists of user-run message boards called “subreddits,” is one of the most visited sites on the Internet and a driving cultural force online, especially among young men. That funny “Batman vs. Superman” gif you saw going around Twitter, or that list of 101 Kanye West memes you clicked on at a news site? There’s a good chance it was on Reddit first.

In recent weeks, though, thousands of users have posted gifs, memes, and links to articles praising Trump and tearing into his perceived opponents. The subreddit r/The_Donald scored nearly 52 million page-views in March, up from 12.6 million in February and 1.3 million in January. In doing so, it lapped the next most popular candidate subreddit, r/SandersForPresident, which attracted 35 million views in March.

This week, the Trump subreddit is awash with posts lashing out at Sen. Ted Cruz after he swept Colorado’s 34 delegates, which were chosen at a series of state and district conventions. “Raphael [sic] the Sniggering Rat is trying to stump, saying Trump is ‘whining’ about Colorado, and still claiming that people in the state actually voted at all,” read one popular post on Tuesday, a reference to Cruz’s full name, Rafael Edward Cruz. Another top post on Wednesday: “Ted Cruz always looks like he just crapped his pants a bit and hopes you didn’t notice.”

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Neither Trump nor Sanders are responsible for the content on their subreddits, which were created by outside supporters, and no other candidates have a major following on the site. The Sanders campaign keeps in touch with its r/SandersForPresident backers, though, while Trump’s campaign has said it hasno involvement with Reddit.

Pro-Trump posts routinely garner enough upvotes — roughly akin to Facebook’s “likes” — to turn up on the site’s homepage, leaving some of Reddit’s users bewildered by their appearance. The subreddit has attracted the attention of prominent Trump supporters like conservative commentator Ann Coulter, who recently hosted a Q&A on r/The_Donald.

A large faction within Reddit has always had an anti-establishment and libertarian streak, and many users promoted Ron Paul’s candidacy in 2012. For most of the 2016 cycle, though, Bernie Sanders supporters dominated the site like no one in its history. The subreddit r/SandersForPresident has 225,000-plus subscribers and serves as a grassroots organizing hub for the campaign. A few months ago, a simple picture of Sanderswalking to work became a viral phenomenon. Could the same site’s users really be that drawn by Trump?

You bet they could. Longtime users said Trump taps into an anti-PC counterculture within Reddit that feasts on spreading offensive material — a campaign to “fat shame” random women sparked a site-wide civil war and made international news — and then reveling in the response. Certain corners of Reddit have long served as an assembly line for posts mocking “SJWs,” slang for “social justice warriors,” whom they view as a humorless cabal of left-wing oppressors. It just took the right users to recognize the crossover appeal with Trump.

In interviews with MSNBC, r/The_Donald’s moderators declined to provide their real names, but credited the subreddit’s rapid growth to CisWhiteMaelstrom, who took the lead promoting it earlier this year after messaging its creators with a master plan. The username is an ironic reference to “Cisgender,” a term popularized by transgender rights activists to describe the majority of people whose gender aligns with their biological sex at birth.

“I remember him saying we’d have hundreds of thousands of readers there and I was very skeptical about that,” JCM267, r/The_Donald’s founder, told MSNBC. “Not because I thought Trump can’t win, because I think he’s the only GOPer with ‘landslide victory’ potential, but because Reddit is not a conservative place.”

CisWhiteMaelstrom (let’s call him “Cis”) told MSNBC over the phone that he is a law student in his early 20s looking to go into whichever field will allow him to make the most money. And his carefully plotted approach to building the site, in many ways, mirrors Trump’s approach to building a political following.

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Before getting into campaign politics, Cis had already earned some online notoriety for his regular posts on r/TheRedPill, a hub for anti-feminists and pickup artists that’s frequently accused of spreading misogyny. In communing with Reddit’s social outcasts, he said he saw a kindred spirit in Trump, who already had a following among the “alt right,” an online movement often associated with white nationalism that was concentrated in anonymous message-board sites like 4chan.

Cis, who banned white supremacist and neo-Nazi users from r/The_Donald early on, saw an opening to tap Trump’s natural appeal to Redditors while sanding off some of the alt right’s rougher edges.

“I was known in non-SJW communities,” Cis said. “I knew the people I was talking to, what they were upset about, and what they were up to do. I also have a very healthy respect for just raw trolling and I knew they like to do that, too.”

The question was how to bring like-minded users along. The most important step: Picking fights with people they hate.

“I had to get SJWs talking about us,” Cis said.

A favorite tactic was to direct Trump fans to push deliberately dumb or offensive posts to the front page of Reddit and then laugh at the backlash when users took them seriously. Sanders, and his legion of earnest Reddit fans, became one favorite target as r/The_Donald relentlessly promoted posts mocking the senator’s debate comment that white voters ”don’t know what it’s like to be poor,” to name one of Cis’ favorite examples.

“We see it on the front page of Reddit same as everyone else,” David Fredrick, co-founder of r/SandersForPresident, told MSNBC when asked about r/The_Donald’s growth. “We can’t afford to pay too much attention to it … that’s the Republican primary and we have our own primary to win.”

Anything that branded the subreddit in opposition to the cultural left drew the attention of anti-PC Redditors, who recognized the site’s prankish ethos as their own even if they had no prior interest in Trump and didn’t think of themselves as conventional conservatives. Whenever the site turned up on groups like r/AgainstHateSubreddits that oppose offensive speech, Cis celebrated. He fanned the flames by sending outlandish messages to left-leaning forums demanding they stop talking about r/The_Donald, which of course had the opposite effect.

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“It’s so systematic and so predictable and so easy,” he said. “We practically own several SJW communities.”

All of this would be recognizable to anyone following Trump, who has acknowledged pushing opponent’s buttons as part of a broader strategy to attract attention.

“I do love provoking people,” Trump told Buzzfeed’s McKay Coppins in 2014, when asked if he engaged in “trolling” as defined on the Internet. “There is truth to that. I love competition, and sometimes competition is provoking people. I don’t mind provoking people. Especially when they’re the right kind of people.”

Moderators at r/Sh–RedditSays, a subreddit that highlights offensive material on the site, actually instructed its users to stop submitting material from r/The_Donald because it was “low hanging fruit.”

ArchangelleFoodcake, a moderator at SRS, told MSNBC that Trump’s success on Reddit confirmed her longstanding suspicions that Reddit is far less tolerant than the regular pro-Sanders posts would have one believe.

“The only thing that made our subreddit remotely interesting to begin with is that Reddit conceives of itself as liberal and progressive, so we were pushing back against that and cataloging the many ways the site is a regressive cesspit,” she said.

The next step for Cis was to make the community a welcoming place for the users now showing up in droves to tweak the “SJW” community. His most controversial decision was to ban all non-Trump supporters, even if they were sympathetic.

“They’re not there to make us look good in front of the left or to show that not all of us are like whatever,” he said of the subreddit’s core users. “They’re really just there to have a good time and do what they want to do on the Internet.”

The goal was to foster a community where Trump fans could be themselves in all their glory without apology. In practice, that means a whole lot of hanging out and bashing critics as “cucks,” a slang term that originated among white nationalists who liken establishment conservatives to “cuckolds” that tolerate infidelity from their wives. It’s since spread to the broader network of Trump supporters.

The “anything goes” approach is a major contrast to r/SandersForPresident, where moderators take care to discourage users from drifting into places that reflect poorly on the candidate.

Another important difference from the Sanders subreddit is that Cis said he deliberately avoids turning the subreddit into a hub for volunteers, out of fear that nuts-and-bolts discussions of phone banking would water down its appeal as an Internet funhouse. There is some information for users on how to register to vote in primary contests, but much like Trump’s campaign, the operation was designed to grab people’s attention first and then hope that energy translates to on-the-ground results.

There is some anti-establishment overlap between the two sides, though. Trump supporters have put up a number of popular posts showing solidarity with Sanders voters’ complaints about their primary’s delegate selection process. Many of the highest rated posts on r/The_Donald are generic anti-Hillary Clinton memes, partly because — Cis theorizes — Sanders supporters upvote them along with Trump fans.

Despite the circus atmosphere, r/The_Donald’s moderators stressed that support for Trump was earnest even if the tactics were ironic. Even a cursory look at the subreddit suggests this is true — for every post covered in five layers of Reddit in-jokes, there are plenty more that are simple rah-rah expressions of support.

Clicking through r/The_Donald is like walking into a rowdy clubhouse for (mostly) men who feel under siege from “political correctness.” It’s a place for like-minded bros to enrage the left and then high-five each other when they take the bait — all while knowing their leaders will forcefully remove anyone who interrupts their good time and mock the interlopers on the way out.

In other words: It’s a digital Trump rally.

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