Jun 30, 2020 - Technology

Reddit's ban on The_Donald marks end of an internet dream

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Photo: Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Reddit's decision to shut down a forum for notoriously combative Trump supporters puts a final nail in the coffin of one particular dream of internet idealists: the idea that online discussion spaces could, and should, serve as a universal meeting ground.

Why it matters: There's a dwindling number of environments in news media, social media, and society where Americans across the Trump era's great political divide communicate with one another — or have a chance to hear what the other side is saying.

Driving the news: Reddit announced Monday it was shutting down r/The_Donald, along with hundreds of other subreddits that violated its rules — among them r/ChapoTrapHouse, a gathering spot for fans of a popular leftist podcast.

Flashback: In the social media era, Reddit, started in 2005, has become a bastion of old-school online conversation, with all the advantages of that format, including openness, variety and spontaneity, along with the disadvantages — vapidity, flaming and trolling.

  • Like its predecessors in the long tradition of online forums (from AOL to the Well to Usenet), Reddit assumed that if everyone could join the conversation, everyone would benefit. But also like those predecessors, it had some rules setting the outer legal and moral limits of expression.

Long before Donald Trump entered politics, this model had proven problematic: Reddit, like every previous experiment in open online forums, found that its environment often worked against the voices of women, LGTBQ users, minority group members and anyone else who didn't fit a white-male baseline.

  • The broad anonymity of many users on Reddit further complicated these identity issues.

Reddit's structure, in which groups of users are free to form smaller "subreddit" communities with their own cultures and quirks, aimed to build a big tent with room enough for groups that might not get along.

  • But it also left space for hate, discrimination and nastiness to flourish — and even cordoned off in a subreddit, that behavior offended and outraged others on and off Reddit.

The divisions of the Trump era kicked these dynamics into overdrive.

  • Reddit just wanted everyone to get along. But many users on r/The_Donald — which flourished during Trump's 2016 campaign and early presidency with hundreds of thousands of users incubating memes, conspiracy theories, and racist tropes — wanted to push the service' rules to the limit and beyond.

Reddit acted only slowly against the forum — too slowly, according to critics. But last June it "quarantined" r/The_Donald, removing its posts from the site's home page listings and search results and requiring users who wanted to see posts to click through an opt-in screen.

  • With little sign of change among the users, and a sea-change in U.S. attitudes on race following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, Reddit finally closed down r/The_Donald altogether.

Our thought bubble: Commercial platforms never provide absolute free speech since they have legal obligations to prohibit certain kinds of content, including copyright violations and abusive images of children.

  • Every platform has terms of service and content rules that to a greater or lesser degree bar some speech, including in many cases harassment and hate speech.
  • Decisions to enforce these rules ultimately shape who feels welcome, who participates, and who leaves.

What they're thinking:

  • On the right, Reddit's move is seen as the latest in a long line of content-moderation choices that are viewed as censorship.
  • On the left, it's seen as a long-overdue clean-up of a dangerous mess.
  • For Reddit itself, it's an admission that there are some groups that even the web's old-school proponents of openness and free thinking aren't going to be able to accommodate.

What's next: Conservatives have already begun seeking alternative platforms.

  • Parler, a Twitter-like service that Sen. Ted Cruz and others on the right have been promoting, has seen a burst of growth.
  • Parler bills itself as a "censorship-free" zone, left-oriented users are already running afoul of the site's moderators.

The bottom line: Like everything else in the U.S., online conversation will continue to split into blue-state and red-state alternatives.

  • Facebook and Twitter hope that they can continue to serve users across that divide.
  • But the pressures of the moment mean that Trump and his supporters will keep testing the platforms' limits, while Trump's enemies will cry foul and launch boycotts.
  • Neither platform is likely to make both groups happy. Along with everyone else, they will have to pick sides.
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