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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.

Go deeper

Ina Fried, author of Login
Oct 5, 2020 - Technology

Twitter's policy of wishing people ill gets tested

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Twitter invited a torrent of criticism after publicly saying Friday that it would take action against those who wished severe illness or death on the president, citing its broad prohibition against such expressions.

The big picture: While that policy has been on the books since April, many Twitter users — especially women, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities and people of color — say they have reported such abuse in the past and the service has rarely taken action.

Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

House cancels Thursday session as FBI, Homeland Security warn of threat to Capitol

Photo: Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security predict violent domestic extremists attacks will increase in 2021, according to a report obtained by Axios.

Driving the news: The joint report says extremists have discussed plans to take control of the Capitol and "remove Democratic lawmakers" on or about March 4. The House canceled its plans for Thursday votes as word of the possible threats spread.

3 hours ago - World

Pope Francis set to make first papal visit to Iraq amid possible turmoil

Data: Vatican News; Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Pope Francis is forging ahead with the first papal trip to Iraq despite new coronavirus outbreaks and fears of instability.

The big picture: The March 5–8 visit is intended to reassure Christians in Iraq who were violently persecuted under the Islamic State. Francis also hopes to further ties with Shiite Muslims, AP notes.