A subreddit named after Donald Trump has been quarantined. Does that mean anything at all?

A misnomer may lead non-Redditors to believe that the platform is actually doing something about radicalisation. 

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Last night, Reddit announced that it had quarantined one of its most infamous subreddits, r/The_Donald, for repeatedly allowing violent content to go unmoderated. It came just days after a variety of media watchdogs noted violent messages targeting the police were being posted on the subreddit.

“We are clear in our site-wide policies that posting content that encourages or threatens violence is not allowed on Reddit,” a public statement from a Reddit spokesperson says. “As we have shared, we are sensitive to what could be considered political speech, however, recent behaviors including threats against the police and public figures is content that is prohibited by our violence policy. As a result, we have actioned individual users and quarantined the subreddit.”

The_Donald describes itself as “a never-ending rally dedicated to the 45th President of the United States, Donald J. Trump.” Created only in July 2015, the subreddit has accrued over 763,000 subscribers, with thousands actively online at any given moment. Posts largely consist of memes relating to American political issues, regardless of whether or not they directly involve the President Donald Trump.

Making it onto The_Donald was (and is) the alt-right version of hitting the mainstream; the equivalent of a local newspaper story making it into national dailies. Niche ideas and theories were often not born directly on the subreddit, but disseminated through it – taking relatively unknown conspiracy theories from the corners of 4chan to the hundreds of thousands.

When Pizzagate, the widely debunked conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager John Podesta were running a human trafficking ring in the basement of a pizzeria, began getting traction on 4chan, The_Donald is what popularised it. Off the back of the traction it received on the subreddit, the story ended up getting coverage in national newspapers, radio shows, and mainstream TV networks. In 2017, The_Donald was ranked one of Reddit’s most active communities and became well-known as a welcome home to racism, anti-Semitism, Islamaphobia, and misogyny.

So a quarantine sounds pretty bad, right? It sounds like Reddit is starting to do something about this forum. It conjures up images of toxicity, crackdown, and extreme measures to contain something unhealthy. To most people, who don’t know the ins and outs of Reddit’s content policies, it will sound like some form of a ban – one that keeps this subreddit from yielding the powerful influence it once had. But that is not what has happened with r/The_Donald. In fact, far from it.

A quarantine, effectively, just strips a subreddit of its revenue generation. It takes away the elements that would make its moderators money. Now, The_Donald will no longer have ads on the forum, will have a warning message when users go to click on it, and will prevent popular posts in the forum from making it onto Reddit users’ homepage. However, users will still be able to post, like, and subscribe to it, and the ban doesn't keep users from sharing messages posted in The_Donald to other forums on Reddit.

While a quarantine will keep The_Donald from growing as rapidly as it once could, it doesn’t keep it from continuing to grow. And it does nothing to mask the viral popularity this Trump-dedicated forum has already gained.

The problem is not with Reddit refusing to ban its forums: the platform has banned subreddits before. It has banned r/altright, r/alternativeright, and, perhaps most infamously, banned r/incels in 2017 – the forum that arguably took involuntary celibatism mainstream. It is where eventual mass shooter Elliot Rodger is thought to have been radicalised and became a space synonymous with the demonisation of women.

When Reddit banned r/incels, there was a telling response from Reddit-literate reporters. There response was not entirely "good, a bad forum has been banned", but instead many scratched their heads and asked “Why not also r/The_Donald?

The linked Vox article above is from November 2017, and gives a clear insight as to how long The_Donald has been the prime example of toxic spaces going unchecked on Reddit:

“The_Donald has become notorious for its incitements to violence, its blatant white supremacist rhetoric, and its use as a lure for the alt-right into more explicit forms of right-wing extremism. Trump’s notorious anti-CNN tweet, which seemed to advocate violence against journalists and arguably violated Twitter’s own content policy, originated from a post on The_Donald. Prior to the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, The_Donald hosted a stickied post encouraging members to attend the rally and march alongside neo-Nazi and “ethnostate” groups, because, “In this case, the pursuit of preserving without shame white culture, our goals happen to align.” Most recently, a member of The_Donald, an alt-right blogger who formerly worked for Milo Yiannopoulos, murdered his own father after his father accused him of being a Nazi.”

No, Reddit doesn’t have an issue banning forums: it has an issue banning r/The_Donald. None of the above, need I remind you, even got The_Donald quarantined – a surprising fact when all of this content will appear to some on-par to the content that made r/incels worthy of a ban.

A quarantine – for any board – is a performative slap on the wrist. It serves as a warning for moderators, and moderators alone, that they could lose money-making features if they don’t adhere to Reddit’s (apparently flexible) community standards. Not only this, but quarantines aren't forever – the moderators can appeal the decision and potentially have it undone. While The_Donald deserves a serious warning, and it is painfully obvious that this one is far overdue, unless it is fully banned, any disciplinary measure will simply serve as a cowardly cop-out.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.