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Troll Watch: In Rare Move, Reddit Flags Online Forum For Inciting Violence


Visitors to the social media site Reddit might have noticed a change in one discussion group this week. The online forum known as The Donald is under a quarantine. That means that anybody going to that page first encounters a big notification flagging the community as out of line with Reddit's content policy - specifically, the rule against using the platform to incite violence. The group's 754,000 subscribers can still access the forum, but only after clicking through the quarantine notice.

And that might not sound like much, but Reddit is famously hands-off when it comes to creating and enforcing content rules, and the site relies heavily on volunteers to monitor forums and take down problematic content. So we're taking this to our regular segment, Troll Watch, to find out more.


MARTIN: By day, Robert Peck is a lecturer in rhetoric at the University of Iowa. But in his spare time, he's a volunteer moderator for Reddit. And he joins us now from member station WSUI in Iowa City.

Thanks so much for joining us.

ROBERT PECK: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And I said spare time in air quotes because...

PECK: (Laughter).

MARTIN: You put a lot of time into this. I just wanted to make that clear.

PECK: It's true.

MARTIN: So to understand the significance of this quarantine, can you give us a brief idea of what Reddit is and how it's different from other social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter?

PECK: The main difference between a site like Reddit, which I would describe as a forum more than a traditional sort of social media site like Twitter or Facebook, is that Reddit's ideas are organized around subjects and topics as opposed to on Facebook or Twitter, where you're following an individual person - a friend, a celebrity. And that means that when Reddit wants to take action against harmful content, it's harder for it to do it against any one individual person.

Among other things, Reddit users are pseudonymous. They don't usually act under their real names. And they all collect around these social spaces called subreddits that are designed to talk about specific issues or groups.

MARTIN: The Donald is a - it's a reference to Donald Trump. I mean, is it a political group? Is it primarily for his supporters? Or what's the organizing principle of this group?

PECK: It describes itself as, quote, unquote, "a never-ending rally for the 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump." And it's a group for his supporters specifically. It formed around the time he announced his campaign back in 2015 into 2016 and has been growing ever since.

MARTIN: So what was the content posted in The Donald that led to this action?

PECK: Well, it's hard to say, I suppose would be the answer to that, because the Reddit staff are opaque a lot of the time and what actions they take and why. The best guess we have is that a few days ago, there were several posts and comments on that subreddit that were - seemed to be calling for violent action against public officials in the U.S. state of Oregon - this in response to the Republican walkout over House Bill 2020 in that state, the Climate Change Act, that has caused the Republican delegation to flee the state rather than vote. There were posts - calling for things like taking up arms, flooding into the state of Oregon, defending these people with violence and going after public officials with violence.

MARTIN: I think many people will be familiar with Reddit because they're interested in, you know, cat videos and things of that sort. But other people are aware that Reddit has come up a lot in the conversation around the spread of white supremacy and other extremist ideas. I mean, why is that?

PECK: I think that Reddit would have trouble dealing with these issues more than other social media sites would because of that focus on designing the site to center it around an idea or a group of people rather than an individual. That's a change that allows people with common interests to come together and discuss, advocate and act on those interests more easily than they might be able to in other places. And, again, on Reddit, they can also often do so anonymously.

That combined with Reddit's seeming dedication to what it would describe as free speech or free expression, its hesitance to limit things that are being said on the site - at least, from the perspective of the staff, the owners of the site - those two things together have allowed all manner of different sort of groups that you and I would probably describe as hate groups or at the very least problematic groups and discussions to arise on that side. And the Donald subreddit has become the most prominent of those.

So I'd say that the reason that we have that sort of association is that oftentimes, it's true. It's certainly not the entirety of the sites, just like these extreme views on other social media platforms aren't the entirety of those sites that we use and enjoy.

MARTIN: That's Robert Peck, volunteer Reddit moderator. And he's a professor of rhetoric at the University of Iowa.

Professor Peck, thanks so much for talking to us once again.

PECK: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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