GOP opens up new front in Big Tech censorship fight, hitting Reddit for killing ‘The Donald’ pro-Trump forum
EXCLUSIVE: Several Republican lawmakers suggested in a scathing letter on Thursday they will soon take action against Reddit, saying the influential Internet message board systematically singled out, censored, and destroyed a once-popular pro-Trump “subreddit,” or subforum, known as “r/The_Donald.”
“Shame on you,” wrote Reps. Jim Banks of Indiana, Matt Gaetz of Florida, Jody Hice of Georgia, Ted Budd of North Carolina, and Ted Yoho of Florida, to Reddit CEO and co-founder Steve Huffman. The move opened up a new front in Republicans’ all-out war on what they see as pervasive bias in Silicon Valley.
The lawmakers wrote that, due to Reddit’s use of a “progressive bludgeon,” they would need to consider taking action despite their long-held “principled belief in the free market.”
The point-by-point missive came hours after Twitter’s attempt to “fact-check” President Trump immediately backfired, and drew renewed attention to what Republicans call pervasive left-wing bias on Internet platforms. On Thursday, Trump crafted an executive order interpreting the Communications Decency Act of 1996 as saying that companies that actively “fact-check” users’ posts are to be considered “publishers,” rather than “platforms.”
The distinction is significant because platforms are ordinarily not liable for users’ defamatory posts, while publishers do face liability. The order could also affect federal funding for sites like Twitter.
Reddit, however, has largely escaped scrutiny, even though it receives approximately 430 million visitors per month — more than Twitter, by some metrics. The site also regularly hosts prominent politicians for “Ask Me Anything” open interviews that drive news cycles. Then-candidate Donald Trump sat for one such interview on r/The_Donald in July 2016, before Reddit began taking action against the subreddit.
“I cherish the free market, but I also cherish a free, fair democratic process,” Banks, who is running to chair the Republican Study Committee, told Fox News. “The closer we get to the 2020 election the more aggressive Big Tech has become about suppressing conservatives. They’ve trampled on our constitutional principles, arrogantly and repeatedly; President Trump and Republicans in Congress see that and there’s going to be a reckoning.”
Added Hice: “Since 2016, r/The_Donald has been an important forum for supporters of the President to gather and discuss the issues of the day. Its users have meticulously self-moderated their community under Reddit’s guidelines and terms of service, yet they face continuous harassment by the website’s Chinese-backed ownership group. It is deeply unsettling that Reddit selectively targets Trump supporters while allowing the Left to operate with total impunity even when violating the site’s policies.”
“The political double standard that exists on some social media platforms is appalling.”
In their letter, the Republicans began by explaining to Huffman that it was “easy to prove” that Reddit’s decision to “quarantine” r/The_Donald — that is, to remove the subreddit from the site’s main page and search results — was “politically motivated.” Reddit took other steps to limit r/The_Donald’s user base, including adding a warning page before people could access the subreddit.
At the time, Reddit justified the indefinite quarantine by saying some members of r/The_Donald were threatening police officers. Although most posts on the forum are generally pro-police, some members were incensed that Oregon’s governor ordered police to arrest Republican lawmakers who had fled the state Senate to avoid providing a quorum for a climate change bill. “[I have] no problems shooting a cop trying to strip rights from Citizens,” one person wrote, in a post that was quickly removed by moderators.
Also motivated by political bias, the GOP lawmakers said, was Reddit’s Feb. 26 decision to remove several r/The_Donald user moderators without providing any “evidence of specific wrongdoing.”
Reddit moved to kill r/The_Donald amid allegations that it was a clearinghouse for racist and inappropriate viewpoints. One thread on the subreddit, for example, included a cartoon depicting rape by Muslims as a predictable consequence of multiculturalism in Germany. The popular blog FiveThirtyEight called the thread “vile”; it was a reference to the two dozen rapes and 1,250 sexual assaults reported in Gemerany during the 2015-2016 New Year’s Eve celebrations, mostly by non-European individuals.
Another thread that attracted FiveThirtyEight’s ire mocked left-wing feminists as overweight and pretentious, showing a cartoon depicting a happy couple with a child in one panel, and a lonely feminist who fancies herself a superhero in the other.
Supporters of r/The_Donald said that no forum can be responsible for all of its users’ posts, and pointed out that the subreddit was largely a clearing house for humorous pro-Trump memes. In a podcast with Lund University research fellow Michael Bossetta, popular pro-Trump meme creator Carpe Donktum said r/The_Donald was a valuable proving ground for mememakers to craft successful pro-Trump memes; he argued that iberals have fallen behind in the so-called “meme wars” in part because they lack such a platform.
Carpe Donktum separately told Fox News: “It is really hard to disguise hatred, and most of the left truly HATES Trump. Hate is poison to comedy, a roast would not be funny if you didn’t know that everyone actually LIKED the person, then it’s just mean on mean.”
Members of r/The_Donald have claimed that their content helped propel Trump to the White House, and Trump has retweeted some of Carpe Donktum’s work. Indeed, FiveThirtyEight acknowledged that Reddit rushed to change its content-selection algorithm after a flood of memes from r/The_Donald proved so popular that they dominated the site’s front page.
Nevertheless, Reddit’s censorship had an apparent and swift effect. r/The_Donald alone had approximately 790,000 regular users at its peak, the lawmakers noted. In February 2019, that number had dropped to 491,000; and it was slated to drop to below 60,000 early this year.
“The political double standard that exists on some social media platforms is appalling,” Budd told Fox News. “Given the power and influence that these sites have, it’s totally inappropriate that they get to choose which viewpoints receive more eyes or more scrutiny. It’s high time these social media sites are held accountable.”
Yoho termed the double standard a constitutional issue.
“The Orwellian hand of Reddit’s Big Tech censoring is an assault on the basic freedom of free speech guaranteed in our First Amendment. It’s time for the abuses of politically motivated social media giants to be reigned in,” Yoho told Fox News.
Moderators that remain at r/The_Donald have been hand-picked by Reddit, and many former users of the subforum have fled to a website unaffiliated with Reddit, http://thedonald.win/.
“As of May 27th, the most recent post to r/The_Donald is from March,” the Republicans said. “Ultimately, your targeted censorship of r/The_Donald had its intended effect and snuffed out the political community completely.”
Meanwhile, other left-leaning forums on Reddit escaped similar treatment.
“Many moderators of politically-neutral or leftwing subreddits have violated one of your site’s most serious rules—’do not post content that encourages violence’—but have faced no repercussions,” Banks, Gaetz, and Yoho wrote.
They then provided Huffman with specific examples, including a Reddit user known as “underbridge” who moderates an anti-trump subreddit known as “r/TheDrumpf” and once posted that he wanted to “put arsenic” in Trump supporters’ beverages.
Another individual known as “davidreiss666,” who moderates the left-wing r/Liberal and r/PoliticalDiscussion subreddits, remarked that “Trump deserves similar treatment” to Benito Mussolini, whose body “was hung [sic] from the rafters of a service station.”
“Mr. Huffman, you started Reddit as a senior at the University of Virginia,” the letter concludes.” In the site’s early years, one of your co-founders stated that ‘we serve the ideals of free speech, and we hope to ultimately be a universal platform for human discourse.’ I don’t think senior year Steve Huffman would accept whatever truncated justification for political censorship you feed yourself and your employees.”
Republicans raised similar concerns about Twitter’s disparate treatment of views in the wake of the Trump fact-check.
In a post retweeted by the Trump campaign, The Daily Caller’s Logan Hall noted that Twitter has not appended a warning label on tweets from Chinese government representatives engaging in a propaganda campaign to blame the U.S. for the spread of coronavirus.
“The deeper problem: many of the big tech companies that people hold near and dear to their hearts have no actual allegiance to America or American values,” Hall wrote.
Others observed that Twitter had not fact-checked a false claim on police shooting statistics that was shared by New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Twitter’s warning label was placed on Trump’s tweets even though a Twitter spokesperson acknowledged to Fox News that Trump’s tweet had not broken any of the platform’s rules, and despite the fact that several experts have called mail-in balloting an invitation to widespread fraud, as Trump said in his tweets.
“Absentee ballots remain the largest source of potential voter fraud,” read the conclusion of a bipartisan 2005 report authored by the Commission on Federal Election Reform, which was chaired by former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker.
“Twitter ‘fact-checkers’ really suck,” wrote Dan Bongino, a Fox News contributor. He linked to a 2012 article in The New York Times headlined, “Error and Fraud at Issue as Absentee Voting Rises.” The article states that “votes cast by mail are less likely to be counted, more likely to be compromised and more likely to be contested than those cast in a voting booth, statistics show.”
Indeed, experts have said that a “genuine absentee ballot fraud scandal” is currently underway in a New Jersey city council election.
Meanwhile, Vox reported on Wednesday that big tech billionares are fighting back against Republican efforts, in part because of Joe Biden’s struggling operation. The outlet said LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, Laurene Powell Jobs, and ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt were leading the charge — sometimes upsetting Democratic operatives, who had wanted to run their own operation.
And, Fox News previously reported that an anti-Trump Democratic-aligned political action committee advised by retired Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal is planning to deploy an information warfare tool that reportedly received initial funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon’s secretive research arm — transforming technology originally envisioned as a way to fight ISIS propaganda into a campaign platform to benefit Biden.
DARPA, however, said Curtis Hougland, who is running the new operation, was overselling the agency’s role in creating the tool.
“Hougland’s claim DARPA funded the tech at the heart of his political work is grossly misleading,” DARPA tweeted. “He advised briefly on ways to counter ISIS online. He was not consulted to design AI or analysis tools, nor certainly anything remotely political. DARPA is strictly apolitical.”
“Hougland had a tertiary consulting role advising an agency program on how to explore new and better ways to counter America’s adversaries online,” a spokesperson for DARPA separately told Fox News. “He was not consulted for technical expertise designing artificial intelligence or network analysis tools, nor certainly any research that was remotely political. … Unequivocally, DARPA funding did not help advance the technology with which Hougland now works any more than does his use of other agency technologies like the internet or mobile phone.”
Fox News’ Brian Flood contributed to this report.