By Tiana Gaudette, Garth Davies, and Ryan Scrivens
This blog is Part II of II. Click here for Part I.
This blog is the second of a two-part series that was presented at the ‘VOX-Pol Conference – Violent Extremism, Terrorism, and the Internet: Present and Future Trends’ in Amsterdam on 20 August 2018.
Last week on the blog, we explored how an online ‘social news aggregator’ site, Reddit, may be promoting far-right ideology in general, and anti-Muslim sentiment in particular, within a popular Trump-supporting community on its platform: r/The_Donald. Little is known about (a) the nature of the discussions on the r/The_Donald that are associated with Trump’s anti-Muslim tweets, and (b) the role(s) that Reddit’s upvoting features may play in both promoting and encouraging hateful rhetoric within this far-right community.
To begin to bridge these gaps, we used NCapture to collect data from r/The_Donald. Data was extracted from posts that were made in response to Trump’s anti-Muslim tweets between 2015 and 2017. Based on these parameters, ten posts – which collectively contained 4,916 comments – were evaluated through an in-depth thematic analysis. Here we examined the most highly upvoted comments – content that gained a lot of visibility within the online community.
Three themes emerged from exploring each of the ten Trump tweets, all of which reflected a common narrative expressed by far-right adherents in the online community: the physical safety of Americans – and Western culture more generally – is under siege, and by two powerful forces. First, Islam is considered to be an ‘external’ force that is threatening America. Second, the ‘internal’ threat is the left-wing news media and the ‘politically correct’ culture it helps to foster, which seek to weaken the country from the inside. Finally, the third theme centers around members’ desire to be proactive against both threats.
The External Threat: Islam
Across the countless messages in our sample, by far the most highly-upvoted discussions on r/The_Donald are that Muslim immigration is an imminent danger to Western nations – particularly in the US.According to members of the subreddit, ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ and other forms of Islamic-perpetrated violence are to be expected with increasing Muslim immigration. As one user explained it, the “Muslim threat” is “[p]art and parcel of… living with people who want to blow you into parts with a bomb in a parcel” (cat65, +185 voting score). Within the subreddit, another widely-held belief is that Muslim immigrants are not loyal to Western countries. Trump, for example, tweeted “In Britain, more Muslims join ISIS than join the British Army”, and the top upvoted responses to this tweet were those that simply agreed with Trump, despite his claims being debunked by reputable sources.
Worth noting is that these Islamophobic narratives remain unchallenged in this online community because counternarratives are either (a) downvoted by members and/or (b) removed entirely by moderators of r/The_Donald. As but one example, users are quick to downvote comments that draw attention to how Trump’s tweets are “definitely meant to arouse negative feelings in non-Muslims” (AR15, -10 voting score). Content that criticizes Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric is similarly downvoted. For instance, in response to Trump’s anti-Muslim tweet, one user noted that “it is racist to make up stories to make Muslims seem violent” (NYJ, 0 voting score). Such sentiment was immediately downvoted by others in the community.
The Internal Threat: The Left
Not only do members of r/The_Donald focus on the external threat that was previously described, they also place emphasis on the internal threat: left-wing news media. In particular, left-wing media, according to the highly upvoted comments, distorts how the public sees the “Muslim threat”– sentiment that is oftentimes expressed by Trump himself. Users also argue that the left-wing media is quick to criticize Trump for promoting anti-Muslim videos, while simultaneously “ignoring the content of the videos”(Techgirl, +176 voting score) or even “defend[ing] Muslims tossing people over the roof” (HK_Trump, +156 voting score). The common sentiment that is expressed in the highly upvoted messages (content that becomes most visible to those who view the subreddit) is that “Leftists” who do not acknowledge the “true” nature of the external threat would, as one user expressed it, “rather get cucked by a Muslim than have a president who reduces risk of them dying” (unit, +61 voting score). On the other hand, the most downvoted (and, as a result, least visible content) typically criticizes those who are suspicious about the media. For instance, one user’s comment was downvoted after arguing that members “are quick to call “fake news,” but when Trump says it’s true you all hop on board!” (Trucker, 0 voting score).
Responding to the Threat
In responding to the external and internal threat outlined above, members of r/The_Donald express their support for the US President by arguing that he holds the solution, not only to prevent ‘radical Islamic terrorism’, for example, but also to fight the false narratives coming from the nation’s politically correct culture. As an example, oftentimes, those who post highly upvoted messages argue in favour of Trump’s simplistic solutions to terrorism by claiming “if London had our travel ban Manchester would have been stopped” (Austin, +374 voting score). These users also believe that Trump isn’t shackled by political correctness and is therefore able to spread awareness of the “Muslim threat”. For example, Trump’s tweet on how an American General allegedly eliminated Muslim terrorists is, by many of his supporters on r/The_Donald, considered to be the “strongest statement he ever made. . . He is going full power” (bridge, +442 voting score). The most downvoted comments, however, question Trump’s use of social media to further his Islamophobic narratives. One Reddit user, for example, posed the following question when Trump claimed that more Muslims join ISIS than the British Army, which was swiftly downvoted: “[i]s Trump really going there?” (TRF, -18 voting score). Another user added a similar comment in response to Trump’s tweet, which again was not supported by those in the online community: “[n]ow if only he had the sack to retweet racist KKK or neo-nazi crimes. Then he might address the harsh realities actually occurring in our nation” (rooster, 0 voting score).
Anti-Muslim and anti-left-wing rhetoric is a common occurrence on r/The_Donald, especially in response to Trump’s anti-Muslim tweets. Perhaps more importantly, though, is that the results of our study indicate that Reddit’s voting algorithm creates an echo-chamber effect within r/The_Donald, thus enabling extremists to reinforce radical views within the online community. In short, comments that promote Islam and the Left as the imminent threats to America are highly upvoted and highly visible within the community, while counter-narratives are downvoted and have limited visibility. In fact, users who post anti-Muslim and anti-left-wing sentiment are rewarded (with karma points) and, by extension, gain recognition within their Reddit communities; they are rewarded for promoting racism and hatred.
All usernames have been anonymized. Any similarity to any in-use Reddit username is a coincidence.
Tiana Gaudette is an MA student in the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University.
Garth Davies is an associate professor in the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University.
Ryan Scrivens is a Horizon Postdoctoral Fellow at Concordia University and a visiting researcher at the VOX-Pol Network of Excellence. Follow him on Twitter: R_Scrivens