Trump fuels the fervent on Reddit with unpredictable consequences

Group polarization has bred disdain for the media among fervent Trump supporters.

All Washington Post journalist Travis M. Andrews had to do was call Pepe the Frog – a cartoon frog that become a popular meme among Trump supporters – a hate symbol. What followed was a barrage of threatening emails from followers of “r/The_Donald,” a bastion of the internet that deeply resents the media and fervently supports Donald Trump.

The “subreddit” /r/The_Donald is a community on the social media forum Reddit, the self-proclaimed “front page of the internet,” that has attracted over 250,000 Trump supporters. Its posts regularly filled Reddit’s front page “r/all” – giving it access to the traffic of a top 8 US website – until Reddit changed its algorithm to combat them.

The existence of internet communities, like the r/The_Donald, with a penchant for xenophobia, misogyny and conspiracy theories is nothing new. However, when a presidential candidate like Trump legitimizes these communities by answering their questions in an AMA (Ask Me Anything) or retweeting their memes, he is doing something new: he is giving these communities a dangerous public platform.

Catering to this niche is an inherent part of Trump’s campaign. Lance Bennett, professor at University of Washington and the founder and director of The Center for Communication and Civic Engagement points out that it also has major influence on who works for his campaign: “Steve Bannon who published the ultra-right, conspiracy minded website Breitbart is the CEO of Trump’s campaign. And Roger Ailes who recently left right leaning Fox news as a result of a sexual harassment scandal is a key advisor. Niche news reaches large numbers of the so-called ‘alt right’ in the US.”

Niche internet enclaves of like-minded people, like r/The_Donald or Brexit’s /The_Farage, are prone to the phenomenon of group polarization, which means that after a group of likeminded people deliberate, individuals within the group tend to adopt a more extreme point of view. Whether the group would like the minimum wage increased, or they believe that climate change is a hoax, their conversations with one another will lead to a more extreme viewpoint.

Reputation is a driving factor of group polarization. If the entire group believes that the media is lying, then people are more likely to hide an opposing opinion, so the whole group continues to move in one direction with an abundance of lopsided information. This results in individuals hearing persuasive arguments that reinforce their predispositions and beliefs, causing group members to develop more polarized attitudes in the direction of the group norm.

Group polarization fuels r/The_Donald’s growing resentment of the mainstream media. Every time Trump tweets about the bias and failings of the media, r/The_Donald treats it as gospel.


Trump’s tweets (above) are coupled with r/The_Donald’s own investigations into bias and media corruption which covers everything from Wikileaks, voter fraud to the Clinton foundation. This resentment extends beyond /r/The_Donald and it’s making Trump rallies a “scary” place for journalists.

Bennett sees this media resentment as typical of a wider populist narrative: “Trump supporters have the same view of the media as populists everywhere: the mainstream media are biased. Indeed, both Trump and his followers talk about the “lying press” just as PEGIDA supporters in Germany do. This is a longstanding cultural narrative about elites, immigrants, and conspiracies to undermine the ‘real America,’” says Bennett.

Trump has played on this resentment with provocative allegations of the media being a part of the “Clinton machine” with an “agenda to elect crooked Hillary Clinton at any cost.” In doing so he has increased the volume on these echo chambers to the point where it can’t be overheard by the mainstream. The people stuck in these echo chambers resemble the same demographic that voted leave in Brexit.

“The core Trump support from older white males with no college education fits the same pattern we see around Europe as well. These are the people who see themselves as victims of globalization - both economically and culturally, as migration and social norms erode perceived national cultures. This was the core of support for the “Brexit” vote,” says Bennett.

This resentment has been supercharged by social media and then compounded by group polarization and it isn’t just happening on the right, Senator Bernie Sanders’ supporters showed a similar dynamic.

Political candidates can benefit from group polarization. Trump, Sanders and even Clinton have fostered and promoted places where the likeminded can converge and discuss policies, adversaries and candidates in an effort to promote and eventually lead people to adopt a shared understanding.

Social media has not only helped Trump foster group polarization; it has provided him a tool with which to set the news agenda. Every time the media inevitably condemns one of his inflammatory tweets it just confirms their bias.

“Trump has lots of ways to stay in touch with his large social media following. Not only does this enable him to reach his followers directly, but his use of various digital platforms has enabled him to set the news agenda. Of course, much of the content he shares with various social networks is inflammatory, embarrassing, erratic, and often leads to negative press coverage. This reinforces the belief among him and his followers that the mainstream media is biased against him,” says Bennett.

The frenzied echo chamber has contributed to incidences of violence at rallies and threats against individuals. Trump’s repeated assertion that he might not accept the results if he loses and that the election is “rigged” have made the threats of a mass revolt from r/The_Donald and Trump supporters all the more worrying.

Bennett acknowledges that political communication is currently in a bad place. The true test, particularly for the Republican Party, will come after the election, says Bennett: “This election will shake the Republican Party, and unleash continuing anger and division in public life.”

Feature image courtesy of flickr.