As Facebook, Twitter and Reddit step up their efforts to flush out extremists ahead of the US election, the successor to a banned Reddit page is emerging as a magnet for extreme discourse.
TheDonald.win, which hosts a range of rightwing memes and bills itself as “a never-ending rally dedicated to the 45th President of the United States”, was first set up as a back-up space for Reddit’s controversial subreddit The_Donald.
But after its parent was banned in June, it became the community’s main hub, with traffic to the site increasing from about 750,000 monthly views in February to more than 5.8m in July, according to SimilarWeb data.
While still relatively small, experts said TheDonald.win is playing an increasingly important role in disseminating hateful content that then leaks into the mainstream.
“A lot of times, [far-right websites] are viewed as not successful because their numbers are not equivalent to YouTube or Reddit,” said Angelo Carusone, president and chief executive of the liberal-leaning non-profit Media Matters for America. “That’s not the only metric: we have to ask about the energy of the community.”
TheDonald.win owes its success in part to its Reddit-like interface, which has made it a natural landing point for the displaced community of r/The_Donald. Meanwhile, with lighter content moderation than more mainstream platforms, users are afforded a greater degree of freedom in what they can post.
“Where TheDonald.win did really well is to replicate the functionality of Reddit and also created a place where the community could transfer itself over to,” said Mr Carusone. “In a lot of ways it’s a more distilled and refined version of their community, free of safeguards.”
Before its ban, The_Donald had amassed more than 729,000 followers — many of whom have since migrated to its successor, said Joe Ondrak, a senior researcher at counter-misinformation organisation Logically. “It was essentially like moving house for them.”
The_Donald had long been a source of controversy for Reddit. A 2018 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center said the site hosted a combination of racism, conspiracy theories and violent narratives against political opponents. Last year, the platform “quarantined” — added warning labels to — the forum after some posts encouraged violence towards police officers in Oregon.
The layout of TheDonald.win will be familiar to Reddit users, albeit with a header featuring Mr Trump — who is often referred to on the site as “God-Emperor of the United States” — and a bald eagle.
The site continues its predecessor’s emphasis on circulating memes, both as a tool to rally supporters and infuriate opponents. Popular examples last week include a Photoshopped image of US politician Ilhan Omar, falsely portraying her as a terrorist, and a number of memes mocking George Floyd’s death.
Former Chilean dictator Augustus Pinochet is also a popular subject. The most popular post referring to him, posted in April, is simply titled: “No quarter for communists. Pinochet did nothing wrong.” Other posts cite “free helicopter rides” — a reference to the killing of political opponents by throwing them from an aircraft.
Mr Carusone argued that TheDonald.win will continue to attract attention even if Mr Trump is unsuccessful in the election. “[Mr Trump] represents a style of engaging in politics as well as an ideology of ‘might makes right’ with a bit of [talk about] white genocide and a conspiratorial twist — that’s something people can organise around,” he said.
In response to a request for comment, a moderator from TheDonald.win sent a link to a statement in Russian which concluded: “If the promotion of the expulsion of Communists from our country is considered far-right discourse, then yes, we are supporters.”
The rise of TheDonald.win comes as other spaces formerly used by the far-right have faced disruption. The notorious imageboard 8chan has struggled to recreate the same level of engagement since it was shut last year, according to Mr Carusone.
Mr Ondrak said its successor 8kun is also facing an identity crisis between younger ethno-nationalists and an older generation of QAnon supporters who have opposing stances over Israel and Mr Trump himself.
That challenge has driven some far-right groups to existing platforms as well. Kristina Gildejeva, a disinformation researcher at Logically, said she had seen increasingly organised white nationalist operations on chat app Telegram.
While Telegram has been a key tool for protesters around the world, Ms Gildejeva said that she had seen far-right groups increasingly using it to co-ordinate their posts in order to amplify their reach.
Telegram did not respond to a request for comment.
Researchers and academics are also concerned about the influence these platforms may have on mainstream social media sites ahead of the 2020 election. “I don’t think it’s those really extreme people who carry the election,” said Samantha North, a freelance disinformation investigator. “It’s when these narratives filter through to the mainstream and reach ordinary voters and push them towards voting for [Mr] Trump through conspiracy theories.”
One post from TheDonald.win — calling for the implementation of a potentially restrictive type of voter identity system that many on the left argue is discriminatory — received 7,000 interactions when it was posted on an unofficial fan page on Facebook for former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, including more than 4,000 shares.
According to CrowdTangle, which analyses the spread of content on the web, posts from TheDonald.win have been interacted with more than 45,000 times on Facebook.
Ms North emphasised that these metrics did not account for private, local groups, which she said were a key vector for the spread of far-right ideas and conspiracy theories and which were far harder for researchers to discover.
“It’s shocking to find Bill Gates vaccine conspiracy theories posted in these village groups.”
A spokesperson for Facebook said that while private groups offer additional privacy, their users must adhere to its community standards. They also said that it finds nearly 90 per cent of all the hate speech it removes before it is reported.