The subreddit The_Donald can be conceptualised as a space of collective mobilisation of the community representing the alt-right. The most significant domains within the community appeared to be important tools through which the community communicates and organizes. As the affordances of Reddit were found to have certain limitations, the redditors knowingly take use of other domains, hence utilizing them. It became apparent that the purposeful utilization of the tools, resulted in a thought-through infrastructure for resistance. This unconventional assemblage of tools appears to be a successful alternative to the platforms specifically designed for activism. Considering how skilled this community is in mastering these and many other atypical tools, their take on activism becomes a serious contestant to the liberal left-wing activist practices.
In January 2017, Human Rights Watch and the World Economic Forum simultaneously issued reports calling political populism a major world threat (Roth, 2017; World Economic Forum, 2017). It has become apparent that the activity and influence of far-right and anti-establishment communities with a rhetoric based on xenophobia, sexism and a hatred have moved outside the so-called “dark side of the web” (Caiani & Parenti in Ekman, 2014, p. 80) and entered the mainstream socio-political landscapes in the form of ultranationalist and populist parties in both Europe and the U.S. The scope and influence of these communities is increasing due to their close associations with the presidential campaign of the president-elect Donald Trump. Scholars argue that this phenomenon is moreover "growing measurably more radical and possibly more inclined to violence" (Morgan, 2016). This new force in mainstream politics has been labelled the alt-right (Morgan, 2016).
In order to map this eclectic movement, it is important to acknowledge that the alt-right cannot be outlined as a single, homogenous group (Morgan, 2016) mobilized by a common and consistent ideology (Marantz, 2016). It is rather a composition of many online sub communities (Morgan, 2016) or simply a label which applies and refers to "a loose online affiliation of white nationalists, net-monarchists, masculinists, conspiracists, belligerent nihilists, and social-media trolls" (Marantz, 2016). The alt-right originated and developed as a bizarre protest counterculture responding and resisting to the growing normalisation of ethnic and gender diversity of contemporary mainstream media and pop-culture (Bernstein, 2015). As all the major online media platforms tightly enforced anti-hate speech and embraced the diversity, this counterculture was pushed to “poorly governed image boards and hard-to-find Blogger sites and free-for-all chat apps” (Bernstein, 2015). These websites provide the channels of communication, “constructed through networked technologies and the imagined collective that emerges as a result of the intersection of people” (boyd, 2010). From here the community excelled and mastered the affordances offered by these platforms, eventually developing its own social norms, truths, methods of communication and even specific terminology.
In terms of the grassroots participatory character of this movement and its motivation to achieve alternative emancipatory media production, distribution and content, the notion of alt-right fits the definition and rhetoric of online activism (Ekman, 2014). Indeed, online activism is characterised as a practice of organising people, initiating and mobilising crowds, providing possibility of high levels of engagement, as well as establishing collective identity and solidarity (Ghobadi & Clegg, 2014). The appraisal of affordances of new communication technology in terms of becoming “infrastructures of resistance” (Haleck in Milan, 2013, p. 2) is commonly associated with a liberal mindset, as is social activism in general. Throughout its history within left-wing agendas, cyber-activism has attracted a lot of scepticism questioning its ability to achieve in-depth participation and long-lasting effect (Sandoval-Almazan & Gil-Barcia, 2014; McCafferty, 2011). How did it come that it is the extreme-right that was able to re-appropriate this digital infrastructure for their own take on ‘resistance’?While co-existing and being co-developed within a number of different domains, some of the largest and most infamous gathering sites of alt-right communities can be identified (such as 4chan, Breitbart, a number of subreddits). Particularly one domain has become known for its popularised conspiracies, conflicts with the CEO of Reddit and its explicit interest in affecting mainstream politics - the The_Donald subreddit. By using this particular discussion board as the starting point and embracing a “following the medium” (Rogers, 2013) approach, this project aims at generating an in-depth understanding of the ways the community utilizes a variety of tools and their functional affordances (Stanfill, 2015) to enable mobilisation and activism.
What are the most significant domains linked to from The_Donald subreddit and what purposes do they serve to the community?
What do the functional affordances of these domains suggest about the activism/mobilisation in the community?
The description of the subreddit The_Donald states that it is “for serious supporters“, who “have jokes, comics, memes, and are not politically correct“ (/r/The_Donald, 2017), while outside of the sub it is critically perceived as a platform for alt-right supporters and white supremacists (Fleishman, 2016).
In a basic subreddit, every post or comment can be upvoted or downvoted by any user with a profile, causing the post/comment to rise to the top or drop to the bottom. Different tabs, then, show posts ranked by alternative algorithms. Most importantly for this study, the Hot tab shows the posts that have been receiving a lot of upvotes or comments recently. Other tabs are comprised of New, Rising, Top, Gilded and include posts ranked by newness, current activity, most upvotes over a period of time and all posts that have been given gold, respectively. Comments to the posts are presented in a nested structure, with the most upvoted comments appearing at the top.
The top 27 posts and their comments (first page) of The_Donald subreddit’s Hot tab were retrieved via the Reddit API, taking into consideration all data available (from 2016-10-08 to 2017-01-05) with a retrieval interval of 10 minutes. All the URLs shared in these posts and comments were extracted, constituting a list of 74,771 links. All data extraction completed with several PHP scripts written by Bernhard Rieder. Furthermore, a list of shared domains (7,350 in total) was composed and a network was formed based on their co-occurrences in the same comments.
Size and colour of the nods in the network were assigned in relation to the count of occurrences of the domain name and the vote rank (upvotes minus downvotes) respectively. Top 12 most important (significantly bigger in size and of distinguishably different colour) domains were chosen for further content analysis. Top 30 URLs by vote rank were extracted for each of these domains with an exception of two domains: botsbyliam.com only had one link and 50 links were taken for youtube.com as it contained many occurrences of the same content and the highest number of inaccessible videos. The overall data sample consisted of 351 links, which was considered to be a sufficient sample size (Braun & Clarke, 2013) and in relation to the time and resource restrictions.
The conducted content analysis is twofold. First of all, in order to understand the particular nature of the content types shared within the 12 specific domains, a content analysis with a particular strategy was selected. The extracted URLs were analysed independently by four researchers, who provided a general content description for each of the sources and the possible categories using an approach of a bottom-up category building. Three main categories based on the grounded theory principle (Bryman, 2012) and open as well as axial coding (Corbin and Strauss, 2015) emerged and were used to further conduct the content analysis. The descriptions of the categories can be found below.
Call for action: wording implementing or suggesting actiona) explicit - direct, stating the exact action that needs to be taken;
For fun:a) LOL - self-referential content created for the sake of fun (e.g. memes etc.); b) no LOL - content created with a different purpose than just providing fun.
A total of four sources were categorised as lacking in context (no information category) and five were unreachable (no data category), therefore unavailable for further analysis.
As a second part of content analysis for a more in-depth exploration of the domains in question, a theory-driven analysis of their functional affordances was conducted. Treating users of The_Donald as a fan base of the president-elect Donald Trump, affordances discussed by Stanfill (2015) in his work on fandom websites were chosen as themes for a thematic analysis. After the initial familiarisation with the data, additional themes emerged and, as also based in theory, were included in the analysis. In order to achieve higher intercoder reliability, three researchers coded the 12 domains in relation to all themes independently and reached a consensus after a discussion. The themes are described below.
Anonymity (Halpern & Gibbs, 2013):
Creative production (Stanfill, 2015):
Censorship (Crawford & Gillespie, 2016) - affordance of censoring others (e.g. reporting posts) and of being censored/moderated (e.g. administrators on site)
Spreadability (Stanfill, 2015) - affordance of sharing the content via widgets or simply by copy-pasting the URL
Exportability (Stanfill, 2015) - affordance of exporting content to other platforms via widgets
Collectivity (Stanfill, 2015) - affordance of community-creation, exposed by possibilities to write comments, chat and interact with each other in other ways
Searchability (boyd, 2010) - affordance of searching for particular content on site (via a search bar or by means of search engines)
Furthermore, an affordance narrative was provided for each of the domains, based in the coding system and additional relevant information.
It is worth mentioning that during the period of research one of the domains, sli.mg, became inaccessible - an archived version from January 16th 2017 was therefore used for the analysis of functional affordances (Archive2, 2017).
ToolsWizard 1.8.24 and Libre Office 5 software were used for analysing the count and vote rank metrics of URLs and domains. A network of co-occurring domains was created using the Gephi 0.9.1 software. Findings were visualised using the RAW software developed and maintained by the DensityDesign Lab (Politecnico di Milano) and Adobe Illustrator CS6.
When analysing the 12 domains it became apparent that they could be defined as tools used by the community. These tools serve a variety of purposes such as providing channels for communication, platforms for communal action and storage of content. Through understanding the specificities of the usage of the domains and their specific affordances (Figure 2), the research aimed to make sense of the tools operated in the community on the subreddit The_Donald.
Affordances of domains
Based on Figure 2 as well as additional comments and observations, the following affordance narratives were composed for a further understanding of each of the tools.
YouTube: A big number of the overall links shared on The_Donald referred to YouTube, a popular video sharing website (YouTube, 2017). This domain affords a high level of engagement in various forms. However, it is also known to be actively moderated.
Imgur: Apart from showing similarities to YouTube in regards to its affordances, the image sharing website Imgur allows an anonymous upload and production of image content. Furthermore, it is known for the lack of content restriction (Imgur, 2017).
Sli.mg: An image hosting website allowing anonymous upload and production of image content, similar to Imgur.*
Wikileaks: An organization focused on the publishing and storing of secret information, news leaks and classified media (Wikileaks, 2017). This domain affords observation, spreadability and searchability.
Pastebin: A sharing website where users can produce and post text content online, and make the file either public or private (Pastebin, 2017). Most importantly, this domain affords both individual and communal creative production as well as the anonymous creation of text files.
BotsByLiam: This domain is a Google Docs feedback form asking for money donations for up-keeping bots, as well as encouraging suggestions for new bot creations and asking for feedback on a bot named ‘Trump Train bot’ (Botsbyliam, 2017). As a tool, the domain can be seen as affording one-way feedback to the creator of the form.
En.Wikipedia : A collective-knowledge-based online encyclopedia. Although its content is produced collectively, it is censored by its software and domain guidelines (Wikipedia, 2017).
Archive.is: As an archive site containing snapshots of stored web pages, this domain affords anonymous sharing of information (Archive1, 2017). However, the tool was also used to share online content anonymously, in particular without giving the original source revenue (such as left-wing media sources).
np.Reddit: 'No-participation' section of reddit, meaning that the options of voting and commenting are disabled on the post linked (Reddit, 2017). Hence, this domain affords no engagement and is used for reference-purposes only .
Google Docs: An online cloud computing platform for creating, sharing, editing and storing documents (Google Docs, 2017), affording anonymity and collective creative production.
Categorised content of domains
Interestingly, the majority of the top 12 domains extracted contain a call for action, either implicitly or explicitly (see Figure 3). When compared to the other domains, the content on Reddit (along with no participation Reddit) was used by redditors to call for action, both implicitly and explicitly. It should be acknowledged that, as the take-action rhetoric might not seem visibly predominant, the findings however suggest that this mobilization plays an essential role (especially recognising that it is not a self-proclaimed activist forum). The two image-sharing sites, Imgur and Sli.mg, together with the video sharing site Youtube, all entail content that is explicitly calling for action. Wikileaks, Wikipedia and Twitter domains did not have cases of call-for action content, this is largely due to the fact that they are tools used to provide information. It should be taken into consideration that the domain of BotsByLiam is represented by a singular link.
An analysis of the content in regards to its informational purpose (see Figure 4) produced a rather clear outcome. A majority of the top 12 domains were used for self-investigative purposes, with Google Docs, YouTube and Reddit being the websites used predominantly for this specific cause. As expected, the domains of Wikileaks and Wikipedia only entail content that serves reporting purposes.
When analysing the content, the research study found that the vast majority of the links on The_Donald did not refer to topics categorized as LOL (see Figure 5). In addition to this, a great part of content shared on Reddit itself did not entail content of this category. Imgur and Sli.mg, as meme-generators, however hosted a fairly equal amount of content created for the sake of fun and self-reference as well as other purposes.
The results of this research study show that the vast majority of the links referred to content that can be categorized as encouraging or implying activist and participatory actions. The great amount of self-investigative material found in this analysis suggests the grassroot participatory nature of this political movement. Furthermore, there exists a rather significant part of content addressing a direct taking of action, both offline and online. Surprisingly, the results show that a big part of the links analysed did not refer to the so called LOL-content, as this material is serving the purpose of encouraging a profound, political, informational discussion. This seems paradoxical when bearing in mind the self-proclaimed joke-community that constitutes this subreddit. Indeed due to these various ways the community articulates its seek for mobilisation and political action, it can be labelled as an eminently activist movement.
Neither Reddit itself, nor any of the domains that are highly used by the community are considered to be activism-oriented platforms in a traditional sense, such as, for example, the online petition site, Change.org. Most of these domains are rather simple and afford limited and clearly defined functions. Imgur and Sli.mg, for example, are easy-to-operate image-hosting websites. Surprisingly, the top 12 domains referred to on The_Donald consisted of both well-known and popular websites such as Twitter or YouTube as well as unconventional domains such as Sli.mg, Archive.is or Pastebin. Furthermore, it is not only the usage of atypical, unknown domains but also the re-appropriation of various affordances of these specific domains. For instance, as the research suggests, Archive.is is not only used for its archival function but in order to prevent clicking on certain domains and thereby providing them with online recognition and revenue.
It was found that the majority of the researched domains did not have strict content moderation policies or were known for their lack of supervision. The biggest exception being YouTube which was found to be the most frequently used domain by far. As content analysis, however, shows, several of the videos were blocked due to the demand of third party users. When considering both the strict guidelines of YouTube and the community’s tendency to use various alternative domains, the reasons of the frequent usage of this video sharing platform remain questionable. However, it could be speculated that a wide reach of the platform and supposedly lack of viable alternatives increase the popularity of this domain within the community in question.
Ultimately, due to the thought-through choice and usage of the domains as tools with their specific affordances, the community constituting The_Donald is able to manifest their intentions beyond this specific subreddit. By appropriating the lesser known and poorly governed websites and developing specific methods of their usage, the community generated their own online activism infrastructure and practices.
Such a mastery of these various tools and their unorthodox affordances for the purpose of activism is due to a number of characteristics of the community. Historically, since this movement did start in the realm of the Internet, the community evolved within the specific online culture, developing skills in its practices of communication (such as meme culture). It is also the lack of direct action towards the disobedience to the guidelines coming from Reddit and the self-moderation of The_Donald that not only allow, but furthermore encourage certain controversial discourses.
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