After allowing it to flourish for nine months, Reddit has banned an internet community comprising tens of thousands of members that critics elsewhere on the platform said was associated with the online neo-Nazi movement.
The /r/frenworld community had grown to 60,346 subscribers before its ban by the Reddit administration on Thursday. In an explanation posted on the group’s former web page, Reddit stated that “this subreddit was banned for violations of our Content Policy, specifically, the posting of content that glorifies or encourages violence.”
A similar community, with a smaller subscriber group of some 15,000, was still functioning as of this writing, however, as were several much smaller communities.
Many posts featured on /r/frenworld made implicit references to Holocaust denial and other anti-Semitic conspiracy theories touted by neo-Nazi groups.
One such example featured a cartoon clown figure alongside an image of ovens used by the Nazis in the Holocaust, with commentary stating: “Silly Clown! There’s no way you can bake 6 million pies in those ovens!”
The community was banned without an official announcement from Reddit, which has yet to comment on the details that prompted the move. The Times of Israel contacted Reddit for comment, but the social media platform had not replied as of publication. Some of those involved in the group denied that it had extremist ties or motivations, and claimed its content was inoffensive.
Reddit is the sixth most visited website in the United States and the 21st most visited in the world. It is composed of thousands of communities known as “subreddits” that allow subscribers to talk about shared interests, from baseball to skincare.
In the past, the social media platform has taken action to target extremist content. Following media scrutiny shortly after the 2017 Charlottesville attack in the United States, for instance, Reddit moved to ban a number of overt Nazi subreddits, citing infringement of the website’s policies barring incitement to violence.
Last year, in a further crackdown on offensive content, Reddit “quarantined” several subreddits including communities spreading disturbing material, as well as extremist leftist and right-wing messages. (A “quarantine” designation prevents a subreddit from appearing in Reddit’s search function and prevents Reddit from hosting advertisements on the community; it also warns site users of the toxic nature of the community before they access it. “Quarantine” is used for communities that do not necessarily fall outside of Reddit’s terms of service, but are nonetheless considered offensive.)
Mark Pitcavage, a senior researcher with the Anti Defamation League, explained that Reddit faces a number of systematic issues when moderating its content. “Reddit is set up so that you can always create new and anonymous accounts at the drop of a hat. If a particular community gets to the point where it is so poisonous… then it may end that entire community, but that does nothing to affect an individual account.”
This means that the approximately 60,000 users that were part of the /r/frenworld community banned for the incitement of violence still exist on the platform in an individual capacity and can form new groups whenever they so choose.
As part of Reddit’s efforts to curtail violent extremism, it has censored numerous groups since 2017. These include /r/debatethealtright, which was quarantined, and /r/altright, /r/nationalsocialism, /r/farright, /r/Nazi, /r/MDE and /r/cringeanarchy, which were all banned.
By contrast, /r/frenworld was left untouched for nine months, becoming the largest extremist right-wing space on the website, before it was banned last week. A smaller community, /r/honkler, which makes use of similar imagery and messaging, continues to exist with some 15,000 subscribers.
One possible reason for /r/frenworld escaping an earlier quarantine or ban is that to the average internet user, or even a tech-savvy journalist, the community’s purpose might not have seemed immediately obvious. A glance at the front page of the subreddit would likely leave most users confused as to what they were seeing.
Its content was dominated by cartoon images of frogs attached to childish captions making use of slang internet terms such as “frens” and “clowns.”
“This use of coded language is something that white supremacists have been doing for a while,” said Jessie Daniels, a professor of Sociology at Hunter College and expert on internet manifestations of racism. “People who are not in the subculture are not going to catch it just passing by the subreddit.”
Upon closer inspection, however, extremist anti-Semitic and racist messages become readily apparent amid otherwise childish and nonsensical posts. The messaging varied in subtlety, but alluded to common neo-Nazi talking points such as Holocaust denial.
Jewish people, often a key focus in the conspiratorial worldview of neo-Nazi white supremacists, were frequently the target of the subreddit’s focus, and posts with anti-Jewish resonance sometimes gained considerable traction. A recent post referencing conspiracy theories surrounding the 1967 sinking of the USS Liberty received some 2,600 “upvotes” and hundreds of comments. (An upvote is how individual Reddit users indicate appreciation of a post.)
“The goal is really to spread a set of ideas that white people are inherently superior,” said Daniels, “that white people are under threat of genocide and that this threat is driven by Jewish people; by a Jewish cabal and that other people of color are pawns in that great plan.”
Beyond thinly veiled anti-Semitic content, there were other indicators that betrayed the subreddit’s purpose as an online meeting place for the extremist right. These included the use of number codes prevalent in neo-Nazi messaging, namely 13/50, 13/52 and 13/90. Pitcavage described these numbers as being used to represent “explicitly white supremacist numerical codes.”
The codes communicate a neo-Nazi misrepresentation of crime statistics that Pitcavage said are used to “promote the long-vaunted white supremacist notion that blacks are savage, violent, and are basically, as a class, criminals.”
The idea behind the codes is to signal that black Americans commit 50 percent of crime in the US, despite making up 13% of the population. Variations of these numbers, such as 13/52 or 13/90, are used to exaggerate or specify the statistics, he said.
Most posts on the community were not so overt, however, with pains being taken to provide posted content with plausible deniability.
But comments on even innocuous posts often featured dog-whistle phrases relating to extremism and neo-Nazism.
When contacted by this reporter recently and asked to comment on the content, shortly before the banning of their community, founders and moderators of /r/frenworld denied that the subreddit was linked to the right wing at all, let alone the far right, and said its content was harmless.
Sergei_Suvorov (an anonymous internet moniker), who also moderates a community of 500 on Reddit called /r/ThisIsFascism, told this writer: “Frenworld is not ‘rightwing’, anyone can participate. For the most part, so long as posts and comments do not violate Reddit’s Content Policy, we don’t interfere.”
Another moderator said that the subreddit was simply “for the sharing of cartoon frog illustrations” and that this should be obvious.
The /r/frenworld community was allowed to grow for nine months despite concerns being raised about it in other areas of the social media platform, including by a community called /r/AgainstHateSubreddits, whose mission statement is “to draw attention to reddit’s contributions to the growing problem of radicalization on social media.”
Posts detailing the problematic nature of /r/frenworld received thousands of upvotes and widespread publicity in the months leading up to the community’s ban. Further posts celebrating the banning of /r/frenworld have now received tens of thousands of upvotes on the social media platform.
Why it matters
Racists and neo-Nazis have existed online since the early days of the internet, but recent events have shown that such groups are ignored at society’s peril, warned Pitcavage.
“There’s the issue of the ability of people on [social media] platforms, even if not necessarily engaging in plots of violence themselves, to explicitly or implicitly urge people to violence or even say things that are not doing either of those, but can help someone out there to theoretically commit an act of violence,” said Pitcavage, who has spent 25 years researching far right terrorism with the ADL’s Center on Extremism.
Contemporary right-wing terrorism has often been explicitly tied to virtual spaces. The shooter who carried out the March 2019 New Zealand mosque attacks, killing 50, live-streamed the massacre to Facebook and posted his manifesto to the message board site 8chan. Like Reddit, 8chan is an anonymous social media site and has been associated with the “alt-right.”
The shooter behind the fatal April 27 synagogue attack in San Diego also posted his manifesto to 8chan.
The October 27, 2018, Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in which 11 congregants were killed was carried out by a shooter who was active in online white supremacist communities on the social media platform Gab — a website that ostensibly puts free speech before all else and again, like Reddit, relies on anonymity.
“Part of what the internet does is that it enables a globally networked white supremacy and beyond that it enables a globally networked white identity,” said Daniels.
These networks “inspire each other and they inspire each other through the internet, so if anyone is walking around is a potential target of white supremacists… it’s women, it’s queer people, it’s people of color, it’s white people who disagree with them. It’s a huge swath of us who are vulnerable; it’s a real threat.”