Bernie Sanders may have to relinquish his title as the Reddit candidate. The site has seen a sudden surge in attention for Donald Trump, with its Trump-fan forum leaping from 12.6 million pageviews in February to almost 52 million in March. The Trumpkins pulled this off by embracing a tactic with a long history both on Reddit and in the Trump campaign: trolling.
One of Trump's Reddit fans, who goes by the handle CisWhiteMaelstrom, explains his growth strategy to MSNBC's Benjy Sarlin:
The question was how to bring like-minded users along. The most important step: Picking fights with people they hate.
"I had to get SJWs talking about us," Cis said.
A favorite tactic was to direct Trump fans to push deliberately dumb or offensive posts to the front page of Reddit and then laugh at the backlash when users took them seriously….
Anything that branded the subreddit in opposition to the cultural left drew the attention of anti-PC Redditors, who recognized the site's prankish ethos as their own even if they had no prior interest in Trump and didn't think of themselves as conventional conservatives. Whenever the site turned up on groups like r/AgainstHateSubreddits that oppose offensive speech, Cis celebrated. He fanned the flames by sending outlandish messages to left-leaning forums demanding they stop talking about r/The_Donald [the Trump forum], which of course had the opposite effect.
"It's so systematic and so predictable and so easy," he said. "We practically own several SJW communities."
All of this would be recognizable to anyone following Trump, who has acknowledged pushing opponent's buttons as part of a broader strategy to attract attention.
Cis may underrate people's ability to tell when someone's yanking their chain—if you follow that link from "opposite effect," you'll mostly find people saying things like "Obvious trolling is obvious"—but then, I suppose that calling out trolls is a form of attention too. In any event, the amount of pranking and play-acting here is high enough that Sarlin feels the need to note that that's not all there is to Trump Reddit. "Despite the circus atmosphere, r/The_Donald's moderators stressed that support for Trump was earnest even if the tactics were ironic," he writes. "Even a cursory look at the subreddit suggests this is true—for every post covered in five layers of Reddit in-jokes, there are plenty more that are simple rah-rah expressions of support."
Something I've been wondering: Do Trump's ironist fans ever show up in meatspace? I wore my reporter's hat at a Trump rally up in Albany a few days ago—more on that later—and I should be be heading to another one in a different city in a few days' time. I spoke with a lot of sincere Trump fans, and I spoke with a lot of sincere protesters; I even encountered a couple of sincere undecideds. And yes, I ran into some pure curiosity-seekers too. But no one, with the possible exception of the candidate, showed any signs of being in it for the lulz.