clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Trump's anti-CNN tweet originated from Reddit’s largest right-wing extremist forum

Regardless of his intentions, Trump’s tweet aligned him with violent hate speech.

President Trump Participates In The Celebrate Freedom Rally At The Kennedy Center
 US President Donald Trump participates in the Celebrate Freedom Rally at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on July 1, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool via Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Over the weekend, Donald Trump tweeted an inflammatory GIF of himself symbolically beating up CNN.

On its face, the the tweet appeared to many to be a humorous jibe — just the latest shot in Trump’s ongoing war with CNN and the news media in general, and another attention-grabbing tweet from a man who’s become known for them:

But it quickly spawned outrage from many progressives, politicians, and media outlets — including CNN itself, which issued a statement noting, “It is a sad day when the President of the United States encourages violence against reporters.”

And while Twitter and the White House both defended the tweet against such claims, things took a turn once the source of the GIF was discovered to be a Reddit forum known for Islamophobia, racism, and frequently violent hate speech.

In that context, the tweet takes on a new meaning, one that has little to do with whether it was explicitly threatening, or what Trump’s intentions were in posting it.

The GIF in Trump’s tweet was originally posted to Reddit’s largest pro-Trump alt-right community

Trump has long targeted CNN in his general war on the news media, famously labeling CNN “fake news” and frequently bashing the network in speeches and on Twitter. But his ire for the network seems to have hit a fever pitch in the wake of CNN’s recent retraction of a story related to the FBI’s ongoing investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, and debate over the president’s relationship to the news media as a whole and to CNN in particular has been frequent on both sides of the aisle.

That’s the atmosphere into which Reddit user HanAssholeSolo released the original GIF version of the clip in the president’s tweet, posting it to Reddit’s largest alt-right community, r/The_Donald, on Wednesday, June 28; he would later claim to have edited and watermarked the GIF himself.

The_Donald is a huge and hugely controversial part of Reddit that exploded in popularity over the course of 2016, as Trump’s presidential campaign gained momentum. At one point, right-wing extremism within The_Donald was so intense that it caused the forum to fracture, before growing even more popular and solidifying its position as Reddit’s main alt-right hub. A New York Times profile of the subreddit published in November called it “one of the most influential communities within one of the most significant websites on the internet”; the Times characterized it as “home to copious Islamophobia, trolling of liberals and near constant bashing of Hillary Clinton.”

The_Donald has also been a major conduit for alt-right fringe conspiracies like Pizzagate and other rumors to find their way into the mainstream. And despite the prevalence of racism and extremism present within the forum, Trump’s campaign staff have said that they monitored The_Donald and other alt-right communities on Reddit and elsewhere throughout the election.

Initially, HanAssholeSolo’s post attracted typical reactions from other forum members and gained no further attention. GIFs like this one, in which one or more “characters” are labeled in a way that transforms the action of a GIF into allegory, are common meme parlance. And there is no shortage of anti-CNN GIFs floating around The_Donald.

However, at some point in the four days after HanAssholeSolo’s original post, someone modified HanAssholeSolo’s GIF by adding audio and converting it to a video format. And that’s when it apparently found its way into the hands of the president, who tweeted it.

“Congratulations /u/HanAssholeSolo, your dankery has been tweeted by the President of the United States,” ran the most popular response to the original GIF thread.

“Wow!! I never expected my meme to be retweeted by the God Emporer [sic] himself!!!” HanAssholeSolo responded, while the rest of r/The_Donald waxed gleeful about their moment in the spotlight. The official r/The_Donald Twitter account celebrated by posting additional GIFs of Trump wrestling CNN:

At a glance, it’s easy to write off the incident as another example of Trump riling up the media with a distracting incidental tweet, another bizarre example of the convergence of modern politics and social media:

But there’s a reason to take Trump’s tweet seriously, and that is its direct connection to the violence the alt-right routinely espouses.

Regardless of Trump’s intentions, his tweet was interpreted by the alt-right as support for their racist beliefs

Once HanAssholeSolo was identified as the creator of the CNN GIF, journalists were quick to identify and dig into his Reddit history, unearthing a litany of blatantly racist remarks.

(HanAssholeSolo reportedly attempted to edit his past posts to remove some of his more offensive comments, including racial slurs, but not before people captured screenshots of several of his most objectionable statements.)

The offensive and racist ideologies expressed in HanAssholeSolo’s comments are representative of much of the discussion that regularly takes place in The_Donald, and some members of the forum have interpreted Trump’s tweet of HanAssholeSolo’s GIF as support for their beliefs, based on its origins alone.

In the past, Trump has explicitly distanced himself from the alt-right and its extremism, stating, “I don’t want to energize the group, and I disavow the group, and if they are energized I want to look into it and find out why.”

Yet, as cataloged by the Huffington Post, Trump has frequently embraced alt-right codes on social media, and both Trump and members of his staff have retweeted white supremacists. Such behaviors, regardless of their intent, have been construed by members of the alt-right as a direct show of support from the Trump administration, emboldening them in advancing their racist beliefs. After Trump tweeted the CNN GIF, members of The_Donald reacted as though the president has been lurking among them. “THE EMPEROR READS OUR SHITPOSTS AND RE-TWEETS YOURS!!!” exuded one happy commenter.

Though the tweet itself may not have explicitly condoned violence, and can be read as hyperbolic, it was read by some as connective tissue joining Trump to his alt-right supporters — and the harassment they showered on journalists like freelance writer Jared Yates Sexton. Sexton, who was one of the first people to unveil the tweet’s origins, was showered with online abuse, as he detailed on Twitter.

“I received numerous threats. I was told people wanted to shoot, strangle me, hang me, throw me out of a helicopter,” Sexton wrote, describing the alt-right’s reaction to his screencapping of HanAssholeSolo’s undoctored racial slurs. “Now [my] articles are showing up on Neo-Nazi websites, there are videos spliced with Goebbels telling me not to test his patience.”

Members of the alt-right downplayed the GIF as doing nothing to incite direct violence; some compared the situation to recent controversies over a production of Julius Caesar in which a Trump analogue was assassinated and a photo of Kathy Griffin holding a likeness of Trump’s severed head, accusing those who are upset by Trump’s tweet of hypocrisy.

But whatever your views are on the inherent violence of the GIF itself, its source and the reaction of The_Donald’s community to the president’s use of it makes it clear that many members of the alt-right perceive Trump to be one of them. And regardless of Trump’s feelings on associating himself with the violent hate speech regularly deployed by his alt-right followers, nodding to their presence in a tweet like this, voluntarily or not, does nothing to minimize their movement.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.