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Pro-Trump Discussion Board Faces Possible Shutdown

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 1/17/2021 Ian Talley
a group of people standing in front of a crowd © Graeme Sloan/Bloomberg News

An influential pro-Trump discussion board active in the buildup to Jan. 6 faces the prospect of being shut down by its web-hosting company for allegedly fostering white supremacist and violent extremism.

Robert Davis, senior vice president of Epik Inc., told The Wall Street Journal his firm warned TheDonald.Win it might be dropped within days if it fails to better cull what he said are discussions glorifying violence, propagating white supremacy and fomenting extremism.

“They need to recognize the critical role they play as an inspirational place rather than a hotbed of extremism,” Mr. Davis said. “Epik has no tolerance for anything that incites hate or violence.” If the site didn’t fix the problem speedily, he added, “they’re gone from Epik and it will be hard for them to get service anywhere.”

TheDonald.Win has been identified by law enforcement and analysts as an important online staging platform for the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol that federal prosecutors are investigating as a seditious act and President-Elect Biden characterized as domestic terrorism. Recent posts on the forum viewed by the Journal have included further calls for violence, including a threat to kill House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about which the FBI was informed, according to people familiar with the matter.

The owner of the domain TheDonald.Win, Jody Williams, said he has been trying for months to purge a surging tide of violent, racist and anti-Semitic postings, an effort he said has triggered multiple daily death threats from censored posters against him and his family. Mr. Williams said a small cluster of the site’s most powerful moderators—including one who controls its code—have thwarted his efforts to rein in such content even as it grew over the last 10 months.

The site’s transformation is emblematic of how far-right groups have leveraged growing frustration among some Trump supporters to propagate their ideology into mainstream politics, analysts say. Along with groups such as the conspiracy-theory group QAnon, white supremacists have also helped foster a surge in threats of violence, feeding what was fringe far-right thinking into the mainstream, those analysts say.

“There’s been a convergence of all those groups who want to overthrow the government, and certainly the Biden election,” said Marilyn Mayo, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center for Extremism. “We’ve seen a number of groups come together who are supporting Trump for different reasons.”

Robert Evans, who studies far-right extremism at the research firm Bellingcat, said white supremacists and other far-right groups see the president as a tool for achieving their aims and “made a conscious effort to radicalize Trump supporters” through sites like TheDonald.Win.

Mr. Davis of Epik said he believed that the platform TheDonald.Win, like some others, has been increasingly permeated by white supremacists and other extremist groups and the site’s moderators failed to take sufficient action. “There are threads that need to be pulled out,” he said, “Moderators have taken their eye off the ball.”

Site traffic on the discussion board, which grew out of the popular /The_Donald Reddit board that was shut down in June 2020 for violating Reddit’s rules on harassment, doubled in the last quarter of the year to more than 16 million visits in December, according to web analytics.

Mr. Williams said at the start of last year, volunteer moderators were able to successfully weed out racist, anti-Semitic and violent posts, deleting an average 3,400 such entries out of an overall daily total of some 100,000 posts a day and ousting offenders.

But the March Covid-19 lockdown marked the beginning of a rise in antigovernment postings, he said, as growing unemployment and health restrictions sparked anger among the site’s users. Racist posts multiplied as users reacted to countrywide #BlackLivesMatter protests and riots, Mr. Williams said.

Against that background, Mr. Trump’s casting of the presidential election as rigged set off a virtual powder keg, the domain’s owner said, especially as the media reported urban areas with majority Black populations turning the tide for Democrat Joe Biden in traditionally GOP-won states. Posts violating the site’s rules on racist, violent and extremist content surged, he said, which in turn “acted like a bat signal to the people we had fought so hard to keep out.”

Mr. Williams said he doubled the number of moderators from about 15 to 30 since the November election to keep up with the accelerating growth in site traffic. Several moderators who had fought an internal battle against the permissive moderators left the site in the wake of the Capitol attack, dispirited by the blame directed at site, worried about legal liabilities and scared of violent reprisals amid an avalanche of subsequent threats, he said.

As Epik warned the site in prior weeks about long-building vetting concerns, Mr. Williams said tensions escalated among divided moderators. After three FBI requests about users because of threatening posts and Epik’s latest threats to shut down the site, Mr. Williams said one top controlling moderator responded to a final plea for better oversight with a note saying, “Or we could just not be pussies.”

A request for comment from the moderators drew a response from someone using the name Kekpepekek, who wrote: “Get bent. Stop making things up for a story.” Kekpepekek, whose pseudonym incorporates white-nationalist memes, didn’t elaborate.

Epik has come under scrutiny itself for hosting other anonymous sites that have far-right content, especially Gab, a networking site that was used by the man that killed 11 in a 2018 shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh. Social-media platform Parler earlier this week transferred its domain to Epik after the platform was forced offline when major vendors cut critical support for its services, citing some subscribers who used it to promote the Capitol riot. Epik said it htd been caught off-guard when Parler registered with the hosting firm.

Critics question whether Epik applies its “zero-tolerance” principle aggressively enough. Mr. Davis rejects criticisms of the company as a haven for white supremacists as unfair, saying the firm tries to encourage free speech without fostering extremism and seeks to persuade site owners to better vet discourse on its sites instead of simply shutting sites down.

Write to Ian Talley at ian.talley@wsj.com

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