The battle over the noose diagram was just one of many over a site so infested with racist, anti-Semitic and violent content that Williams, 41, an Army veteran who lost a leg in a noncombat accident, often recoiled at what his fellow Trump supporters said and did.
“You might be happy being some ethno-nationalist, but I’m not,” said Williams, recalling his exchanges with a handful of particularly hardcore moderators. “I don’t want anything to do with this.”
The story of TheDonald, a furiously pro-Trump forum that became an online staging ground for the Capitol assault, is a cautionary tale about the Internet’s dark side. What began on Reddit as an online political rally for an upstart presidential candidate turned increasingly foul as Williams fought — and often lost — against what he said were “nefarious forces” determined to advance the most extreme ideologies, including white supremacy.
Williams — who controlled the Web address where the forum moved after Reddit expelled it last year — finally took decisive action on Jan. 21, two weeks after the Capitol assault, after waking to news that a group of other moderators had started their own site and used it to attack him. Soon, Williams used his power as the Web address owner to knock TheDonald offline.
Then he defended himself publicly against his former compatriots, who had criticized him as a “rogue” and a selfish coward. Williams, who lives in Texas and has three young children, also endured death threats, online harassment and FBI questioning, he said.
Moderators at Patriots.win, where some of TheDonald community moved after it went dark, did not respond to requests for comment this week. On their new spinoff site, they have labeled Williams a “sellout” who “betrayed the community … [of] hundreds of thousands of loyal patriots.”
The schism that fractured TheDonald offers a potent symbol of the increasingly tense battles over free speech and extremism on the Web. Online communities that frame themselves as refuges for free expression often find themselves pulled to the fringes, forcing members to either confront the shift or tolerate increasingly radical ideas.
Such dynamics have played out on Facebook and other mainstream social media sites, but they have been supercharged on niche forums such as Gab, 8kun, Parler and TheDonald, which promoted themselves as free-speech zones but ended up trafficking in the worst of the Web.
TheDonald, which Williams said generated more than a million visits a day in December, was perhaps the most popular pro-Trump stand-alone site, and it offered his supporters a gleefully uninhibited forum where followers could laugh about conservative memes and troll liberals without worrying about the content-moderation rules of mainstream social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
But as Jan. 6 approached, online discussions of potential violence alarmed FBI officials, especially on TheDonald, according to people familiar with the investigation who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter. Some of the violent and incendiary comments posted on the site were quoted in an internal FBI report issued a day before the riot, though the report, which was reviewed by The Washington Post, does not mention TheDonald by name, these people said.
One of the comments cited in the FBI memo declared Trump supporters should go to Washington and get “violent. Stop calling this a march, or rally, or a protest. Go there ready for war. We get our President or we die.”
Some of those watching TheDonald from afar argue that if the site had grown so obviously repugnant, Williams should have acted sooner — before the FBI came calling, before the site’s domain registrar demanded it be cleaned up, before TheDonald played a role in instigating an attack that left four rioters and a police officer dead and the seat of American democracy ransacked.
“Whether or not Williams condones racism and anti-Semitism is irrelevant. His site helped incite and facilitate one of the most egregious assaults on American democracy,” said Rita Katz, executive director of SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors online extremism. “He doesn’t get to pretend he wasn’t part of the problem.”
In response to such critiques, Williams said he wanted Trump to win and stay in the White House. He didn’t want to destroy something he had spent so long growing. He didn’t think, until the very end, that it was necessarily his call whether to blow it all up. He thought his actions as a moderator, part of a team that removed 3,500 problematic posts and comments on an average day, helped keep the worst stuff at bay — while also helping Trump.
“Did I compromise some of my principles to do so? Without a doubt,” Williams acknowledged. “Sometimes you swallow pills you don’t like to get things done. That’s the world we live in. … That’s politics.”
However observers come down on how Williams handled the situation, he has troubling things to report from the front lines of the Internet.
Williams saw, up close, the QAnon extremist ideology, Holocaust denial and unalloyed racism. He witnessed repellent people spreading images of child sexual exploitation, flooding an affiliated image board so thoroughly that it had to be shut down.
And then, perhaps most unnervingly for Williams, he watched terrifyingly extreme online actors playing a very long game of grooming, seeking to recruit the disaffected to their causes.
“They’re like any far-flung terrorist group,” Williams said. “They think they’re going to win eventually, and they just need to slowly drive a wedge in there.”
Still a fan of Trump’s policies
Williams is no liberal, nor even a moderate.
In since-deleted tweets, he said that Democratic “communists” were screaming “for war,” and he defended a post on TheDonald showing a box of bullets as a response to the “rigged ballot box.” Days before Jan. 6, Williams tweeted that Trump supporters going to D.C. should “siege the corrupt Federal Apparatus that seeks to chain you all up,” including the hashtag “#DCMustFall.”
Williams, who deleted his Twitter account and other social media after questions about them from The Washington Post, said he was urging political action, not violence, and persistence in challenging what he saw as an entrenched, geographically concentrated ruling class.
He also has faced criticism that his recent about-face had more to do with bad blood between moderators or a self-interested business calculation. On the “no censorship” message board Ruqqus, critics called Williams an “Internet janitor” with a lust for power, adding, “You were totally happy to be hands off until they started redirecting from your personal kingdom. … You tried to torpedo this movement. Shame on you.”
But Williams now recognizes, he says, that elements of the movement went too far. In tweets last month, he called on Trump to disown the “insane” “fringes of the ‘right,’ ” including QAnon followers and racists. He wrote, “They are costing us more than they could ever bring to the table. Worse, they are contagious.”
Williams, who said he’s a Christian and a regular churchgoer, joined the Reddit group r/TheDonald in August 2016, after his first choice in presidential candidates, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), got trounced by Trump in the Republican primaries. In April 2017, Williams became a volunteer moderator.
He had time on his hands and some relevant skills. Before becoming an active-duty member of the Army, he had worked in information technology. His leg injury from an accident while on active duty required about 20 surgeries, making him what he called “a professional patient.” Williams spent a lot of time reading news and sharing his thoughts with others online.
As a moderator for a Reddit community notorious for its hate speech and loose talk of violence, Williams bristled at some of the casual racism but also at Reddit’s enforcement actions for policy violations, he said. When the company imposed a series of penalties — eventually leading to the forum’s outright banning in June — he helped plot the exodus to less-restrictive areas of the Web, buying up dozens of potential addresses, including TheDonald.win.
This version of TheDonald, while very similar in form to what had lived on Reddit, spiraled further toward more outlandish and dangerous speech.
A team of researchers last year analyzed millions of posts and comments on TheDonald, both in its earlier Reddit forum and its stand-alone site. They scanned for what they called “socially undesirable content,” including sexist, racist and homophobic slurs and posts discussing targeted harassment and conspiracy theories.
What they found is not everyone left Reddit for the spinoff site — only the most hardcore users did. They also tended to be the loudest voices and the most likely to preach the most fanatical ideas. They fostered an ideological echo chamber, boosting one another’s ideas and pushing new or more moderate users further into the extreme.
“After the migration, users became more toxic and more radicalized,” said one of the researchers, Savvas Zannettou, of the Max Planck Institute for Informatics in Germany. “These users were more active, were sharing more toxic posts, and only got more toxic over time.”
The community’s removal from Reddit helped draw some members together with an us-against-the-world attitude, and many of the top-voted posts pushed the boundaries with ideas on how beleaguered Trump supporters online should fight back in defense of the president and themselves.
Joshua Fisher-Birch of the Counter Extremism Project, a research group, said TheDonald’s radicalization illustrated the push and pull between online communities’ leaders and followers that can turn them into “hotbeds for extremist content and networking.”
Site moderators set the tone for what is acceptable based on what they keep or remove. And followers incentivize certain messages, memes and behaviors based on what they upvote, comment on or celebrate. An anything-goes message board catering to an audience of anonymous trolls and partisans is destined to push the boundaries of what is permissible, fueling hate speech, sexism and white supremacy, he said.
“It’s not like someone wakes up one day and, all of a sudden, their site has become this cesspool of hate speech and extremism,” Fisher-Birch said. But “a site that doesn’t remove content that encourages violence is really just encouraging more of the same content by those posters.”
Covid-19 and George Floyd
Williams has a different perspective: He found the forum’s level of conversation — on both Reddit and the Web incarnation — tolerable until the coronavirus pandemic hit. With people stuck at home and angered by public-health restrictions, the tone on TheDonald further coarsened, he said. It took another, still-angrier turn as protests spread against the police killing of George Floyd, with users on this bastion of unfettered conservatism railing against Black Lives Matter, antifa and what forum commenters viewed as mainstream tolerance for mayhem and destruction.
The November election, followed by Trump’s baseless claims of widespread electoral fraud, further intensified the viciousness on TheDonald.
Williams said he’d become increasingly aware of what he believed were intentional efforts by nefarious actors to push the site’s boundaries. He recalled with particular horror an episode from June in which a user posted a series of nearly identical posts on several threads, each more explicitly racist than the last. A later post on 9chan — an even more extreme message board — appeared to be from the same user describing how he was probing the moderation on TheDonald, trying to figure out exactly how far he could go without getting his comments deleted.
The post on 9chan said, “I believe ‘TheDonald’ can be redpilled” — a term meaning gradually convinced to embrace ideas that initially would be considered repugnant — into believing a racist conspiracy theory called “white genocide.” It baselessly claims there is an international plot encouraging population growth by minority groups, with the goal of replacing White people.
“He was trying to get people to act,” said Williams, who called the comment “radical” and “dangerous” and shared a screenshot of it with The Post. “He’s saying we need to push people to an inflection point, where they pick up their gun, find a minority person and shoot. That’s what these people want.”
Williams said he saw other deeply troubling things in private messages on TheDonald and on affiliated communities on Signal and Telegram, two encrypted messaging sites. He believes private channels on all three platforms hosted the most aggressive planning and instigation for the Capitol siege.
“People got together. They linked up on these back channels, and they talked about what they really wanted to talk about, without prying eyes,” Williams said.
In managing the public-facing part of TheDonald, Williams said moderators were deeply split on how aggressively to enforce site policies. Battles ensued, many of which he lost, Williams said. He knew he had the power to kill the site outright as the owner of the Web domain but also felt he was part of a group project that no one person should unilaterally end, Williams said.
But even as a Trump loyalist, scenes of Trump’s supporters — some of whom almost certainly met and organized themselves on TheDonald — overrunning the Capitol depressed Williams, he said.
The site soon featured in critical news reports, criminal investigations and articles of impeachment for Trump. The domain registrar, Epik, warned that the site would get kicked offline after a flood of complaints about hateful, threatening content.
Incoming queries from the FBI, Epik and journalists writing about TheDonald’s role in the Capitol attack inundated Williams, for whom moderating the site already had become something of a full-time job. Williams also knew that members of TheDonald community had indeed used the site to instigate the assault.
“People definitely used the site to communicate and coordinate,” he said, echoing the conclusions of independent researchers.
Asked whether he now feels regret or guilt, Williams accepts the former but rejects the latter. And he still defends Trump’s advocacy for smaller government, while being uneasy with some of what he inspired in followers.
“Probably 40 to 50 percent of Trump supporters really believe he’s sending wink-wink, nudge-nudge messages through QAnon,” Williams said. “A lot of typical, reasonable Americans have fallen for it.”
He now is spending his time caring for family and trying to get a new site, America.win, up and running. Unlike TheDonald, it will not offer unfettered discussion. It will be, he said, more of an aggregator of what Williams considers important content about free markets, individual liberty and other “common patriotic causes.”
He has a parting message for those who might still be caught up in the roiling forums of the sort he once joined, then moderated, then killed off: Things often are not as they seem. QAnon is not real. What may look online like a magical, mystical voice of secret wisdom may just be a guy hiding behind the Internet’s veil, trying to keep it all going, hoping it doesn’t spin out of control.
Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.