How One Tight-Knit Circle of Internet Troublemakers Convinced Professional Journalists They Were “Abortion Bounty Hunters”
And other misadventures
Note: I originally published this story to Medium here. As I move to Substack, I’m aiming to consolidate all my notable writing. The original will stay up, as will this mirror.
Recently, you may have heard reddit banned a forum for “Texas Abortion Bounty Hunters”. The ban was reported triumphantly in Vice and Business Insider after health advocate Kendall Brown blew the whistle on Twitter. Thousands of people, such as New York Times bestselling author Steve Silberman (author of a book on autism), were outraged by the news of the subreddit’s existence. The news spread around reddit like wildfire, drawing tens of thousands of upvotes across multiple subreddits.
The only problem? At the heart of it was not a passionate group of anti-abortion Texans looking to make a quick buck hunting people down in service of a new law. No, it was a tiny group of troublemakers from the website rdrama.net, a group formerly at reddit’s /r/Drama who are in love with, well, drama. They hoped only to get a rise out of people for a quick laugh.
The plan started here:
And, well, get a rise they did. A tiny troll subreddit that maxed out at 68 members and lasted only six hours before takedown spiraled into national news and across social media. It’s not like the trolling was subtle, either. The one that went most viral was full of choice lines that should have given the game away to anyone who cared to notice. “Would it be unethical to collect a bounty on a perp that I impregnated?” “By the time the sun came up we had become sinners in the eyes of the good lord.” “It feels like a bit of a betrayal of her trust but at the same time it’s her body and her choice and she has made the choice to take life away from the living.” So on. Really, read through it. It’s as subtle as a brick.
rDrama, naturally, thought the whole thing was hilarious.
This isn’t the only rDrama venture that’s gotten out of hand. They’re also the, ah, masterminds behind such subreddits as /r/transparenttranskid and /r/transpets, devoted to pretending to be trans people “helping” their kids and their pets transition, often against their will. For each subreddit, they lay out the whole plan on their site, where “the whole plan” is often “hey this sounds funny, anyone wanna join in?”. Here, too, screenshots and condemnations spread across social media, this time drawing fury from right-wing and gender-critical spaces. Twitter’s @OrwellNGoode drew some ten thousand likes for posting a screenshot of a user claiming they were crushing estriadol pills and putting it in the cereal of their 14-year-old to force transition. The .win sites and /pol/ took their turns biting at the bait, as did reddit’s /r/Cringetopia.
Again, these are not subtle. And each time, rDrama was there cracking up about the whole thing. Really, can you blame them? Furious culture warriors, frothing at the mouth over the horrifying evils of their enemies, credulously nodding along to the idea that abortion bounty hunters were sharing tips on reddit or trans people were slipping secret hormones to their unwilling kids, then refusing to look any further into the matter lest their illusions be shattered. It’s any troll’s dream.
So what is rDrama, anyway?
I believe this is the descriptor they’d like me to use:
Let me tell you this — rdrama.net is one of the most malevolent, cruel, coldhearted online communities you’ll ever find, and even as a supporter of free speech it appalls me that the internet would allow such a vile, festering hub of bigotry and sadism to exist. …
They’re the offshoot of reddit’s now mostly defunct /r/drama, a subreddit that’s been collecting “any incident, scene, gaffe, rumor, opinion, or disagreement that is blown entirely out of proportion” for a decade or so, slowly accumulating restrictions and sanctions from the reddit admins for brigading other subreddits, “pinging” usernames to draw people into arguments on their subreddit, and generally seeking attention and drama wherever they could find it. Eventually, they got tired of the sanctions and made their own space. That’s about the sum of it.
The site is one of the last bastions, for better and worse, of the “for the lulz” internet ethos earlier embodied in “the hacker known as Anonymous” and 4chan: nothing is sacred, everything deserves a bit of ribbing, everyone on a high horse should be taken down a peg. The South Park or the Charlie Hebdo of forums, if you will. In short, they only really care about drama. Causing it, finding it, laughing at it, tricking people with it. They prize all ‘lolcows’ (oblivious users committed to arguing with them in earnest) who come to interact with them, and anyone who gives as good as they get finds a spot there.
It’s not a place to rhapsodize, naturally. As one comment memorably put it:
rDrama is and always was a trash sub. It’s users enjoy it the same way an junkie enjoys heroin or an Australian beetle enjoys f — -ing a Beer Bottle. Gratifications plus a rush of endorphins at the expense of your soul.
But inasmuch as it has an agenda, that agenda is simply to poke fun at you. I emphasize this, because people will be tempted, any time they skewer an ideology, to attribute it to their usual opponents: generally “the alt-right”, in the case of leftists, “SJWs” for the right. Don’t fall into that trap. They’re below all that, operating instead with a certain cynical nihilism able to skewer anything and everything without proposing or particularly wanting better replacements.
Is there a place for that? Absolutely not for everyone, and absolutely not everywhere. But I believe that sort of hive of cynicism acts as a pressure check on the rest of us: if you become a parody of yourself, if you fall for obvious bait, if you get too caught up in an echo chamber and take yourself a bit too seriously, someone will notice, and they will laugh at you.
Reflections on responses
Back to the story. Fortunately, in all cases, as soon as people pointed out the whole thing was satire, everyone outraged by the stories backed down, apologized, corrected the record, and moved on to something else.
By which I mean, of course, that they doubled down. Sometimes, as in the case of Kendall Brown, they shrugged and conceded that the specific story might be fake, but the subreddit was firm evidence of something fishy. Other times, as with Zero HP Lovecraft responding to the /r/transparenttranskid screenshot, people justified falling for the fake by asserting it fit what their opponents would do. Or, in other words:
That about sums up, I think, why bait like this is so successful right now. People want these stories to be true. The culture war is heating up, and people on all sides desperately want to believe their enemies really are as bad as the worst caricatures of them. None of these stories were hard to fact-check. In almost every thread about them, at least a few lonely voices stood around reminding everyone that the obvious bait was, in fact, obvious bait, often with links to the origins. Anyone who wanted to do due diligence could.
Vice, BusinessInsider, and New York Times bestselling authors didn’t have to fall for the idea that people were seriously discussing how to collect bounties on their girlfriends on reddit. The right-wing and gender-critical social media ecosystem didn’t have to fall for stories about parents crushing pills and putting them into their kids’ food, or forcing their pets to ‘dilate’.
Reading responses like this, more than anything, I am reminded of C.S. Lewis:
Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything — God and our friends and ourselves included — as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.
Increasingly, that’s where the culture war is headed, I think. Wishing that black was blacker, conviction that false stories reveal deep truths about opponents while truths inconvenient to their allies should be minimized, salivating over any opportunity to rage at the outrage du jour.
I’m not going to ask Vice, Business Insider, or the social media accounts that eagerly signal-boosted these affairs to put in due diligence before taking obvious satire at face value. I won’t because the ones at the center simply don’t care, and they have a thousand other examples of atrocities ready at their fingertips should they be proven overly credulous on any given one. It would have taken ten minutes to dig up the real stories behind any of these forums. Any journalist or cultural commentator worth a glance would have done so. Those who refused deserve no respect or excuse; they eagerly swallowed outlandish rubbish because it told them what they wanted to hear.
But I believe most people aren’t hardened culture warriors in quite the same way. Most people do care, and don’t really want to believe and spread obvious falsehoods designed to make their opponents look bad. Falling for something you want to believe is easy in the moment. If we’re to salvage anything from the mess we’re in, though, the first step is surely to resist that urge.
Yes, people do outrageous things. Yes, that includes your enemies, and yes, in a world as connected as we’ve become your news consumption can shift entirely to one of those streams of outrage. But getting caught up by a piece of satire can and should act as a sanity check. Either you can call Poe’s Law and smugly assert that the only reason you fell for it was a clear understanding that it’s just the sort of thing they would do, or you can take a step back, chuckle at yourself, and move on.
Personally, I advocate for the path that doesn’t drive cultural rifts yet deeper.
All the best.
Other discussions: Twitter, HackerNews, Drama, Reddit
Linkbacks: The Independent, Reuters, Mashable