How Trump, CNN, And A Reddit Troll Collided

Getty Image/CNN

Trump’s addiction to Twitter has a seemingly bottomless capacity to get him, and members of his administration, in trouble. But over the July 4th weekend, Trump tweeted out a GIF that managed to turn into one of the most absurd online dramas involving the President of the United States, a major news network, and a grown man calling himself “HanAssholeSolo.” Yet, at any rate. Here’s a timeline of what happened, and what the fallout was.

— On Saturday, July 2nd, Trump tweeted out an excerpt of a video of his brief time in the WWE, except his opponent had CNN’s logo layered over their head. Trump was once again roundly criticized for his behavior on social media.

Trump has a long-standing hostility towards CNN. While CNN has fired contributors over criticizing Trump too harshly, most notably Kathy Griffin, it’s also home to reporters such as Jim Acosta and Jake Tapper, both of whom have been pointedly critical of Trump both on television and on their Twitter feeds.

— Early on July 3rd, New York Times and New Republic contributor Jared Sexton Yates unearthed the creator of the video Trump tweeted, Redditor HanA–holeSolo, who posted it to Trump fan subreddit r/the_donald. Since he was a prolific poster, Yates and other journalists began digging into what else he’d posted, which was notable for its threatening language, use of racial slurs, and anti-Semitism. Yates uncovered an image created by HAS that listed every member of CNN he believed to be Jewish.

Yates, writing in Politico, revealed that the death threats and abuse against him started almost immediately after he tweeted out the image:

Before the hour was up, I was receiving messages from the usual customers: anonymous accounts with Pepe avatars and bios declaring themselves “ethnonationalists” and “white identitarians.” Despite my Southern Baptist upbringing, they assumed I was Jewish because I’d uncovered anti-Semitism, and so the threats and memes predictably featured pictures of Adolf Hitler, scenes from the Holocaust and other anti-Semitic garbage. I was peppered with the usual slurs and insults before a user calling his or herself “Pepe’s Imam” told me: “There’s a civil war coming, leftist. Memes are the least of your problems.”

— On July 4th, HanA–HoleSolo deleted his account and apologized to both journalists in general and CNN in particular:

I do not advocate violence against the press and the meme I posted was in no way advocating that in any way, shape, or form. Our first amendment protects the press from things like violence, and we as American citizens should respect that even if the opinions of the press are not in line with our own. The meme was created purely as satire, it was not meant to be a call to violence against CNN or any other news affiliation. …
So to the members of this community, this site, the media (especially CNN), and anyone offended by the posts, again, I apologize. This is one individual that you will not see posting hurtful or hateful things in jest online.

The apology seems at least partly motivated by self-preservation: The Redditor’s real name had been found by CNN reporters and he’d been contacted about participating in a story. CNN, in part because he apologized, has declined to reveal his real name, but made this statement:

CNN is not publishing “HanA**holeSolo’s” name because he is a private citizen who has issued an extensive statement of apology, showed his remorse by saying he has taken down all his offending posts, and because he said he is not going to repeat this ugly behavior on social media again. In addition, he said his statement could serve as an example to others not to do the same.

CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change.

The final line was widely reported, and criticized. New York Magazine’s Madison Kircher summed up the reaction:

CNN could have probably avoided any of this simply by ending the article after the words “private citizen.” Instead, CNN’s choice to protect HanAssholeSolo, while hovering a second un-dropped shoe over his name, only seems to confirm what so many on the internet Trump Train already think about the mainstream media — that journalists are just a bunch of scoldy social-justice warriors out to get the poor little internet Nazi.

— By July 5th, the story had gone viral, with Redditors claiming HanA–holeSolo had been the target of “blackmail.” A campaign of “doxxing” CNN employees, where in personal information such as home addresses and the names of family members are found and posted online, began in Reddit forums.

— Also on the 5th, Jeff Zucker, the president of CNN, spoke with the New York Times as part of a lengthy profile of the whole situation:

“My job is to remind everyone that they need to stay focused doing their job,” Mr. Zucker said on Wednesday, brushing off any suggestion that he was rattled. He added: “He’s trying to bully us, and we’re not going to let him intimidate us. You can’t lose your confidence and let that change the way you conduct yourselves.”

In that same profile, Zucker noted that threats against CNN personnel had increased. The Times profile also raised another potential issue: Time Warner, CNN’s parent company, is attempting to merge with telecom giant AT&T, and that merger will need to be approved by the Justice Department. Some believe Trump may attempt to interfere in the merger out of spite.

— As a final, odd wrinkle, also on July 5th, the White House has specifically denied that it found the material that started all of this on Reddit. Which in turn raises a question we’ll likely never have the answer to: If they didn’t get it from Reddit, who brought it to their attention? And why did the President, who rarely tweets anything beyond written text, post it in the first place?