What Can Campaign Subreddits Tell Us About the Presidential Candidates?

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Reddit, the so-called "Front Page of the Internet," is a popular user-driven link aggregation site, roughly the ninth- or tenth-most trafficked website in the United States.  While according to Pew only about six percent of Americans actually visit the site, it reaches a large enough audience to influence media coverage and spin surrounding current events. Unsurprisingly, each presidential campaign in the 2016 cycle has a presence on the site.

A quick primer: the overall website is divided into sub-pages known as "subreddits," each dedicated to a particular topic.  People "upvote" or "downvote" user-submitted posts, and a proprietary algorithm ranks each post by "Hotness," determined by some combination of the net, percentage, and recency of upvotes.  The main page of a subreddit, showing the posts currently ranked highest in Hotness, is referred to as the "front page."

Unsurprisingly, the character of each campaign subreddit differs, and things get weird fast. These are groups of people who have jumped into their own user-generated, self-selecting echo chambers. And I think at the very least, it tells you something when you witness the intersection of each particular campaign and Reddit's own unique environment.

We’ll start from smallest to biggest.

 

John Kasich

Name: r/KasichForPresident

Total Subscribers: 1,117 (Slightly more popular than r/ZootopiaPorn; i.e., a place where people apparently share cartoon pornography depicting characters from the recent Disney movie Zootopia. The Internet is a bizarre place.)

Number present when I visited: 9

 Yup, This is a Thing that exists.

Yup, This is a Thing that exists.

Every month, over 200 million unique visitors from all over the globe visit Reddit.  At any given time, less than a dozen feel like checking out r/KasichForPresident. 

The central feature of the John Kasich campaign, and its greatest accomplishment to date, is that the campaign is a thing that continues to exist. This feat alone places Kasich in the top quintile of Republican presidential candidates this year. While Carson and Christie pathetically shadow Trump like a pair of remora, Jeb shuffles down to the rec center, Rubio undergoes a firmware update, and Rick Santorum absorbs the soul of another victim to sustain his immortality, Kasich just continues to plug along, despite the fact that reaching a delegate lead has been a mathematical impossibility for some time.

The nominal justification for the continued existence of Kasich’s campaign is the notion that the GOP will engineer a contested convention that hands the keys to a guy who has never placed better than third in the national polls and lacks both grassroots and establishment support.  I expect that this will not be happening.  Realistically, at this point the Kasich campaign is essentially an exercise in brand marketing for a future run and/or book deal.

And yes, Kasich’s subreddit beautifully reflects the general understanding that President Kasich will not be a thing.  

Every day on r/KasichForPresident, a half-dozen articles about the campaign are posted – current polling, a friendly op-ed, an article about an endorsement, etc. – and each of these will get one or two distant, resigned comments. “What is Kasich’s Biggest Weakness,” someone asks. “Lack of votes,” the top comment responds.   Someone posts an editorial from a Syracuse newspaper endorsing Kasich.  The lone comment responds only to say, “I've been to Syracuse for work before. Love the mall and the hospital staff was very pleasant.”  An article is posted quoting an optimistic statement from the campaign; the top comment states, “I actually do hope he is the nominee” – as if this is an unexpected opinion to find on the Kasich For President subreddit.  And these are just the site’s “Hottest” posts.

Visiting Kasich’s subreddit is like being at a sports bar on Sunday and walking by the small TV showing the Cleveland Browns game. Most of the few people watching are there for the other team, and the handful of Browns fans know damned well they’re about to lose.

Let's move on.

 

Ted Cruz

Name: r/TedCruzForPresident

Total Subscribers: 1,146 (Slightly more popular than r/KasichForPresident, so still within striking distance of that Zootopia porn.)

Number present when I visited: 9

 Book Photographer: "have you seen 1984?" Ted Cruz: "Say no more."

Book Photographer: "have you seen 1984?" Ted Cruz: "Say no more."

The tubifex worm, also known as the sludge worm or sewage worm, is a form of annelid worm often found in rivers or lakes with high concentrations of organic pollution. They can occasionally find their way into sewage systems, where due to the absence of lake bed soil they may coil around each other into a large, pulsating colony (a video of a tubifex colony from the Raleigh, North Carolina sewers went viral in 2009). Amazingly, in 2002 one of these colonies reached sufficient size that it was actually able to detach from the sewer walls and move independently, and by the next year it had managed to run successfully for Texas solicitor general. 

Since that time, the sentient mass of sewer worms that we collectively refer to as “Ted Cruz” has managed to slime his way into second place in the GOP race, despite the unrestrained contempt of most of his party.  Cruz is presumably setting records this year for endorsements from individuals that openly and vocally hate him.

There’s not much to say here – the page manages to outwardly resemble a campaign site while appearing to be visited by no actual human beings.  There are roughly two-dozen articles posted each day, easily outpacing Kasich’s site.  Yet of the 24 posts on the front page, only five have actually received a comment.  Even Kasich manages to double that, and his response rate is already pathetic.  

The vacuous, cynical nature of the Ted Cruz campaign is reflected in his subreddit. Like the hollow-eyed man himself, the subreddit is an empty shell, showing the outward appearance of a functioning site but being wholly empty inside.

The saddest thought here is imagining the Cruz campaign’s social intern – or even worse, a regular person who just loves Ted Cruz – that spends hours (well, probably minutes) of his day posting Cruz-related updates to a commentary website, knowing full well that virtually no one will ever comment.  There's almost a zen-like beauty to this; to paraphrase Blade Runner, all this social media outreach will be lost in time, like tears in rain.  Time to die.

 

Hillary Clinton

Name: r/HillaryClinton

Total Subscribers: 11,567 (Slightly more popular than r/Porche, slightly less popular than r/Redskins.)

Number present when I visited: Not listed (When will Clinton release her visitor numbers!?)

 Behave yourselves.

Behave yourselves.

Hillary Clinton, like the New England Patriots or the New York Yankees, is loved by some, loathed by many more, possessed of incontestable skill, and presumed to be cheating any time she can get away with it.

Reddit hates Hillary Clinton. Just straight hates her, to an extremely comical degree. To get a picture, first recall the turmoil when Ellen Pao, Reddit’s first female CEO, left the company:

Censorship is certainly a valid subject for debate. But rather than spur civilized discourse on the issue, the question of censorship surrounding the May subreddit bans led to users wanting to "punch Ellen Pao in the face." It also inspired the creation of subreddits with names like "EllenPaoIsaBigCunt," and even a plan to Google bomb Pao so that a search for her name would turn up Nazi symbols. 

Next, add in your average Redditor’s wholesale adoption of what Vox's Johnathan Allen calls the “Clinton Rules,” describing the media’s coverage of the Clintons:

1)     Everything, no matter how ludicrous-sounding, is worthy of a full investigation by federal agencies, Congress, the "vast right-wing conspiracy," and mainstream media outlets.

2)     Every allegation, no matter how ludicrous, is believable until it can be proven completely and utterly false. And even then, it keeps a life of its own in the conservative media world.

3)     The media assumes that Clinton is acting in bad faith until there's hard evidence otherwise.

4)     Everything is newsworthy because the Clintons are the equivalent of America's royal family

5)     Everything she does is fake and calculated for maximum political benefit

Hooooo, boy, does this create fireworks. On a daily basis, normal people throughout the Reddit universe take time out of their schedules to draft lengthy treatises as to why they hate Hillary Clinton.  One user, r/ArtlessWonder, posts a fairly popular weekly commentary on the r/politics subreddit titled “All the reasons that people hate Hillary Clinton,” which at this point is up to nearly 3000 words.  And given the insular nature of a website where content is promoted into visibility through popular demand, mass opinions easily concentrate and solidify.  Within minutes, allegations of corruption or wrongdoing bounce through Reddit between the hard-right and progressive blogospheres (both of which loathe Clinton); you can watch in real-time as a badly-sourced blog post turns into something that "everyone knows." This isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of entirely valid reasons to vote against Clinton or dislike her, but on Reddit, the woman is basically a DC Comics villain.

All this is to say that r/HillaryClinton is the Internet equivalent of the Green Zone in wartime Baghdad – a barricaded enclave surrounded by hostile territory.  Outwardly, the site is the picture of calm order, with a clean layout and a fairly active userbase.  A constant stream of posts, many each hour, discuss the candidate and the state of the race, most receiving dozens to hundreds of comments. 

Sifting through these comments, of course, is like attending a dinner party thrown by a 43-year-old dentist from Connecticut.  If you've ever felt that you needed more CNN-approved conventional wisdom in your life, look no further. If you ever wanted to be talked down to by someone who believes their analysis is wholly validated by a BA in political science from Dartmouth, I have the place for you. If you've ever listed to A Prairie Home Companion for any reason other than physical duress, I have a well-manicured society that you can call home.

And this order is a tightly controlled order. Like the candidate, the calm surface belies a paranoia and suspicion of the world at large. Elsewhere on Reddit and the Internet at large, partisans fight over whether Clinton is corrupt, or a warmonger, or in the pockets of the BILLIONAYERS, or is a poorly disguised lizard person.  R/HillaryClinton remains free of such turmoil.  Oh look, an endorsement from John Hodgman. Ooh, looks like Clinton just told US Weekly 25 things we don’t know about her.  She loves hot sauce!  Don’t we all.

Yet sprinkled throughout these posts are the equivalent of the mortar craters outside your Green Zone Burger King: a comment showing only “[removed]” and an explanation of why the mods have deleted it. 

 Looks like smokeyentbongwater needs more chill

Looks like smokeyentbongwater needs more chill

From the view of r/HillaryClinton, the site is constantly bombarded by trolls and antagonists looking to pick an Internet fight, including many who insist everyone present is a shill collecting a paycheck from the Correct the Record SuperPAC. To r/HillaryClinton, constant vigilance is required to keep the Internet hordes at bay, swapping away pro-Sanders and Trump interlopers, vulgar insults, and an endless stream of negative commentary.

And naturally, these users are reflexively defensive. The comment pages are filled with complaints about “Bernie Spam,” knowing jokes about when Clinton voters should expect to receive their checks from Goldman Sachs, and predictions about how each new Clinton story will be twisted against their candidate.  And there is an edge to their participation here. The term "Bernie Bro" leaves their lips with undisguised contempt. The general consensus began with the opinion that Sanders was a good man, but that he and his supporters were a bit naïve. Over time, as the campaigns themselves have ratcheted up the intensity, this view of Sanders and his supporters has metastasized from honest but naïve to arrogant and delusional – a condescension that naturally infuriates Sanders voters. Still, there’s an element of bravado as well – at r/HillaryClinton they may feel under siege, but they know that in the real world their candidate is winning, and as General Eisenhower said after the landing at Normandy, "haters gonna hate."  

Nevertheless, unless you're joining in the fun, this smug confidence is as maddening as listening to a Boston fan talk at length about the Red Sox, an experience considered to be torture by the Geneva Conventions. 

 

Donald Trump

Name: r/The_Donald

Total Subscribers: 97,354 (Slightly more popular than r/StarTrek, slightly less popular than r/WhitePeopleGifs.)

Current visitors when I viewed: 6,805

 Reflexive patriotism? Check. Red scare trolling? Check. dog-whistle race-baiting? Check.

Reflexive patriotism? Check. Red scare trolling? Check. dog-whistle race-baiting? Check.

And now, shit gets crazy.

Wikipedia describes an “Internet troll” as “a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion, often for their own amusement.”  (By the way, feel free to use the foregoing as the introduction to the worst wedding speech in history.) 

R/The_Donald is a community of trolls.  There is no other way to say it.  And the results are amazing.  While every other campaign subreddit is as boring as an oatmeal milkshake, I could spend hours on r/The_Donald.  I honestly can’t tell if it is serious, satire, or somewhere in between – are these Trump fans or just hipsters ironically pretending to be Trump fans?  It’s the greatest.

First, the vocabulary.  Anyone not supporting Trump is a “cuck,” shorthand for “cuckold” – a reference either to a victim of adultery or the fairly racist porn genre of guys who enjoy seeing their wives have sex with black men. (I’m not sure.) Trump supporters are “centipedes,” in reference to this fucking amazing video which, again, I cannot tell is serious or parody. The term “Bern victim” is self-explanatory.  Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is shortened to the exclamation “MAGA!”

There is no order, only chaos. The well-trafficked pages are almost fully comprised of memes, jokes and insults.  While the all-time top posts in other campaign subreddits are generally an “Ask Me Anything” appearance by the candidate or a story announcing a big primary win, the top post in r/The_Donald is a .jpeg that demeans Jeb Bush.

The rules themselves are glorious, including “No BernieBots or SJWs [i.e., social justice warriors]” and “Don’t post people planning to assassinate Trump.”  One rule prohibits posts “related to being banned from other subreddits,” with the exception of r/Conservative.  The moderators’ explanation for the exception?  “Their mods are just such faggots. They modmail us every time we miss a post and ask us why we don't enforce our own rules. Well, they can't accuse us of not enforcing our own rules now, can they?”  Indeed.

But, much like relating an acid trip, or describing sight to the blind, words cannot convey the Technicolor insanity resting within the collective id of Trump’s youngest, most Internet savvy supporters.  I urge you to take a look for yourself.

 

Bernie Sanders

Name: r/SandersForPresident

Total subscribers: 227,903 (Slightly more popular than r/HarryPotter, slightly less popular than r/Drugs.)

Current visitors when I viewed: 12,174

 Oh my sweet, summer children . . . .

Oh my sweet, summer children . . . .

And now, the juggernaut. According to a 2016 Pew report, the typical Reddit user is a white (63%) male (69%) aged 18-29 (58%).  (Results from a self-reported survey in 2011 showed that 80% of Redditors were between the ages of 18 and 35, and that 80% were male.) Unsurprisingly, the candidate who’s had a lockdown on the young, white, male demographic is straight killing it on Reddit.  Sanders has over twice the subscribers of runner-up Donald Trump while pacing the remainder of the field by orders of magnitude.

R/SandersForPresident lays claim as the only campaign subreddit that seems actually geared towards assisting the campaign.  The page is aggressively informative, packed to bursting with information on upcoming voting dates, registration deadlines, and links to state-specific Sanders sites. Today is the day of the New York primary, and while the front page of the other campaign subreddits have a handful of posts mentioning it, virtually every Hot post on r/SandersForPresident is dedicated to providing concrete support to Sanders’ performance.  Some inform people about the wait times at various precincts. Another “megathread” is dedicated to organizing ride shares and carpools to poll stations. Others instruct voters how specifically to fill out ballots to maximize Sanders’ delegate count. People urge others to phonebank or “Facebank.” The site shows a true example of a self-organizing, grassroots movement that is extremely impressive, and has undoubtedly played a huge part in helping Bernie Sanders sustain a historic primary run.

As for the tone of the site, the comments there generally convey a somewhat frantic, somewhat cloying earnestness. Many seem convinced that a country that survived a revolution, a devastating civil insurrection, two world wars, and a decades-long nuclear standoff will literally collapse unless a wild-haired 74-year-old man is elected president. The site is peppered with bloomy motivational essays: We can do it guys! We are SAVING THE WORLD! The emotion may be genuine, but it still feels like reading some dude’s college application essay about how a week-long trip with Habitat for Humanity changed his life forever.

And this earnestness comes with an undercurrent of utterly daft conspiracy theory. If Clinton’s supporters feel besieged by the Internet, Sanders supporters feel besieged by reality. Many of his continuents are encountering for the first time quirks of the electoral system that have existed for generations, and are immediately concluding that they reflect a deliberate effort to block Bernie Sanders.  The Democrats are against them. The corporations are against them. The media is against them. The "Establishment" is against them. They are the shepherds leading the flock of liberty through the valleys of corporate oppression. 

This morning, for instance, many people were made aware of New York State’s recent purge of inactive voters from the registered voter lists, or are encountering problems with their registration. An audit on the issue has been announced, but seems unnecessary: r/SandersForPresident has already reached the consensus that the issue can only be the result of deliberate sabotage by the Hillary Clinton campaign.

In fact, every success Clinton has seen this cycle is, to this site, simply more evidence of a corrupt system. In this world, Hillary Clinton is an evil genius, her lead in the primary reflecting only her power to control everything from GOP-run state governments to the international news media. The idea that more voters in the country might simply prefer Clinton to Sanders? Unthinkable.

 

So what did we learn today?

Of course, there are obvious limits to the sketches above.  Reddit's demographics are very different from the country as a whole. Moreover, like other social or forum sites only a tiny minority of users drive the vast majority of content. So, not only are the demographics themselves unrepresentative, it’s fair to expect that the relatively small number of loud voices in this self-selected pool aren’t terribly illustrative of Reddit users generally.  As a result you can’t go to any candidate’s subreddit and claim that the people there constitute a typical supporter of that campaign.  You really can’t even say that these pages reflect the typical Reddit user supporting that candidate; you’re primarily hearing from a relatively small subset of the most vocal accounts. 

But, putting it all together, I think we can still get a quick taste of the character of each campaign and the candidate it represents.  Kasich is nominally there at the fringes. Cruz is a simulacrum doing a reasonable but utterly empty impression of a real person. Clinton has created a tightly controlled environment projecting competence and ignoring dissent. Trump is the pure expression of random, loosely connected thoughts. And Sanders leads a righteous army raging against the machine, but who might be losing touch with a few key facts on the ground.

And come 2017, one of them will be the president of the United States. God help us.