As GOP nominee Donald Trump grabs daily headlines with his controversial tweets, Twitter may be the social media platform getting the most buzz this election season. But there is another popular social media website that is spreading the conversation about the candidates in ways 140 characters struggle to achieve: through the force of user-generated news links and forums.
Reddit, or "the front page of the internet," as the website describes itself, has become a bastion of cute kitten memes, movie trailers, TIL (Today I Learned) posts and political discussion for those fed up with established media organizations controlling the conversation. With 234 million unique users and 8 billion page views a month, Reddit is the ninth largest website in the U.S., according to its advertising page.
That's a large chunk of people, and supporters of presidential candidates have begun to gather there. None are more notable than the Bernie Sanders faithful, who at the end of the Vermont senator's run for the Democratic nomination had gathered over 225,000 subscribed members on the r/SandersForPresident topic forum (known as a subreddit) and millions of page views per month. As one of the largest 200 subreddits on the website, r/SandersForPresident was filled with pro-Sanders content, including news articles and personal notes about the progressive darling, links to campaign resources, conspiracy theories about his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton and even fundraiser links (which earned the Sanders cause nearly $3 million in contributions). It also helped spawn the "Bernie Bro" movement, a group of passionate male Sanders supporters who trashed Clinton in crude ways.
But that all changed last month during the Democratic Convention when Sanders solidified his endorsement of Clinton as the nominee, and the subreddit backing his campaign was shut down, much to the chagrin of its subscribers.
In the aftermath of the shut down, at least one of the subreddits dedicated to a remaining candidate is attempting to pick up these abandoned redditers looking for a new home and who want something a little more focused than the r/politics subreddit (over 3 million subscribers).
"We are actively campaigning on Reddit to get the attention of rightly disgruntled Bernie fans," rynchpln (screen name), a moderator for the main subreddit supporting Green Party nominee Jill Stein (r/jillstein), told the Washington Examiner. After Clinton's nomination, rynchpln added, their subreddit saw "a large growth in followers." Though none of Stein moderators are operatives in Stein's camp, their outreach campaign mirrors that of Stein, who has advertised herself to Sanders supporters as a progressive alternative.
But, rynchpln continued, "unfortunately it is not nearly the movement that Bernie had."
While Stein subreddit moderators told the Examiner that their forum grew by over 10,000 subscribers since Sanders endorsed Clinton, the subreddit has only reached just over 12,500 subscribers as of press time — a fraction of what the Sanders' subreddit had accumulated.
The largest candidate subreddit behind that of Sanders' is the one rooting for Donald Trump (r/The_Donald), which has nearly 200,000 subscribers.
A moderator for r/The_Donald told the Examiner that his subreddit is not actively reaching out to Sanders supporters because it "doesn't believe in pandering." Instead, user TehDonald said that Trump's presence on Reddit "has a huge influence on the Millennial generation," which is the very same large bloc of voters who helped fuel Sanders' longshot campaign into competitive form. r/The_Donald gets up to 40 million pageviews a month, TehDonald added.
The next largest subreddit is the one boosting the Democratic nominee (r/HillaryClinton), which has 25,000 subscribers, an eighth of the size of r/The_Donald. When asked whether the subreddit was trying to attract Sanders supporters to bolster its numbers, a moderator refused to answer. "There is no way we will have a win with this," the moderator said in reply to the Examiner's original questions.
Moderator backpackwayne did say, in response to a followup series of questioning, that the r/HillaryClinton subreddit sets itself apart from the others because the moderators "work hard to keep the discussions provocative and informative."
"We shy away from the mudslinging and name calling that contribute nothing to the debate. It isn't always perfect, but the results are a better understanding of the issues that are important to us all," backpackwayne said.
Though many of the moderators try to maintain a civil environment where supporters, or prospective supporters, can engage in discussions about policy and politics, the endgame is to rally support. The official campaigns, however, have little-to-no interaction with the friendly grassroots Reddit operations.
Of the subreddits backing the two major party candidates, and those behind Stein and Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson, only Johnson's subreddit (r/GaryJohnson, with about 17,500 users) has one moderator who is attached to his campaign. This stands in contrast the Sanders' subreddit, which was run by Aidan King, who was a campaign staffer for Sanders.
King explained that he chose to close the subreddit because of death threats against Sanders and "trollish" behavior by users in the weeks leading up to the convention.
Even with the vitriolic environment that spelled doom for the popular r/SandersforPresident subreddit, the moderators for the remaining competing forums see continued value in Reddit as the election season marches on to November.
Similar to the Sanders subreddit's fundraising efforts, moderators for the Clinton subreddit have requested a fundraising link from the Clinton campaign, while the Trump subreddit has placed a fundraising "sticky" on its page.
More than gathering donations, the moderators say that Reddit offers a level of outreach that other types of social media struggle to compete with.
"Our presence on reddit has a huge influence on the Millennial generation," said TehDonald.
"Reddit is unique as it provides some of the best in-depth conversations of any website out there," said backpackwayne. "The subreddit systems is particularly useful as it allows every approach on every issue there is. In today's world, one can no longer depend on any one source. Reddit is clearly one of the best places on the internet to gather information from all sides."