How Reddit has boosted Bernie Sanders’ US campaign

Clinton fails to win the web and her unpopularity online with the under-30s may come to cost her
Image of Lisa Pollack
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It wasn’t my intention to follow the US presidential election. I can’t vote in it and taking an interest is on par with starting to watch The Wire or Breaking Bad — I just didn’t think I was ready for that level of commitment.

But about three months ago the election snuck up on me anyway, when one candidate’s campaign began to invade a space that I visit daily to unwind. Bernie Sanders’ supporters are successfully co-ordinating activist efforts on my favourite social platform: Reddit.

Hillary Clinton, Mr Sanders’ rival for the Democratic nomination, has dominated platforms that allow more managed broadcasting, such as television and Twitter.

Mr Sanders is big on Reddit. His fan base there has raised $2.3m for him while also engaging in digitally savvy efforts to attract voters and volunteers. Supporters of Mrs Clinton have raised $16,000.

With large donors, she’s not wanting for cash. But she may come to regret her failure to make an impact on a site popular with the under-30s — a group among which voter turnout is rising. To date, younger voters have overwhelmingly backed Mr Sanders.

Reddit styles itself the “front page of the internet”. For me and 231m others who have visited in the past month, it is a bottomless well of cat gifs, funny videos, trivia, interviews and news.

According to Pew Research, 7 per cent of US adults use it and the average follower is under 30. About half find out about the election on the site.

The platform is organised into forums called “subreddits” that cover different subjects and have their own rules. Submitted content is voted and commented on.

Many people, myself included, view Reddit by looking at posts with the most points. Some posts to the “Sanders for President” subreddit have received so many “upvotes” that they are among the highest scoring on the site. This is how the Vermont senator’s campaign interrupts my consumption of videos of puppies versus stairs.

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As well as fundraising, the Sanders subreddit, which is run by grass roots volunteers, asks people to engage in “Facebanking”.

An online tool looks at people’s Facebook connections and invites them to specific events in their states when there is an upcoming primary or caucus. It targets only those who “liked” Mr Sanders’ official Facebook page (which has about 3.7m likes to Mrs Clinton’s 3.1m). It reminds people to go and vote while also providing helpful information.

On March 22, when Mr Sanders picked up 76 delegates to Mrs Clinton’s 55 in Arizona, Idaho and Utah, almost 90,000 people had been invited to three such events via Facebanking, according to Grassroots for Sanders, the organisation that started the subreddit. Across all three states, more than 554,000 people voted in the Democratic race.

The subreddit also assists the official campaign with traditional phone banking efforts to get out the vote, albeit with some digital tools on top. There are messaging channels, daily targets and a leader board. Kate Schmidt, a 45-year-old from Vallejo, California, who supported Mrs Clinton in 2008, tops the list with more than 16,000 calls. People who get involved via Reddit are a minority of the campaign’s overall efforts, she says. But “they are really starting to understand that you need to phone bank and that’s picked up a lot through the site”.

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Enthusiasm for Mr Sanders contrasts with dislike of Mrs Clinton. Popular posts in the general politics subreddit feature several negative stories on her. One is about her private email server and another on accepting money from companies involved in fracking while claiming to be tough on the practice. A further post notes $40m in donations from Wall Street firms to the Clinton Foundation.

If she does win the nomination, she will have to convert Mr Sanders’ supporters to her cause, some of whom use “Bernie or bust” as a rallying cry. Ms Schmidt, who’s all guns blazing for Mr Sanders, says she’ll still vote for whoever the Democrats nominate.

About Mrs Clinton, she says evenly: “I don’t hate her. I don’t have a lot of respect for her. I think she’s disingenuous.” After a pause, she brightens up: “But, hey, first woman president — that’d be awesome.”

lisa.pollack@ft.com

Twitter: @LSPollack

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