Politicians go tech savvy on Reddit

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Facebook and Twitter are a must for any politician. But only a handful of digitally-savvy candidates have tapped into Reddit, a lesser-known social network, to raise money and attract publicity to their campaigns.

Though no high-profile Maryland politicians have yet taken advantage of the network, a Texas conservative and a Wisconsin liberal have shown how candidates can use Reddit to boost their political campaigns.

Reddit, which launched in 2005, and has quickly grown into one of the Web’s most popular sites for sharing news, funny pictures and Internet memes. But many Reddit users – called redditors – also use the site for activism and political discussion.

The site has grown swiftly in the last few years, hitting two billion page views for the month of December. It is the 50th most popular website in the United States according to Alexa, a Web traffic analysis firm. Facebook is second and Twitter is eighth.

Politicians have taken notice. Several high-profile politicians like Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas and former Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-New York, have participated in online chats on Reddit called “AMAs” — which stands for “Ask Me Anything.”

Rob Zerban is a Wisconsin Democrat running against Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, a powerful, well-funded party leader. Zerban decided to participate in an AMA in late December after Reddit users reached out to his campaign. His campaign raised between $15,000-$20,000 in the days that followed the AMA.

“We got hundreds of e-mails and messages and people signing up to volunteer – and we had all kinds of growth to our Facebook and Twitter followers,” Diehl said, attributing the spike in donations to the AMA. “It was successful on all accounts.”

The Zerban campaign has continued to post to Reddit and recently advertised a live-chat with Blue America, a political action committee that backs progressive candidates.

Reddit general manager Erik Martin said he hopes more politicians begin to engage with redditors.

“It’s a very influential audience,” Martin said. “Often times things that get first discussed and shared on Reddit make their way to Twitter, Facebook and blogs the next day.”

Though it offers benefits for politicians, engaging with redditors is not without pitfalls. AMAs are like online town halls. But the anonymity of the site means the audience is not always as polite as those at in-person events.

“Redditors can be like rabid dogs,” a Maryland redditor who goes by the handle “horsephoto” wrote in response to a question Capital News Service posed on the site.

In interviews, redditors said the unique demographic makeup of the site means not all politicians will have success using the platform. Redditors are digitally savvy and overwhelmingly liberal, with a large population of atheists.

“Right-wing candidates, or even some moderates, are either going to get accosted with intense vitriol, bogged down in a debate they’d be horribly outnumbered in, or be accosted for ignoring questions they don’t want, or don’t have time, to answer,” Baltimore redditor “baltim0r0n” wrote.

But other redditors said that some conservatives would find a welcoming audience.

“Reddit is a very large community from all walks of life. What better place to sell your message and better understand your fellow countryman than here? There will be some [bias], but always an equal counter-argument,” wrote “wesrawr,” a Redditor from Washington County.

Texas sheriff Richard Mack, who is mounting a primary challenge against Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, found a receptive audience on the site.

That’s partly because Smith was the author of the Stop Online Piracy Act, a bill that digitally-savvy redditors help defeat. Mack’s January AMA brought in substantial campaign funds and volunteers, said Norm Redhead, Mack’s campaign manager.

“They liked his genuineness, his transparency. We heard in advance that transparency counts a lot [on Reddit] ,” Redhead said.

Redhead said the Mack campaign will also continue to use Reddit, and is planning to do a video AMA with questions submitted in advance by redditors. So far, Reddit hasn’t really caught on with Maryland politicians.

“We see Reddit as one tool out of a lot of things that are out there,” said Matt Verghese, a spokesperson for the Maryland Democratic Party. “Other social media tools are more effective.”

(Copyright 2012 by Capital News Service. All Rights Reserved.)

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