Bernie Sanders’s Internet fan base has swelled into a digital army, and his supporters on Reddit have been the ground troops. With nearly 130,000 subscribers as of Thursday, the main Sanders forum on the site has helped draw massive crowds to his rallies and aided his campaign in raising $26 million in the third quarter, the vast majority from small donors. But in recent weeks, the more fractious side of Bernie’s digital army has come to the forefront.
Reddit can foster close communities, but when its forums reach a certain size, they can also turn heated—and fast. The question for the Sanders movement is how to channel the best of Reddit—the friendly groups of like-minded nerds—without falling prey to its pitfalls. How do you turn the denizens of one of the most unruly corners of the Internet into a focused fighting force?
That question became pressing after the first Democratic debate aired on CNN in mid-October. When pundits everywhere hailed Clinton as the winner, and others (myself included) argued that Sanders had fallen short, the subreddit and every other social media channel went crazy with allegations that media was in the bag for Hillary Clinton. "Bernie wins EVERY poll yet CORPORATE MEDIA declares Hillary the winner !!!" one Sanders fan told me. “Are you blind or just bought? Grow a pair and admit the truth,” another wrote to Slate's Josh Voorhees. Conspiracy theories rapidly proliferated, alleging that major outlets were deliberately undercutting Sanders by suppressing favorable poll numbers and deleting pro-Bernie comments. “We have an explicit example of the corruption of money in politics," one Redditor wrote last week. "Time Warner is a top donor of Hillary Clinton and they own CNN, and CNN is censoring Bernie Sanders to alter his message."
The outcry prompted its own backlash among the forum’s users. “My fellow Berners," a Redditor wrote last week. "We need to chillax on the media conspiracy accusations. We are coming off like lunatics."
“Guys, if every damn thing that doesn't fit into praise for Bernie is going to be shouted down as a great big conspiracy, we are doomed,” another wrote. “This is absurd! Tone it down and accept it is a political race or we’re going to wind up under the bridge with Ron Paul's supporters.”
The post-debate episode raised alarms for Aidan King, a 23-year-old Vermonter who co-founded the subreddit with David Fredrick in December 2013, long before Sanders announced his candidacy. The debate backlash pushed campaign organizing for Bernie—which was the subreddit's original focus—to the margins. “It was distracting—it dominated the discussion to the point where if someone wanted to go out and talk about their experience putting up flyers they'd only receive five upvotes,” says King, referring to the site's system for users to rate posts.
King saw it as emblematic of a broader shift he and the site's 14 other volunteer moderators have watched with growing worry. “When you were only connecting with 1,000 other people," he says, "it was a lot easier to get important announcements and brainstorming sessions and phone-banking templates and email templates out into the public eye." As the forum grew exponentially—and media coverage of Sanders began to proliferate—the tone and focus of the discussion was changing as well. “We realized our community was falling victim to a lot of the pitfalls that plague a lot of very large, very popular, very active subreddits on the website."
Reddit users "vote up" which links, images, and posts garner attention. That gives the site a populist energy that lends itself to grassroots causes—political or otherwise—but that also makes it difficult to rein in its excesses. Reddit users are famous for spontaneous protests against everything from cable companies to the site’s own leadership—even taking down the former Reddit CEO, Ellen Pao.
But unlike most of Reddit, the Sanders subreddit has a clear and obvious end game—electing Bernie—and the moderators aren’t content to see the site becomes just another discussion forum. On Wednesday, King posted an announcement that the subreddit would relaunch next week with new rules and posting restrictions in place. He framed it as an effort to refocus the online energy more on grassroots campaigning for Sanders, and less on endless dissections of polling trends and the establishment biases and corruption of the mainstream media. “Do we want this community to peak as nothing more than a big news aggregator?" King asked. "Or do we want to make a REAL change in the political system?”
Two days a week—Tuesday and Thursday—the subreddit will limit submissions to posts about activism and original text generated by users, and prohibit posts that are simply links to outside news stories and images. (Moderators have the power to remove posts and ban users from forums.) The moderators will also create weekly “homework” threads in which users can post what actions they’ve taken to help Bernie’s campaign—be it distributing flyers, phone-banking, hosting a volunteer meeting, or making a donation.
Users who complete certain tasks have all along been rewarded with “flair”—colored visual tags that appear after their usernames, and are a key way for Redditors to show they're playing an active part in the subculture. They are tagged as part of the "Bernie squad" and receive titles based on military rank—a system that recalls the Obama campaign’s own gamified organizing tool that ranked the most active volunteers. “When you have someone who's in the community who has the rank of a sergeant," King says, "that’s someone who has the courage to go and try things in their community—they're calling people and canvassing, and that inspires people."
The stakes for the Sanders campaign are considerable. There’s a natural affinity between Sanders fans and Redditors: Both embrace an anti-establishment ethos, encourage grassroots participation, and skew young and male. The sheer size of Sanders's subreddit dwarfs that of any other candidate, Republican or Democrat: As of Friday, the subreddit for Rand Paul, who emerged from the tech-savvy libertarian movement, had a little over 4,700 subscribers; the Hillary Clinton subreddit just over 900. The size and reach of the Sanders subreddit has turned it into a key piece of his organizing effort. As the Wall Street Journal reported, his campaign's own website has a page featuring the total amount that Reddit and other social media users have donated on, which topped $377,000 as of Friday. King and the other moderators have tried to replicate Bernie’s own approach to campaigning by banning negative attacks on other candidates, removing posts and comments that violate any of the rules.
But they've grappled with how to convert that digital energy into on-the-ground organizing. It's a particular challenge when your venue is a site—and a campaign—that vehemently rejects top-down control. Though the Sanders campaign has begun ramping up its paid staff, thanks to its successful grassroots fundraising efforts, it's still a far more decentralized operation than Obama's campaign, relying on volunteers to organize themselves both out of principle and necessity. The Reddit moderators are regularly in touch with Sanders’s staff; King, who's never worked on a campaign before, appreciates the advice he's received from Ken Pennington, Sanders's 2016's digital director. But the subreddit remains an independent operation run by avid volunteers who don't take marching orders from the official campaign.
Judging by the most popular comments in the two days since King's announcement, the initial response to the changes has been largely positive. “Praise be for this!" wrote one Redditor. "There will be those who grouse about the changes but this is Grassroots for Sanders, not News Aggregator for Sanders.”
“We make snide remarks about how Bernie isn't being treated fairly," wrote another, "and we act like petulant children when things don't go our way or we perceive the slightest of injustices to have occurred. SO WHAT? We need to dedicate ourselves to truly engaging in positive activities which will spread his message.”
Will the enthusiasm translate into boots on the ground for Bernie? There's no real precedent for what the subreddit is attempting to do. Major campaigns have leveraged social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, but Reddit is a different beast altogether. The subreddit has always been heavily moderated, even before the new rules. But it wouldn't be a surprise if some Redditors chafe at the tighter reins and potentially spark a conflagration on a site is already famous for its internal revolts.
“Top-down control is how you will kill the subreddit,” one user wrote after King's post. “Nothing personal, but we shouldn't trust you to make editorial decisions about the urgency of news or the sources that will be chosen.” But King has no question that the site must evolve. “Maybe some people are saying we're censoring this," he says. "But in the end, we want to get Bernie to get elected. This is bigger than any of our feelings."