MERRY PRANKSTERS

The Much-Hyped Bernie Sanders Economy Is a Bust

The Vermont senator is king of Reddit—but will his Internet popularity translate into real votes?

03.01.16 8:25 PM ET

If there’s a Bernie Sanders Traffic Jackpot, you can find it on Reddit. The real question is whether that jackpot was ever that big to begin with.

Twenty-three of the top 25 stories on Reddit’s Politics subreddit at noon on Super Tuesday were stories that either provided praise for or outright endorsements of Bernie Sanders, or were negative stories about his rival Hillary Clinton. One story came from Donald Trump-supporting right-wing hate site Breitbart. Another article came from the news wire of Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s official website, which backed Sanders’s opposition to a coup in the country six decades ago.

So let’s ask the question: Might there be some imperative for news organizations—the ones on the fringes, yes, but also traditional news organizations beholden to the traffic game—to gussy up some Bernie Sanders headlines to make them more Reddit-appealing?

“Reddit can certainly drive that kind of traffic. That’s why people call it the Reddit Effect—when Reddit drives traffic to this site or that site,” said Pew Research Associate Jesse Holcomb.

News organizations, after all, have come to rely on nice traffic boosts over the past few years, and those traffic boosts allow them increase ad rates and better pay the bills. That’s the Reddit Effect in a nutshell: Stories that percolate to the top of the site (which is the ninth-most-visited site in the U.S.) tend to drive not just traffic, but also news cycles on Twitter or talk radio or TV.

In 2013, when Mother Jones was temporarily banned from the Politics subreddit, co-editor Clara Jeffrey spoke to NPR’s On The Media on the sometimes unpredictable reasons news organizations used to get the boot. During their chat, she admitted, “Reddit is a spike traffic driver for us.” (She also said that “It hasn’t been so huge and noticeable that we’re freaking out.”)

And the way to get that Reddit traffic in this election cycle? Write a glowing story about Bernie Sanders and/or a takedown of Hillary Clinton.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump has so far, statistically, had less impact across the Reddit boards. Holcomb, along with fellow Pew researchers Galen Stocking, Michael Barthel, and Amy Mitchell, spent the last few months studying the way users consume news and politics on Reddit. Even before the debates began last year, Sanders was mentioned more in Reddit comments than Clinton and Trump combined.

“It is kind of interesting to see the differences in the kind of candidate performance on the site, like the Sanders phenomenon on Reddit,” said Holcomb. “It’s just the latest example of the longer tradition of insurgent politicians that find a home and get momentum in part because of technology.”

Holcomb says it’s happened before with Ron Paul in two previous election cycles, and even with Howard Dean in “the early blogosphere” and on MeetUp.com.

“This is a vibrant, lively community with its own norms and its own culture,” said Holcomb.

There’s no doubt that Reddit has, in fact, been wildly impactful for getting the word out, even if it’s for a very specific demographic. (The site is 69 percent male, with 56 percent of the men between the ages of 18 and 29.) The study says 78 percent of Reddit users “get their news” on the site.

Still, there are two big problems with the idea that Reddit might be affecting news coverage of the election.

One, even if Reddit is the 33rd-most-visited website on Earth, it’s still not as pervasive as TV. Only 7 percent of American adults use the site.

“You can certainly make a good case that the balkanization of our news environment has had an impact on our public debate, but people still turn to television,” says Holcomb. “Nearly eight in 10 U.S. adults are learning something about the election from the TV.”

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After all, Holcomb says, Reddit is just a pocket of web culture. Just as Matt Drudge used the Web to drive the zeitgeist of the right in the late ’90s and 2000s, Reddit may be doing the same for outsider candidates like Sanders and Paul. But that doesn’t mean it’s reaching the same massive swath of people that TV and cable news will, even on their worst days.

“Reddit is not this kind of mass-market news publisher or broadcaster that we were used to in the golden age of television,” said Holcomb. “It’s, instead, a fairly large piece of the fragmented media environment we now live in.”

“You can’t really look at the Sanders phenomenon without also considering the demographics and the nature of the userbase of Reddit,” Holcomb added. “And the broader takeaway there is that there are a lot of behaviors and attitudes and phenomenon that are perhaps amplified on the web, or look a little different on the Web as opposed to TV or other media sources.”

One of those behaviors is the second big problem with the idea that the Reddit-Sanders Revolution may have impacted news coverage: People may be upvoting titles and commenting on stories because of the sentiment contained therein, but they’re not always clicking on the stories themselves.

Take, for example, a Daily Beast story that reached the top of Reddit’s Politics subreddit on Monday—and was also posted to LGBT, trans rights and Sanders-related subreddits throughout the day. The story, about Sanders’ advocacy for transgender rights in 1980s Vermont, was voted on over 5,000 times and received over 500 comments in 24 hours in Reddit’s politics subreddit alone.

The story itself was clicked on from any Reddit link less than 2,000 times in the same timeframe.

Reddit, it turns out, is simply not the driver Facebook and Twitter can be for publishers—and hopefully not enough to convince publishers to abandon journalistic principals in an effort to game it.

Still, within the Reddit ecosystem, Sanders remains a dominant force. Sanders (or likely a surrogate) even took to his own subreddit, SandersForPresident, to thank his supporters and encourage them to turnout for Super Tuesday.

“Reddit, you have supported me since this campaign first began, and for that, I thank you. Today, I have a huge request for you,” the post said.

He then asked for $2.70 from each of the subreddit’s 197,000 subscribers.