After a long public silence, the Internet giant Reddit has finally acknowledged the presence of Russian propaganda on its platform—and indicated it’s working with the Congressional probes into Russia’s 2016 election interference.
“While I know it’s frustrating that we don’t share everything we know publicly, I want to reiterate that we take these matters very seriously, and we are cooperating with congressional inquiries,” Reddit CEO Steve Huffman wrote to the Reddit community in a blog post on Monday.
“We've been taking action for a long time,” Huffman added in a follow-up comment.
But The Daily Beast has learned that the cooperation Reddit is providing is, at most, precursory. Knowledgeable sources tell The Daily Beast that Reddit has not, for instance, produced any documents to the House or Senate committees shedding light on how Russian propaganda hijacked a site that bills itself as the “front page of the internet.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, the senior Democrat on the House intelligence committee, suggested that the panel was still in the preliminary stages of discussions with Reddit about Russian propaganda.
“Recent findings of Russian activity on other platforms, including Reddit and Tumblr, has been enabled in part by researchers and reporters studying the data that the Intelligence Committee released in November, demonstrating the importance of making as much of Russia’s disinformation campaign public as possible,” Schiff said in a statement provided to The Daily Beast.
Thus far, the social-media component of the Senate and House inquiries have focused on the tech behemoths whose offerings represent billions of users, collectively: Facebook, Twitter and Google. All three companies sent executives to Capitol Hill last fall for uncomfortable public testimony. While Reddit does not have the reach of Facebook or Google, Reddit is the fourth most visited website in the United States, according to the web traffic analytics firm Alexa.
“We hope and expect Reddit, Tumblr, and other companies to thoroughly research both paid advertising and organic content that can be traced to Russia’s disinformation campaign and to provide that information to the Committee,” Schiff added. “I have repeatedly urged the social media companies to share data among themselves and prepare a joint report for the committee on how these platforms were used interchangeably to reinforce the Russian messages, and I continue to hope that they will do so.”
Similarly, The Daily Beast has learned that Reddit has provided the Senate intelligence committee, and its parallel investigation, with no material or other documentation concerning Russian activity on the message board.
According to a person familiar with the committee-company interactions, Senate committee staff had preliminary conversations, in September and November, with Reddit. After the senior Democrat on the panel, Mark Warner of Virginia, signaled his interest in Reddit during a Recode interview, Reddit staff in September proactively reached out to his office, but had little information concerning Russian penetration of Reddit to share.
Then, in November, the pattern reversed. After Huffman acknowledged in a Lisbon forum that Russian propaganda has appeared on Reddit, Warner’s committee staff reached out to the company. But the impact was just as negligible. Reddit representatives indicated they were still having trouble differentiating between real and inauthentic users and material on its platform. Once again, the company provided the committee with nothing more. At the same time, on neither occasion did the committee specifically ask for documentation or other material.
This is what Reddit “cooperating with congressional inquiries,” in Huffman’s phrase, looks like in practice.
Reddit repeatedly referred The Daily Beast back to Huffman’s blog post, despite the post not being in any way responsive to the central question of how, if at all, Reddit has cooperated with either congressional inquiry.
In total, Reddit’s spokesperson said a variation of the sentence, “I’m going to have to refer you to Steve’s blog post” eight times in response to basic questions about Reddit’s cooperation with investigators in a telephone call with The Daily Beast on Tuesday.
The spokesperson responded that “for now (Reddit) will continue to refer you to the blog post” in a follow-up email with specific questions after the phone call.
“The statement that we have made is what we’re sticking with,” the spokesperson said on the phone.
A Daily Beast investigation last week revealed that Russia’s troll farm used American proxies to access the platform, according to a listing for leaked documents from the Internet Research Agency that was posted to a Russian auction site. The Daily Beast was able to independently verify the authenticity of the leak, which also included login credentials for Tumblr accounts and private American citizens the troll farm pushed to attend protests in New York and Georgia.
While Reddit still has not responded to requests for comment on the trove of leaked documents, the contents of the leak prompted Senate investigators to look into opening up probes into Russia’s disinformation campaign on Reddit and Tumblr.
Huffman’s concession that the site had been infiltrated by Russia’s troll farm months after companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google began proactively cooperating with investigators—though not always to the extent those investigators desire—did not sit well with the majority of Reddit’s community.
“We have been cagey about it publicly I know, which frustrates us as well, but it's an active investigation, and it's difficult to share specifics without undermining it,” Huffman wrote. “I know this isn't a satisfying answer, but I promise you this is something we are deeply focused on.”
That post garnered a score of almost -5,000 points at press time.