Reddit flexes its muscle over net neutrality

December 6, 2017
Image: Eva Blue/flickr.

Reddit is often dismissed as the digital version of a noisy bar brawl between nerds and misfits. But when it comes to issues like net neutrality, the site has a way of highlighting not just what’s important about the web but also what average citizens of the internet can do about it, something few mainstream media outlets tend to do.

Last week, for example, when Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai announced his intention to loosen the existing rules on net neutrality, most traditional news sites published “explainers” describing what net neutrality is and why some believe it to be an important way of protecting Internet freedom. Most of these (with a few exceptions) were of the standard “one side says this, the other side says that” format.

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The front page of Reddit, meanwhile— a leaderboard for a wide variety of links from funny GIFs to personal stories—displayed an almost unbroken stream of posts about net neutrality, and specifically, the senators and representatives who had failed to defend the principle.

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Each of these posts was phrased in a similar way, starting with “Senator X sold me out to the telecom industry for $X,” then listing the amount of political donations from cable or telecom companies that each representative had received. According to Reddit, the site’s editors didn’t rig the algorithm in order to set up the front page this way, its members did so by up-voting those posts more than others. And that wasn’t the only day it happened.

These protest posts didn’t come out of nowhere. The site’s co-founders, Alexis Ohanian and Steve Huffman, have written multiple posts over the past few months calling on members to express their support for the principle, and to take concrete action in other ways as well, including phoning their representatives and talking about why net neutrality matters. And Redditors have responded in droves—in a single week the site saw 50,000 posts with over 350,000 comments that generated more than 21 million votes.

In July, Ohanian wrote that the central idea behind the creation of Reddit was to build “an open platform for communities and their members to find and discuss the content they found most interesting,” but that any future attempts to build such a thing could be threatened by the disappearance of net neutrality protections.

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As Ohanian noted with his “we’ve been here before” comment, in some ways Reddit has been training for this moment for years. It was a significant player in the protests in 2012 that helped defeat both SOPA and PIPA, two proposed bills that would have significantly limited freedom of speech online. And Reddit has stood alongside groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU in opposing other similar efforts.

Much like any online community with 250 million members, Reddit is host to a broad range of viewpoints, including many users who are pro-Trump. But there’s no question that the majority of the site’s users see neutrality as a principle worth fighting for: Ohanian said his post on the issue was one of the most viewed and most up-voted posts in the site’s history. Even the top-rated post in a sub-Reddit about car racing was about net neutrality.

One thing Reddit does well is to bring individual users to the forefront of such issues. For example, Huffman mentioned in a follow-up post last week that the site had contacted a congressman from Pennsylvania and shared stories from users about the importance of net neutrality.

Those responses came as replies to a post asking users to answer the question: “How would your life change if internet service providers started blocking or throttling certain internet traffic, or creating paid prioritization channels for certain content?”

Traditional media outlets are frequently criticized for writing news articles about how important a topic is without providing any way for readers to take action on those issues. Reddit does this in spades (as do groups such as the ACLU and EFF), including providing lists of congressional phone numbers and addresses and tips on protest methods.

What makes Reddit so powerful on issues like net neutrality, ironically, is that it doesn’t have to stick to the neutral or objective position that most media outlets feel they need to uphold. Since in many ways the front page is an expression of the interests of its members (although Ohanian and Huffman have tried to rein those interests in to remove some of the more offensive elements of the community), it can speak with one voice.

For media purists, this activist bent might seem antithetical to journalism. But others point out that one of the core principles of journalism is to “speak truth to power,” and that’s difficult to do when you are saying “on the one hand this, on the other hand that” (something NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen likes to call the View From Nowhere).

There is a lesson here for media outlets of all kinds, particularly at a time when the future of media seems to rest on connecting with a loyal readership and encouraging them to support you directly rather than relying on whatever scraps of advertising revenue aren’t vacuumed up by Google and Facebook.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.