The Media Today

The most civilized place to look at news online? It might be Reddit 

February 13, 2024
The Reddit logo. (Photo by Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Twitter had been our place. Where journalists gathered and pored over news in as near to real time as possible. Its peak was, perhaps, the Arab Spring in 2011—a time when we all had a rosier view of social media’s impact on democracy. (It was easier when it was happening in other people’s nations.) Then came the aggressive mobs, the toxic but tempting lies, the propaganda, and, finally, Elon Musk. 

Over the same decade or so Meta—the company that used to be known as Facebook—first diminished its interest in news, then developed something close to active hostility to it. The company’s Twitter clone, Threads, deliberately does not offer a chronological feed, to avoid the “negativity” of hard news. The open-source Mastodon’s norms don’t lend themselves well to news; Bluesky, invite-only until a week ago, finds itself wondering how receptive the wider public will be. Both, in any case, lack the large numbers of people necessary for a truly diverse and interesting discussion. 

So where do we, for want of a better word, go? I spent weeks asking where, if anywhere, news is discussed and shared in sober terms online. A few diehards of the early internet tried to suggest the resurgence of RSS feeds—automated notifications of new articles on a particular topic on a particular site. They were barely even convincing themselves.

The most surprising answer I found—given that it was once considered the villain of the piece—was Reddit. For those who haven’t used it, Reddit is a bulletin-board style social network split into quasi-autonomous “subreddits” focused on different topics. Each of these is managed by volunteer moderators and administrators, who can set and enforce rules of conduct within that community. 

These subreddits are much smaller than Twitter. The largest—r/worldnews, to use Reddit’s naming format for these threads—comprises around thirty-five million users, of whom around twenty thousand to forty thousand are online at any one time.

Reddit picked up a particularly bad reputation in newsrooms a decade ago, after the site’s users engaged in a collaborative online manhunt, based on the evidence of myriad cameras at the event, to track down the fugitive culprits behind the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

To call this open-source investigation a farce would be kind. Redditors quickly hit upon a missing student named Sunil Tripathi as their suspect. Their breathlessly assembled “evidence” was then recklessly spread by mainstream journalists to mass audiences. Tripathi was missing, and was later found dead. He had nothing to do with the events in Boston, but Reddit’s suspicion meant that his grieving family were subjected to weeks of threats and harassment. 

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It’s become a sort of parable. (Aaron Sorkin used it in the HBO drama The Newsroom to rail against the indignities of online media.) When combined with the anarchic and often meme-driven nature of earlier subreddits, it meant that I and others dismissed Reddit as akin to 4chan—the message board notorious for launching the Pizzagate and QAnon conspiracies.

If you drew your conclusions in that era, browsing r/worldnews—as I did over the past few weeks—is a genuine shock. I found a sober and measured discussion of world events, grounded in the very best reporting. (That doesn’t, sadly, mean a huge boost in terms of audience, though it’s not negligible.) 

At the time of writing, the subreddit had more than eight hundred rolling threads on the Russia/Ukraine conflict, and nearly fifty for events in Gaza. On a recent day, other topics on its front page included carbon dioxide emissions from ocean floor trawling, the possible discovery of water deposits on Mars, evidence of ethnic killings in Sudan, and reports on German politicians passing laws to accelerate deportations. It was a mix, and a tone, that I would have admired in the most carefully and expensively curated publication. 

That is perhaps because the moderation rules used to police it, and the culture they foster, are strong. The rules include “No US Internal News or Politics,” “No Editorialized or Misleading Titles,” “No Feature Stories,” “No Editorials, Opinion or Analysis Pieces,” and “No Images, Videos or Audio Clips.” That is in addition to guidelines banning bigotry, abuse, personal attacks, and (in what must seem a strange move to people who thought they knew Reddit) memes.

That effectively bans emotive content, which, given the horrors of most world news at the moment, gives the board something of a sterile feel. But it also provides a genuinely useful way to catch up on the facts of what is happening—the “what,” not the more controversial “why” or the “what it means.” 

Though r/worldnews is the largest, there are similarly regulated forums for US news, politics, particular nations, and specialist topics. Other, generally much smaller, subreddits even provide help to people affected by news stories, and thus gather firsthand accounts. 

Last year, the British government announced it was increasing the salary a citizen would have to earn for their foreign-born spouse to be eligible for a UK visa. It then changed course on those plans repeatedly. 

Families who were concerned about their residency supported each other on a subreddit, and even got some informal advice from qualified lawyers. There are similar communities based around sharing information on chronic health conditions (long COVID is among the largest).

I wanted to get information on how Reddit’s different communities use news and research right, and so this article is based on interviews with Redditors conducted via the site. I wanted, of course, to name them and even quote them. But I found that they were as protective of their subreddits as locals who don’t want tourists to overwhelm their favorite restaurant. Generally, they first asked that I not name their subreddit at all. Some followed up with something along the lines of “but if you must mention it, please don’t mention me.” 

Their protectiveness was mixed with fear of the volunteer moderators, who run the major subreddits with all the ruthlessness of an old-school news editor. They give the boards their characters—mostly by giving up large quantities of their own time to do the kind of intensive moderation that a major company would not and maybe could not do itself. They have the last word over who is in and who is out.

I wondered whether the fear of the moderators was a little overblown, until I encountered it myself. During the reporting of this story, I looked up how the admins of r/worldnews would prefer to be contacted—using Reddit’s messaging service—and sent a single, very polite message with what I thought were a few mild inquiries. My account was suspended, across all of Reddit, for five days for “harassment.” The notification informed me that “this decision was made without the assistance of automation.”

I appealed the decision, and also raised it along with my general queries to the Reddit press office. Within twenty-four hours or so, the suspension was reversed. But I reopened the account to find it had been given another formal warning. 

To me it demonstrated the compromise necessary for a courteous and collegial communal news experience on social media in 2024. The no-prisoners approach meant Reddit did not have to effectively bar news in the same way as Facebook and Instagram, nor turn its forums into the loudest-voices-win free-for-all that is now called X.  

As long as governments and Big Tech wash their hands of the problems of moderation, this might be the best we can do. Personally, I plan to continue checking in on r/worldnews most days. 

James Ball James Ball is a journalist, author, and fellow of the UK-based think tank Demos. His latest book is The Other Pandemic: How QAnon Conquered The World.