Updated Edition, May 26, 2016: This new edition of our February 2016 report contains updated survey data. It takes into account newer weighting measures that the Pew Research Center has adopted for its American Trends Panel. Details on the weighting are provided in the appendix.
The online discussion forum, Reddit, launched in 2005, is proving to be one of the more news-oriented social spaces on the Web. While it reaches a relatively small slice of the population, a large portion of its users report getting news there, and Reddit can drive substantial attention to news events.
A new survey from Pew Research Center finds that while just 4% of U.S. adults report using the site – a user base that is more likely to be young, male and liberal than the general public – 70% of Reddit users say they get news there. What’s more, 45% of Reddit users learn about the 2016 presidential campaign in a given week from the site. This is on par with the portion of Facebook (52%) and Twitter users (43%) who get news and information about the election on those platforms and outpaces most other social networking sites asked about.
Reddit attracts major newsmakers – President Obama conducted a Q&A session on the site (referred to, in the local parlance, as an “Ask Me Anything” or AMAs) in August of 2012, which attracted more than 20,000 comments, and more recently it played host to celebrities such as Amy Poehler in 2014 and Channing Tatum in 2015. With many posts linking to outside content, Reddit sends many of its millions of daily visitors to publishers, though not as many as do Facebook or Twitter.
“Subreddits” are roughly equivalent to forums on message boards and are based around a subject (such as /r/politics) or the process used to discuss a variety of subjects (such as /r/AskAnAmerican or /r/explainlikeimfive). Users visiting a subreddit see a list of submissions. Any user can create a subreddit, and the creator assigns users to “moderate” the subreddit; these users can delete content, ban users and set subreddit rules.
“Submissions” or “Posts” are items submitted by users, roughly equivalent to a “post” on a blog. Submissions are made to a specific subreddit (e.g., a submission to /r/politics about voting results in South Carolina). They can be original content (e.g., a user’s thoughts on one candidate’s health care proposals), links to outside content (e.g., a link to a news story about one candidate’s fortunes or a video of a candidate’s speech) or a combination of the two. (In this report, the term “post” is generally used in reference to submissions.)
“Comments” are responses, reactions, additions or questions left by Reddit users to a post and/or to other comments.
“Discussion threads” are all the comments left in response to a single post and/or to other comments under that post.
“Authors” are Reddit users who submit a comment or a post.
“Upvoting” and “Downvoting” are ways for users to indicate their opinion of a post or comment they’ve read. Users can “vote” on a comment (or post) by clicking an up arrow (to “upvote”) or down arrow (to “downvote”). When there are more downvotes than upvotes, a comment is said to be “downvoted” and, depending on a user’s settings, may not be visible in the discussion.
For more information, please consult Reddit’s FAQ.
The flow of news and information on the site is somewhat different than that of social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. On Reddit, users actively choose to participate in specific discussion groups that interest them, called “subreddits,” rather than creating friend networks. These are roughly equivalent to forums or topics on other online message boards such as Digg or Fark. The names of these subreddits generally describe the topic being discussed (such as /r/politics) or the process they use to discuss a variety of subjects (such as /r/AskAnAmerican or /r/explainlikeimfive). Reddit users write and post an original “submission,” and then other users, or the original author, comment on that post or reply to other comments. Unlike on many more traditional news sites where comment sections are secondary to the articles, on Reddit the discussion among users is a main attraction. As such, Reddit is one site that exemplifies a new facet of people’s ability to connect with news by discussing it with other interested citizens outside the confines of their day-to-day, in-person networks. This report is the latest in a series that explores the role of news on individual social media sites.
To help understand the news dynamics on Reddit, Pew Research Center combined survey work with an inventory and analysis of three months of discussion about the 2016 presidential candidates on Reddit itself.
The opportunity to study the Reddit discussion in such depth was made possible through use of a large dataset of site comments collected by a researcher (a process that could take months to replicate on one’s own due to API rate limits) who made the May 2015 data publicly available initially in July 2015 and then updated the data set with new monthly data thereafter. Pew Research Center researchers initially downloaded the two most recent months available – May and June – and then later, when made available, added September.
The Center’s researchers then measured discussion surrounding each candidate. The size of the dataset necessitated that researchers adopt a hybrid approach: first human analysts determined the candidate described in a sample of comments, then researchers used these data to train a statistical model that utilized word frequencies to detect which, if any, candidate was referenced in the remaining comments.
The analysis focused on the 2016 presidential campaign, which was getting into full swing during this period with more than 20 announced contenders and the first of the debates. All comments1 naming one of the 21 presidential candidates identified for analysis2 were captured and studied in depth. Among the highlights of the analysis:
- Discussion around the 2016 presidential candidates was vigorous in the run-up to the debates and primaries, but did not dominate Reddit. In the three months studied, Reddit users left more than 350,000 comments mentioning a presidential candidate. Even at that rate though, these comments amount to less than 1% of all comments left on Reddit (more than 165 million) during that period. Similarly, the vast majority of the comments naming a candidate (91%) appeared within 373 subreddits – a fraction of the roughly 84,000 active subreddits in the study, though many of the 373 rank among the most popular subreddits on the site.
- Nonetheless, where the discussion did take off, it could dominate. A third of all posts on /r/politics, one of the top 10 most active subreddits in period of study, had at least one comment naming a presidential candidate.
- Most, but far from all, of the comments naming a candidate took place in forums that were oriented to politics. During the three months studied, the majority of candidate-centered comments (60%) appeared in political subreddits, especially those focused on general politics (37%). But 40% of comments mentioning a presidential hopeful appeared in non-political subreddits such as information exchanges (11%), web culture (9%), or entertainment and sports (4%).
- The data also reveal a strikingly high level of early interest in one particular candidate. In the months before the early presidential debates last fall, Sen. Bernie Sanders was mentioned in more comments (about 165,000) than Hillary Clinton (85,000) and Donald Trump (73,000) combined. The Sanders phenomenon recalls previous presidential candidates who, while not leading in the polls, saw outsized levels of conversation or support in pockets of the internet, including Ron Paul on Twitter, and Howard Dean with Meetup.com and the early blogosphere.
- One of the most popular subreddits for Sanders was one dedicated to his presidential candidacy: The subreddit /r/SandersForPresident received more than 200,000 comments overall in the three months studied, including 59,000 mentioning a candidate. Beyond generally discussing his candidacy, it also serves as a place for grassroots organizing as the banner across the top includes links for users to volunteer for Sanders, to attend Sanders events and to watch Sanders on television. Neither the Clinton nor Trump campaigns, on the other hand, seem to have robust “homes” on the site. Of all the 350,000 comments studied from these three months, just 61 appeared in a candidate-specific subreddit devoted to Clinton and 212 appeared in one dedicated to Donald Trump.
- Heavy commenting activity is concentrated among a minority of users. Most users who comment on Reddit only do so sparingly. In this case, fully 60% of those who named a candidate did so in just one comment in the time period studied. By contrast, 25% left three or more comments.
- Mirroring public attention more broadly, conversation on Reddit grew as the campaign heated up. The total number of comments made about presidential candidates rose 153% from June to September. This exceeded– but followed – the public’s expressed interest in the campaign: In polls taken over similar periods, the percentage saying they were following news about the campaign “very closely” increased from 16% to 27% – a two-thirds jump.