Depending on how familiar you are with reddit, you might think of it as a place where people post memes and cat pictures. Or maybe your perception of the site is shaped by some of its stranger communities – for every subforum (or ‘subreddit’ as they’re called on the site) that’s dedicated to sharing political news or scenic pictures of the outdoors, there’s a community dedicated to making song remixes using voiceovers from Billy Mays infomercials, or a subreddit that’s simply all about sharing pictures of eggs that look weird. The website is made up of countless “subreddits,” which kind of operate like individual web forums, organized around some sort of interest or purpose (sharing news, bringing attention to lesser known bands, and so on). Not to mention the ugly side of Reddit, like its troubled history of serving as a platform for various hate groups (see another blogpost, “Hate, Harassment, and Communities of Bigots: The Ugly Side of Reddit“).
This makes it hard to define reddit, but it’s basically a popular entertainment, social networking and news website that aggregates web content through user submissions. People can subscribe to different subreddits and then submit links and posts, and also vote on other users’ submitted content, increasing its visibility through ‘upvotes’ or conversely, lowering the submission’s score (and thus its prominence on the page) with ‘downvotes.’ The site has also become somewhat infamous for harbouring hate groups and misogynistic trolls (which I write about in part two to this post), issues that have only been exacerbated by reddit’s increasing popularity. As of this past June, the site boasts 234 million unique users, more than 850,000 subreddits, and 8.19 billion monthly pageviews.
You might be dismissive of a website that has communities dedicated to sharing pictures of cats standing up on their hind legs, or giving users a space to profess their hate for ketchup (and, you know, actual hate groups). But during the ongoing crisis in Syria, reddit has become an unlikely source of information: the subreddit ‘r/syriancivilwar’ relies on crowd-sourced news, user generated content, and links to social media to provide what’s arguably a broader, less biased perspective on the events and underlying political issues, compared to the mainstream news media.
As many researchers and commentators have argued, the news media isn’t just a vessel for impartially delivering information to the public. Rather, the mainstream media often represents a manifestation of political and corporate power. By monopolizing and manipulating discourses, and legitimizing certain narratives while undermining others, the news media can affect public perceptions on the issues and events it covers.[i] [ii] For something like the Syrian crisis, geopolitical interests can impact how news media outlets frame their stories, incorporating moral judgments, misinformation, and biases that may strengthen certain narratives and discredit others. Blogs, social media, and other digital platforms – such as reddit – have the potential to work around this power dynamic.
The collective reporting and news gathering of r/syriancivilwar involved users and moderators submitting YouTube videos and Tweets from the frontlines of the conflict, often beating mainstream media coverage and providing more accurate and comprehensive accounts by relying on primary data (Ingram, 2013; Strochlic, 2013).[iii] [iv]
In addition to its news aggregation, the subreddit has produced much original content, such as maps made by users; one such map was based on tweets and other sources, detailing which factions controlled different areas in and around Syria. In an “exclusive post,” the creator of the subreddit claimed to have received emails from a source affiliated with the Syrian National Coalition. The source was allegedly sharing information that the Coalition was on the verge of fracturing.
In August 2013, users gathered and shared detailed information about the Syrian Air Force, drawing information from sources such as YouTube videos and photos released on other websites. Other posts provided an overview of Syrian Arab Army tank losses, drawing on a paper from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and YouTube videos showing tanks being destroyed, and crowd-sourced video and photo evidence of “SAA and rebel atrocities … from every corner of the Internet.”
There have been occasional posts that aren’t simply sharing bits of information or updates, such as a post by one user, thecake_is_a_lie1, who claimed to be an Iraqi doctor expat living in the UK. He was very active on the subreddit, frequently posting comments and content. His submission, “My bloody farewell post,” was made after 5 members of his family were allegedly killed during a hostage crisis and bombing.
Outside of r/syriancivilwar, reddit is known for its ‘AMA’ or ‘Ask Me Anything’ subreddit, where celebrities, scientists, historians, authors, and other figures of interest answer questions submitted by users. Notable past AMAs include, for example, president Barack Obama, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, actor Patrick Stewart, a group of privacy advocates trying to stop the CISA surveillance bill, and a man imprisoned for 10 years in a North Korean political prisoner camp. In the spirit of this well-known subreddit, there have been several AMA threads posted to r/syriancivilwar. One was posted by a college student who was currently living in Syria. They answered questions about their day-to-day life and thoughts on the ongoing conflict. Another AMA featured a Senior Research Fellow who has done work on foreign fighters traveling to take part in the Syrian civil war.
Of course, despite the proclaimed capacity for social and digital media to make information sharing and politics less exclusive by empowering the public, there are many scholars and commentators who are critical or skeptical of whether the Internet is really levelling the playing field and pushing us towards democratic values. Issues that must be considered include unequal access to these digital platforms, hierarchies of power that exist within these alternative networks, and the fact that social media can be used to recreate the same oppression and subjugation that they supposedly subvert.[v] The Arab Spring – the poster child for the potential of digital technologies to challenge political structures – seemingly provides a clear example of how “the Internet has changed the way in which political actors communicate with one another … largely because digital media have allowed communities to unite around shared grievances and nurture transportable strategies for mobilizing dictators.” Yet traditional media still played a key role in distributing the information, magnifying the reach and impact.[vi] We also have to consider issues relating to connectivity and information infrastructure, such as mobile phone penetration, when exploring the capacity of digital media to promote democratic values.
Nonetheless, r/syriancivilwar arguably shows us that by facilitating the assembly of online communities, digital and social media can promote collective knowledge formation and challenge the narratives and icons that dominate the mainstream press.
…Or, you know, simply share videos of “shitty robots failing.”
[i] Hackett, R.A., and Zhao, Y. 1998. Sustaining Democracy?: Journalism and the Politics of Objectivity. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, Higher Education Division.
[ii] Herman, E., and Chomsky, N. 2002. Manufacturing Consent: the Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon Books.
[iii] Ingram, M. (2013). Lessons in the crowdsourced verification of news from Storyful and Reddit’s Syria forum. Gigaom Research. Retrieved from https://gigaom.com/2013 /12/17/lessons-in-the-crowdsourced-verification-of-news-from-storyful-and-reddits-syria-forum/
[iv] Strochlic, N. (2013). How the Syrian War Subreddit Scoops Mainstream Media. The Daily Beast. Retrieved from http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/ 2013/11/07/ h ow-the-syrian-war-subreddit-scoops-mainstream-media.html
[v] Hindman, M. 2008. The Myth of Digital Democracy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
[vi] Howards, P.N., and Hussain, M.M. 2013. Democracy’s Fourth Wave?: Digital Media and the Arab Spring. Oxford: Oxford University Press.