Toronto Sees Surge in Campaigning on Reddit

As Toronto’s municipal election heats up, candidates for mayor and council alike are experimenting with the potential of reddit to deliver their campaign platforms and messages to an engaged audience online. For the 48,000+ subscribers to the city’s subreddit, it’s been a busy month.

External photo Nathan Phillips square

Flickr/Steven Severinghaus
Toronto’s City Hall illuminated at night. With the election campaign in full swing, many mayoral candidates have taken to reddit.

But what is the point of logging on to this specific community to take questions and deliver campaign lines? What benefits does it afford, and what are the risks associated? I’ve briefly talked about this before, and while this is still far from a complete discussion, it will hopefully offer an introduction to the political AMA on reddit.

Roberto Alvarez got the ball rolling on August 6, when the nominee for councillor of Ward 3 took to the site to answer questions. It wasn’t huge, garnering only 34 comments (which includes his responses) and 64 upvotes. That said, Alvarez spoke oienly and honestly, fielding questions about Rob Ford and the relationship between Homer and Flanders from The Simpsons with ease. More Importantly, he didn’t shy away from tough questions.

By all accounts, it was a good use of campaign time and efforts.

Paul Alves came next. And it was bad. Alves, running to become councillor for Ward 18, went off the rails and the AMA descended into a horrific train crash. After being confronted by one user for using Rob Ford-type tactics, and then being called a Ford apologist by another user, Alves went on the offensive. He accused a user of being a plant for another candidate’s campaign, before saying,

People think the internet is a free for all, it isn’t. I’ll gladly retain counsel and sue for slander anyone who claims I’m what i am not.

From there, things degenerated. Taking on his threat to identify users’ IP addresses and deal with them legally, users began coming up with far-fetched and obvious lies about the candidate (one calling him a Satanist) while others offered definitions and legal interpretations of slander and defamation laws in Canada.

As one user plainly stated: “Threatening to sue voters is an interesting campaign strategy.” Perhaps shockingly, Alves deleted his first account and came back to the site with another new name and has seemed to buy in to the community. He apologized for his outburst, and has since been an active commenter on the Toronto subreddit, as well as another dedicated to British television show Dr. Who.

And so, there are the two directions a political AMA like this can go. Depending on how well you connect with the users, and really how well you fit into reddit’s culture, can make or break it. A negative impression early on can bury you.

Making this case study of the Toronto election even more interesting is the active outreach that moderators of the subreddit undertook to reach out to all mayoral candidates. So far, Ari Goldkind, Mark Cidade, Olivia Chow, and Morgan Baskin have answered the call.

Unsurprisingly, Chow’s drew the most attention. There were over 600 comments in the discussion thread, and Chow fared pretty well throughout. Like Alvarez, she resolved to answer tough questions, and offered well, thought-out responses that were personalized based on the question. One major issue that many politicians encounter on reddit is their inability (or lack of desire) to stray from the campaign line. While Chow obviously wasn’t ad libbing, and was carefully choosing how to respond, she wasn’t afraid to (seemingly) go off-script, an important way to earn respect from the users asking questions.

Olivia Chow being interviewed photo

Flickr/Alex Guibord
Mayoral candidate Olivia Chow’s AMA had the most upvotes and comments of every candidate’s AMA thus far.

Goldkind found similar success, though at a smaller scale (in terms of how many engaged with the thread). Like the successes mentioned above, he came out unafraid to speak honestly and didn’t shy away from the big issues. While it’s probably easier to speak casually as a long-shot, he earned praise and words of encouragement.

Cidade on the other hand, failed to impress the community. While he did answer most questions, and even injected humour throughout, he tended to give responses that were perceived as “non-answers”.

Baskin, who declared herself the “teen mayoral candidate” in the AMA’s subject line, again had a low “attendance” if you will. Not too many questions came in, and most focused on her age and stuck to the line of questioning about involving youth in the race. While Baskin did a good job of answering questions and keeping the community happy, she also faced the smallest amount of criticism. Indeed, when she was challenged with tough questions, they usually came from self-identified young voters, which creates an interesting area of exploration as to how the community reacts to fringe candidates that they don’t plan on voting for.

The political make-up of reddit

An important consideration regarding the success of AMAs is the makeup of the site itself. It’s commonly accepted that reddit’s young, male, educated userbase slants pretty favourably to the left. In 2010, Gawker credited the site with “birthing a lefty Tea Party.” Multiple sites, talking about the marketing potential of reddit, echo the idea that the userbase (or “hivemind”) is geeky and liberal. As the Pew Research Center found, the users of reddit are also overwhelmingly educated, with most users having some college education, and the demographic group with the most users actually had a college degree or higher. This level of education tends to relate to a politically-conscious audience, as evidenced by both the “Politics” and “World News” subreddits being defaults for the site.

Of course, when talking about a website that has over 174 million unique monthly visitors, such concepts are sweeping generalizations, but this is a commonly agreed upon characterization of the site.

John Tory at speaking event

Flickr/Joseph Morris
Mayoral candidate John Tory has not responded to a moderator’s request to take part in an AMA.

However, sitting on the right (or wrong) side of the perceived political pendulum is not a determining factor for the success of an AMA.

Take the case of Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne, who lives on in Canadian reddit infamy as having one of the worst AMAs in site history.

During the middle of the Ontario election campaign, Wynne took to the site to engage in the popular Q&A format. It was, for all intents and purposes, a disaster. The AMA lasted less than an hour and over that time Wynne answered only 10 questions – two of which were “fluff”. Not a single response she gave received a positive vote-count. Wynne (and her campaign team) were accused of creating accounts to plant easy questions, ignoring the highest-voted questions, and having “handlers” crafting carefully worded responses.

For all that I’ve talked about regarding openness, frankness, and the will to stand up to difficult questions, Wynne’s chat serves as a textbook “what not to do.”

She was criticized heavily on the site, and subsequently slammed in the traditional press, both mainstream and alternative.

On the flip side, Eric Gurr, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Congress had a successful campaign, in terms of engagement. More importantly, he challenged the reddit community to consider their own flaws in the AMA system.

Many of Gurr’s positions (particularly on LGBTQ rights, gun ownership, Obamacare) flew in the face of the socially liberal makeup of the site. However, he did take on questions, and didn’t try to cater answers to the audience. He answered honestly and to the best of his ability, and provided reasoning for his stance – even knowing the stance would likely differ from much of the audience.

As one user said, “I don’t agree with your positions, but I do greatly appreciate your willingness to actively discuss your candidacy with us. I wish you well in your campaign.”

The greatest example of a Republic candidate breaking through reddit’s perceived slant is Ron Paul, a libertarian candidate who ran against Mitt Romney as leader of the Republican Party. Paul, who is a bit of a political folk celebrity on the site, stuck to answering mostly soft questions, but would occasionally dip his toes into more controversial questions. Despite this, and ignoring questions that directly criticized him for his attitude towards certain topics (including the big ones like vaccination, climate change, and same-sex marriage), Paul’s session was generally well-received. He even received “reddit gold” on a few occasions throughout the AMA.

All of which is to say that despite the way the reddit community is labelled, it’s not as binary as it first appears. There are exceptions to the rule on both sides.

User participation in AMA’s

There is another interesting component of the election reddit AMA that is important to discuss, though it focuses less on the politicians and more on users themselves.

For most established campaigns, social media has played an important role in reaching voters since as early as 2010. Twitter and Facebook became Swiss Army knives of campaigning: they allow for back-and-forth dialogue, provide an outlet to respond to criticisms in the media, serve as inexpensive advertising mediums, and allow candidates to listen in on what matters to the constituency.

As such, most politicians are quick to promote their reddit AMA’s through other channels. For example, here’s Olivia Chow and Morgan Baskin letting their Twitter followers know about the AMAs.

Interior of Toronto City Hall

Flickr/Paul Bica
Toronto City Hall. Do reddit AMA’s help bridge the disconnect between constituents and campaigning politicians?

Such outreach is obviously good, as it allows potential voters to direct questions to candidates in a forum that allows for longer discussions than Twitter, while also giving those concerned about privacy the option to register anonymously.

reddit is not the easiest site to use, though. It’s basic, minimalist look can confuse new users who are used to interfaces provided by Facebook and Twitter. Comment threads can be like mazes.

More importantly, established users become very suspicious about new users who join the site and immediately start asking questions in an AMA. Earlier, I noted the criticisms lobbied about “plants” – the truth is, there is no way to know if someone typing out questions is sitting in a campaign office or if they simply saw the tweet and wanted to participate. As these people who join the site for an opportunity to deliver their questions, being run through the mud is an unpleasant experience – and one they aren’t likely to come back to.

Obviously, this is unfortunate and really flies in the face of the promise reddit provides for candidates and voters alike of an open forum to ask real questions, where you get a 1-on-1 (in principle) response to a question. It’s as if the debate is happening in your living room. When a user is ostracized for being new, we don’t get to see the full spectrum of opinions and questions that we would like to.

To use, or not to use?

As the need to be engaged with audiences becomes larger for politicians, reddit’s attractiveness as a quick way to reach a large group of people will continue to increase. These AMAs have also quickly become easy fodder for traditional media. It’s not surprising to find a quick recap of a politician’s AMA on the website of newspapers, magazines, blogs, and other news outlets online the following day. As such, it gives politicians access to media coverage, all the while bypassing traditional media processes.

Some quick lessons that we can glean from the Toronto AMA’s to date.

The AMA is not the place for the risk-averse, as you will be expected to deal with tough, critical questions. While you may be able to skirt some of the worst and not take too much heat, you can only do so if you do give an inch and tackle some tough ones. Be transparent and clear, and everyone will get along just fine.

If you are embroiled in a scandal, reddit is not the place to come clean or correct misinformation. Don’t use the site to try to save – or make up – face.

Show some personality. Don’t stick to the script and have a campaign manager editing everything down. Leave them at home, and come talk to us as if we’re all just out for a beer.

Be aware of your audience. While I highlighted some exceptions above, there are certain topics that reddit feels strongly about. If you’ve spoken out against those, prepare to defend those decisions.

Actually dedicate the time you allot. Too often, politicians say they’ll take questions for an hour, but answer 10 or less in that time. Treat it like any other scheduled appointment, and don’t blow the users off. You could anger a lot of potential voters.

Lastly, try to get into the reddit spirit! If you’re a Maple Leafs fan (in the context of the Toronto candidates) and someone sends you the link to the Leafs subreddit, try your hand. Coming back to the site for reasons other than political or commercial gain, no matter how rarely, will always earn you points.

Notes: 1) I do not reside in Toronto nor am I eligible to vote in the election.  2) reddit is stylized with a lowercase “r” in its official name.

What are your thoughts on politicians using AMAs to reach voters? Are there any examples of great or horrible AMAs by politicians that I missed? Please share your thoughts below.

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