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Friday, March 1, 2024

News outlets turn to Reddit as Musk’s X descends into chaos

Last week, Business Insider published a lengthy story about Parade, an underwear start-up that was sold to lingerie manufacturer Ariela & Associates International this past summer. The piece focused on Parade’s young CEO, Cami Téllez, and her struggles running a start-up while being held to high standards as a female founder and woman of color.

Much of the piece centered on the journalist’s conflicted feelings about writing the story itself and how she struggled to balance her role as a reporter against her concerns about takedowns of female founders.

So it surprised many when Business Insider began promoting the story in a well-known influencer “snark” subreddit this week. Most subreddits are harmless, but snark communities have been tied to stalking, doxing, and mob behavior. While snark subreddits ostensibly are dedicated to gossip, they frequently devolve into networked harassment against women.

“[Snark subreddits] are for the express purpose of taking out your annoyance on someone,” said Kate Lindsay, co-founder of the online culture newsletter Embedded. “They’re a place where the most horrible things about women are allowed, especially in recent years.”

As Twitter continues to decline as a place to post news, media companies have been seeking out alternative platforms to promote their work, and more are turning to Reddit. But by promoting the article in a prominent snark subreddit, Business Insider’s Reddit account has raised questions about how media companies should navigate a new social media landscape dominated by freewheeling, self-policed groups.

“For an objective news organization to drop their link in there isn’t a neutral action,” Lindsay said. “Things are put in [this snark subreddit] for the express purpose of harassment.”

“Working on a social media team means you can’t claim ignorance as to what these communities are about,” she added. “Nothing is ever shared on a snark page objectively. The whole purpose is, ‘I’m putting this here so we can all feast upon it like vultures.’”

Business Insider, which has had a Reddit account since 2017, even has noted this phenomenon itself. In May, it ran a story documenting how a snark subreddit had made a female influencer’s life a “living hell.” “Valid criticism eventually spiraled into vitriol,” the outlet reported.

The Reddit post about Téllez didn’t gain much traction, but the fact that the news organization engaged in this way left her feeling angry and terrified. It also undermined Business Insider’s journalism, she said.

“This post on the most hateful and dangerous cesspool of the internet confirms that in a desperate grasp for clicks, Business Insider is willing to be more at home with doxers, anonymous harassers, death-threat writers than real media,” she said. “What Business Insider is saying to young women is simple: ‘Don’t dare to run a business, or you’ll make yourself a target, not just for reputation risk, but safety risk as well.’”

Business Insider declined to comment.

With media consumption patterns changing, news outlets face a conundrum over where to promote their work. More users are turning to closed communities like Reddit to connect with like-minded people and consume information. This shift has been accelerated by the implosion of Twitter, where media companies, journalists, and the public used to trade news and promote their work, but which has become less useful as owner Elon Musk revised its verification system and changed its algorithm to favor posts by paying accounts.

Reddit has been a primary beneficiary of this shift. After 11 years in business, the company is reportedly gearing up for a public stock offering and has transformed itself from a scattered message board to a robust community-driven social platform valued at more than $10 billion. The platform functions differently from other broadcast-based social media like Instagram or TikTok; it’s divided into thousands of subreddits which act as their own self-moderated forums. Some subreddits have tens of millions of members, others have only a few hundred.

One thing Reddit is extremely effective at is driving traffic to websites. Unlike YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and other mainstream social media, Reddit, like X, is mostly text based, the right link in the right subreddit has the power to generate an enormous number of clicks. It’s no surprise, then, that more media companies are investing significant resources into growing their Reddit footprint.

But because of Reddit’s community-centered model, news organizations can’t just post to a central homepage. They must seek out specific subreddits and cultivate relationships within those groups to be allowed to promote stories there.

This work is mostly done by social media editors tirelessly hunting down relevant communities in which to share their links. For example, after the house passed a bill protecting same-sex marriage last year, the Wall Street Journal Reddit account promoted a link to their story in the LGBT subreddit. Or, when Bloomberg ran a story reporting that Brexit was costing the UK economy £100 billion per year, the company promoted their story in the world news subreddit, generating thousands of comments.

The Washington Post employs two staff members focused on growing its presence on Reddit.

Reddit has noticed the increased interest and has sought to cultivate it. The platform employs a media partnerships team that works with publishers closely and recently expanded its product offerings for news outlets. “Partners across media, sports, news, entertainment, and video-gaming, among others, use Reddit every day to engage with their audiences across hundreds of communities,” said Sarah Rosen, Reddit’s global head of media business development and partnerships.

But how news publishers should engage on a platform with so many disparate communities is an open question. Some of the subreddits that generate the most traffic are harmful or overrun with harassment. For example, in 2020, Reddit banned The_Donald, a subreddit of nearly 800,000 users dedicated to former president Donald Trump, for violating the company’s policies on hate speech.

The vast network of snark subreddits remains a thorn in the company’s side. The issue has become so pervasive that there is an entire subreddit dedicated to discussing instances where snark subreddits have gone too far. It has attracted nearly 8,000 members and implores community members to “Share your examples of extreme snarkers who take it into bullying/obsession territory.”

Rachel Karten, a social media consultant in Los Angeles, said she believes that it’s better for media companies, and all brands, to simply stay away from subreddits they do not personally operate. Each subreddit has its own norms, history and cast of personalities, and media companies participating can make it appear that they’re giving their approval.

“I’m under the belief that no brand or media company should insert themselves into a Reddit community,” she said.

Earlier this year, staffers at the Houston Chronicle met to discuss how to handle Twitter’s collapse. Twitter had allowed the outlet to seed its content among influential people and build community online. Staffers at the Chronicle wondered if they could replicate something similar on Reddit.

“We had some organic success on Reddit. So we were like, we should start being more intentional,” said Brady Stone, an audience producer at the Chronicle who recounted the meeting. Stone revamped the company’s Reddit account, and very quickly, the Chronicle found success.

“The Houston subreddit is super active, and so we’re very active there and pretty well received,” he said. The Chronicle is also a regular participant in subreddits dedicated to NASA and space, where they share their beat reporting. Stone said the company’s Reddit strategy isn’t “set in stone” but they plan to continue to invest in the platform while scaling back on X. This past summer, the Chronicle even dropped the paywall on all articles shared to Reddit to allow for easier reading.

The New York Times has also begun leaning hard into Reddit, Brittney Forbes, a social strategy editor for the paper said. The Times is very active in the New York City subreddit and gives out gift links to Reddit users. “We engage through day-to-day posting, commenting on additional context about major news topics,” said Forbes. “We’re showing people not only do we have comprehensive interviews with U.S. senators but also a tearful essay about a journalist’s trip to Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour.”

Molly Ward, deputy social media team lead for Bloomberg Industry Group, which oversees social media strategy for Bloomberg Government and Bloomberg Law, said Reddit has been a boon for the company. “A lot of big law subreddits are places where we’ve found a lot of readership, as well as the SCOTUS subreddit,” Ward said.

Ward said her team takes great care before engaging in a subreddit. “We do a lot of research before we go in and make sure that it’s the right fit for the topic we want to talk about,” she said, “that the quality of conversation is higher. It’s a platform where you have to spend a lot of time reading the rules and understanding.”

That’s why many said they were taken aback when Business Insider engaged with a snark subreddit. “This is so upsetting …” the journalist and director Emily Sundberg, posted on X after seeing the Business Insider post. “Snark subs can be so vile, such an odd choice,” another X user commented.

Sundberg said media companies need to think carefully about the communities they participate in. Sundberg is friendly with Téllez and said she’s seen how hurtful online commentary in these types of groups can be. “It’s a normal human reaction to be gutted by it,” she said.

With more media companies embracing Reddit, including Reuters, Politico, The Intercept, Axios and others, social media experts say there will probably be more challenges, but for those willing to invest the time it could become a viable Twitter alternative.

“With Twitter being such a s— show now, publications are like, well let’s try Reddit,” Lindsay, of Embedded, said. “But it’s not as simple as dropping a link.”

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