In an earlier post this year, I have referred to Barack Obama’s question-and-answer session which he gave using the social news aggregator Reddit in August 2012. The article below is a summary of a more extensive analysis which I presented at the “Watching Politics” symposium at University of Warwick.
The “A(ask)M(e)A(nything)” on Reddit was part of Obama’s presidential re-election campaign in 2012. Significant for this campaign, in general, was the extensive use of social media. Particularly Facebook, Twitter and Youtube were employed in order to promote Obama’s re-election. It was the first presidential re-election campaigning that was not announced with a message from the white house, but through a Tweet (see Figure 1) that referred to a video which was titled “It begins with us” and showed statements of Obama’s campaign team rather than comments by the president himself. In the course of his campaign, Obama also participated in a so called “Ask me Anything” session on the aforementioned website “Reddit”.
If you are already familiar with Reddit, feel free to skip the next two paragraphs: otherwise, here is a brief summary of what Reddit is and how it works.
Reddit.com is a Social News Aggregator which has meanwhile 2,094,953 registered accounts and was accessed by 73.293.644 unique visitors in September 2013 (see About Reddit). What you first see on the website are the topically-mixed post which recently got the most upvotes and feedback-comments in comparison to downvotes. There are other ranking options such as “controversial”, “new” or “rising”. Basically users (Redditors) can post text, links, pictures or videos and other users can comment on these posts or merely up- or downvote them. You don’t need to be a registered user to read the posts, but you need to get an account if you want to actively contribute. That does not require to provide your email however. Reddit was founded by Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian in June 2005. They sold their project to Condé Nast Publications in October 2006. Five years later, Reddit was split from Condé Nast, and now operates as a subsidiary of Condé Nast’s parent company, Advance Publications. We cannot say for sure how much it was sold for. Alexis Ohanian said in an interview: “People ask how much it was for, but I haven’t even told my girlfriend. I tell her, ‘You can Google it, and you’ll find it was between $10 million and $20 million’”. It is now estimated to be worth controversial amounts somewhere in between 50 million and 700 million USD. The websites mission statement is somehow idealistic, at least that ideology counts for long-term users (see Figure 2; there is some irony in these banners however). The website is divided into topical sections called subreddits (currently 243,582) where users can submit questions, post pictures, ask for advice or simply tell stories.
Typical and popular Subreddits which are also part of the default set are “technology”, “music”, “gaming”, “funny”, “wordnews”, “science” and “politics”. So, even though Reddit claims to be a “website about everything”, there are topics which are particularly popular as these statistics show and therefore it addresses certain target groups. The subreddit “politics” which focusses on US politics, and “POLITIC” which is a collection of the most active forums that address political topics are among the most popular and active subreddits.
“I am Barack Obama, President of the United States: Ask Me Anything”
A very popular subreddit which is central for this analysis is called “I Am A” with the possible subtitles “AMA ‒ Ask Me Anything” or “Ask me almost anything”. Here you can find the conditions or rules for “AM(a)As”. People with special skills or jobs, such as artists or celebrities, or even with rather random characteristics can answer other Redditors’ questions. The claimed status or competences need to be verified in advance. This is the “AMA” which will be relevant in the following: a question and answer session by Barack Obama, president of the United States.
So, we already know by now that Obama is quite a fan of Twitter: just like his re-election campaign announcement, he also announced his AMA in a Tweet (see Figure 3). His account is run by “Organizing for Action” staff, a ‘nonprofit social welfare organization’ which is a successor of Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and of course closely affiliated with the Democratic Party. Tweets coming directly from the President (such as the one in Figure 3) are signed with “-bo”.
Even before this Tweet, Obama posted on Reddit: „Hi, I’m Barack Obama, President of the United States. Ask me anything. I’ll be taking your questions for half an hour“ (Figure 4). His tweet, then again, was reposted here in order to verify his identity. Also, he added this picture (see Figure 5) as verification photo.
Meanwhile on Facebook…
What is striking here is that certain social media such as Facebook were not involved in the announcement (see Figure 6 above).This seems also due to the reason that Obama or rather his advisors wanted to address a very specific target group: which also means that they had to avoid mixing rather heterogeneous audiences from Facebook with more homogenous user groups from Twitter and Reddit. A basic assumption seems to be a categorical difference between users of various social media. While Obama’s AMA (naturally) wants to convey the impression of spontaneous and open communication, it appears to be highly controlled and very selective. The questions were chosen by the president, and two criteria seem to be particularly relevant:
Firstly, Obama selected questions that were well suited in order to demonstrate an affiliation with a majority of Redditors. Even though there are no concrete statistics regarding demographics, the topics on Reddit suggest a young user and contributor group, advocating internet freedom, fond of space, science, cats, and experiments including drugs. He also censored certain issues. Questions coming from representatives if of r/trees — a subreddit with lively discussions all around the legalisation of soft drugs— were for example kindly ignored.
Secondly, and again naturally, he selected questions that were relevant to major strategies within his overall campaign such as issues regarding the “disclosure act” as well as discussions surrounding the “graduate without future” and recent bank-bailouts.
Before I get to the analysis — or actually this is already part of it in a way — it needs to be mentioned that there were technical issues during Obama’s AMA (Figure 7) . Because of the massive traffic that suddenly hit the site when Obama announced his question and answer session, the website wasn’t available for some users during the AMA. They just received this error message “Reddit is under heavy load”. Obama’s announcement circulated rapidly, and by the time Obama was online, the website experienced record-breaking user traffic and the server was temporarily overloaded. The thread received 5,598,171 page views which is more than double than the second most accessed thread on Reddit in 2012.
With this background information in mind, here are some examples from the selected questions and how he responded to them. To visualise my point, I have interlinked them with popular subreddits which are particularly significant for the respective topic. Here you can find a compilation of the questions Obama decided to anwer, some of them are also visualised below. They mainly addressed issues related to:
- technology and the US space programme
- corruption, unemployment and the DISCLOSE Act (“The measure, known as the DISCLOSE Act, died in a 51 to 44 vote on a procedural motion. It needed 60 votes to move forward. Its failure was widely expected, but Democrats pushed for the vote, believing that Republicans will be politically damaged by their opposition to bringing new transparency to campaigns”, see The WP)
- and lifestyle questions.
Obama’s choices of questions to answer indicate a communication strategy that was aimed at appealing to the most common interests among Redditors. His selection was appropriated for giving the president a maximum chance of being identified with common interests, norms and values which Reddit represents. Of course, there has been a topical focus already, since a lot of the users were long-term Redditors, however there are certain topics which have been ignored, not to say censored. In this sense, the AMA represents an example of discursive politics, tailor-made for a specific media platform.
It is revealing to look at those questions he didn’t answer and topics he ignored. Such as:
- student loans
- international relations
- as well as questions regarding the war on drugs and the legalization of soft drugs.
Also, there is another dimension to Obamas’ AMA which is already implied in choosing Reddit as communication platform and his appropriated communication. Obama presented himself as a ‘geek among (proud) geeks’: It was not only what he posted, but how he posted. He provided proof through his twitter account and his picture was uploaded on imgur — as it would be expected from a ‘professional’ Redditor.
A telling indicator, is Obama’s concluding statement: “By the way, if you want to know what I think about this whole reddit experience ‒ NOT BAD!” references an internet meme (see Figure 14 and 16) and indicates a strategic effort to present himself as an internet-insider. In this sense, political appeal is not only generated through topical content, but by signaling affiliation to an online (sub)culture. How effective this approach was, is indicated in users’ euphoric reaction (Figure 17) to Obama’s understanding of a visual (meme) culture which defines itself through insider knowledge. This approach is also pursued on Social Media beyond Reddit (see Figure 18).
Consent and approval are not mainly achieved through agreement with regards to content, but rather through identity-based accordance. In a way, once again in media history, it is not merely decisive what has been said, but through which channel it’s said and particularly if the sub-cultural, specific rules of communication are met. It is significant in this context which further comments on the presidents AMA were ranked highest. At the top, after a selection of all comments, is Obama’s last remarks on Reddit: “By the way, if you want to know what I think about this whole reddit experience – NOT BAD!” A user reposted this comment, showing the rather obvious reference to the Meme “Obama rage face” which resulted in almost 2500 upvotes, in comparison to less than 500 downvotes. The first, highly rated comments are mainly dealing with meta-levels of the AMA, such as the reddit breakdown, Obama’s username etc.; only then topical discussions follow.
Obama’s advanced, progressive social media used is associated or even equated with a political progressiveness ‒ he achieves affective agreement on the basis of a group affiliation. He addresses a digital identity and aims at triggering solidarity, by presenting himself as a ‘geek among proud geeks’ (critiques could say among wannabe-geeks).
There is one post in particular which makes this issue quite clear, it is (however) top ranked under ‘controversial’. A Redditor started his posts with the sentences: “I am one of the farthest right people I know. I oppose virtually everything you stand for. (…) But right now, that does not matter”. And he finished we the ‘slighly’ melodramatic statement: “So, may we unite in the three things we share: being American, believing in Jesus Christ as Lord, and now, being redditors”.
Obama’s AMA can be seen as a campaign element which simulates spontaneity and democratic, bottom-up selection of topics, but actually uses selection criteria in order to strategically comment on topics which were at the heart of Obama’s campaign and are relevant to a prior analyzed target group. It draws on the aesthetics and an ideology of an online culture in order to appropriate this insider-knowledge for political use.