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This article was published on July 11, 2017

Astroturfing Reddit is the future of political campaigning

Astroturfing Reddit is the future of political campaigning
Matthew Hughes
Story by

Matthew Hughes

Former TNW Reporter

Matthew Hughes is a journalist from Liverpool, England. His interests include security, startups, food, and storytelling. Follow him on Twi Matthew Hughes is a journalist from Liverpool, England. His interests include security, startups, food, and storytelling. Follow him on Twitter.

Earlier this year, Hack PR had a problem. The unorthodox public relations firm had snapped up a new client, a deep-pocketed entrepreneur with political ambitions. Unfortunately, nobody really knew who he was, and the campaign it launched for him failed to convert into any real coverage save for a couple of pieces in the Huffington Post and The Washington Times. They needed another idea.

So, in their words, they hustled.

There’s an old Internet joke that says politicians should wear the logos of their donors, much like Nascar drivers wear the logos of their sponsors. Taking inspiration from that, Hack PR pitched the idea to its client that it tries and make it law through a California ballot initiative.

But unfortunately, this didn’t pan out either. It wasn’t for lack of trying. The firm took the provocative step of printing a full-sized cutout of everyone in the California Legislature, adorned with the logos of Chevron and AT&T, and other prolific donors. These were left at the steps of the Sacramento State Capital building for all to see. But as before, nada.

Credit: Hack PR

Right here is where things get a little sketchy, as Hack PR decided to look into gaming Reddit to bring some momentum to their campaign.

I knew that if I could get one of my links to the top of Reddit Politics, I would have a pretty good chance of making the idea spread, so I set that as my goal: Get to the top of Reddit Politics within 24 hours.

What it did next was simple. A Hack PR staffer published a link to a Washington Times article about the campaign, who then purchased every single upvote package on Fiverr.com, for a total cost of $35. The post soon blew up and became the most popular article on r/politics.

Hack PR also anonymously spammed over 20,000 media contacts with a link to the Reddit post. Each time a publication covered the news, it would repeat the same process with the Washington Times article.

The media requests began to pour in like we’ve never seen before. We had so many requests coming in it was challenging to respond to them all. That is a great, great problem to have.

Vice, Al Jazeera , US News , even Anonymous wrote about the idea, and every time we got a new media hit, we followed the same process on Reddit. Post the link to various Reddit threads and then go on Fiverr and buy UpVotes to make sure we got to the top. In just the first few days, we had over 50 media outlets covering our story.

After three days, there was a telltale sign their efforts had paid off; the website for the campaign started to buckle under the strain of two million hits. Crucially, it had built a galvanized based of supporters who were prepared to lend their time to the campaign. Hack PR weaponized them into a fierce pitching machine, which in turn got more coverage.

As before, this new coverage was submitted and upvoted using packages bought from Fiverr, resulting in a total of 5 million media impressions and 6 million website hits. The most astonishing facet of this saga is it cost Hack PR just $255 on Fiverr.

Campaigning on the homepage of the Internet

Reddit likes to call itself the homepage of the Internet, and to a huge extent, that’s true.

There’s an observable trend that shows people are increasingly less likely to get their news directly from publications, and more likely to get it from social media. At the center of this trend is Reddit, which has seen it quickly rise to the eighth most popular website in the world, and the fourth most popular in the United States.

But troublingly, Reddit has shown itself easy to game.

The home of Donald Trump fandom on Reddit is /r/the_donald. The denizens of this community have repeatedly proven themselves able to game the site’s voting system, in order to highlight pro-Trump content that otherwise wouldn’t make it to the front page.

They were so effective, Reddit quickly changed the site’s algorithm, in order to limit the influence of any individual subreddit. Although, Reddit’s CEO insisted that this had nothing to do with /r/the_donald, few believed him.

Groups associated with the Clinton campaign also used Reddit as part of the campaign battleground. The Correct The Record super PAC, for example, spent $1 million leaving pro-Clinton comments on sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit.

And while Hack PR’s audacious campaign is impressive, it raises some troubling ethical points. Reddit is the place where most of us get our news. Clearly, this public relations firm has no problem gaming the system in order to satisfy its clients.

As Reddit enters its difficult teenage years, it’s increasingly apparent that a lot needs to be done to ensure it remains a level playing field. Algorithms alone aren’t enough. Failure to act will be disastrous for the site. Just ask Digg.

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