Warner sees Reddit as potential target for Russian influence

Reddit could be the next target for federal investigators exploring Russian influence over the 2016 presidential election.

A representative from Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerTech beefs up lobbying amid Russia scrutiny Overnight Tech: Senate Dems want FCC chief recused from Sinclair merger | Tech rallies on Capitol Hill for DACA | Facebook beefs up lobbying ranks Facebook adds two lobbyists amid Russia probe MORE’s (Va.) office told The Hill that Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, is interested in Reddit as a potential tool of Russian social media influence.

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Warner has also spearheaded efforts to scrutinize Facebook and Twitter as potential tools for foreign interference in the election. Reddit declined to comment.

Experts who have studied Russia’s attempts to influence the election say that Warner is right to be interested in Reddit. They note that many fake news stories can be traced back to the platform, pointing to it as the catalyst behind the spread of Pizzagate, a baseless conspiracy theory that sought to link Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonO’Malley tells Dems not to fear Trump FBI informant gathered years of evidence on Russian push for US nuclear fuel deals, including Uranium One, memos show Pelosi blasts California Republicans for supporting tax bill MORE to a fictitious pedophilia ring in a Washington pizzeria in the final days of the campaign.

“[Reddit] is one of the forms that some of the coordinated information campaigns happened on,” says Samantha Bradshaw, a researcher at Oxford University who has studied how governments use social media to influence public opinion. Bradshaw says that she’s witnessed patterns on the site that suggest a deliberate effort to distribute false news.

Bradshaw pointed to several examples of hoax political stories disseminated on Reddit ahead of the election, including Pizzagate and allegations of illegal electioneering.

“People from NY being bussed into Philly to vote!” reads one post, accompanied by a generic image of a bus as evidence. “African American man outside Polling Place influencing people to vote Democrat,” it continues.

“SOROS HAS BEEN LINKED TO COMET PING PONG,” another reads, referencing the Washington restaurant targeted by Pizzagate theorists and liberal mega-donor George Soros.

Bradshaw clarified that the posts were gathered in a preliminary analysis and weren’t definitively examples of foreign influence. But the posts still illustrate how false stories originate or gain momentum on Reddit. The bussing story was voted up more than 500 times on Reddit, while the Soros-Pizzagate story was voted up more than 1,000. Each was shared 100–200 times on Twitter.

Both posts were from deleted or suspended accounts. It’s unclear if the users had deleted their own accounts or if they were removed by Reddit.

The company also declined to comment on if it is investigating whether Russia or other foreign entities sought to use the site to influence the election.

With its focus on viral content and internet culture, Reddit is seen as a crossover space between more obscure internet subcultures like the 4Chan and 8Chan message boards and more mainstream sites like Facebook and Twitter. Like 4Chan and 8Chan, which have become hubs for white supremacists, anti-Semites and other extremists, Reddit has pro-Trump forums where offensive content and news stories with dubious credibility can be posted without oversight.

Warner’s office said that it’s also interested in platforms like 4Chan, but on a more preliminary level, noting that their focus is still on Facebook and Twitter at the moment.

Reddit’s position among several types of internet users allows it to be a place where memes and “fake news” stories from more extreme sites can reach Reddit’s 542 million monthly visitors — and, in some cases, spread to Facebook and Twitter.

Reddit can also be a tool for foreign governments to test out what might or might not resonate with larger audiences, says Renee DiResta, a social media network expert.

“When you’re going to test a message to see if your meme is popular, to see if your message resonates [and] gains traction, you want to send a trial balloon,” DiResta said. “One great way to do that is to post a link to Reddit. You can gauge how receptive an audience is. You can see whether something is gaining traction. You can see their reactions if you’re trying to refine your message.”

DiResta notes that Reddit’s open nature makes it more useful to foreign actors for such testing. Unlike Facebook, Reddit’s groups are open and accessible to anyone, even users who don’t have accounts. And unlike Twitter, the content and conversations are neatly organized and can be arranged by popularity or time.

This means that anyone can stumble onto a forum, or “subreddit,” and easily see its content, as opposed to Facebook and Twitter, where users generally have to work their way into communities.

Reddit could also be vulnerable to foreign interference because the site has much looser terms of service than Twitter and Facebook. While Facebook and Twitter have algorithms and human teams reviewing harmful and fake content, Reddit has traditionally taken a more hands-off role, relying on the volunteer moderators of its various communities to police those same communities. Reddit notes that it does have internal teams of human reviewers teams to find and remove content that violates its terms of service, which bans abusive behavior and bots.

Russian actors using Reddit to spread certain types of information also wouldn’t necessarily violate the company’s rules, as long as real people are behind the accounts disseminating the information.

Much of the news on the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into social media and Russia has focused on social media ads. Unlike Facebook, Twitter and Google, though, Reddit’s ad-buying process requires purchasers to interact with a person at the company, a step that could complicate attempts to buy election-influencing ads. Additionally, Reddit has substantially lower traffic and user figures than Facebook and Google.

But Reddit, the fourth-most visited website in the United States, is still a massive platform. Instead of focusing on Reddit ads, lawmakers and experts say they’re more concerned with coordinated efforts by fake users and bots to sway public opinion organically.

Experts say any full investigation into potential foreign social media influence over elections is unlikely to stop at social media giants like Facebook, Twitter and Reddit. Instead, they say investigators should include chat and photo-sharing apps like Telegram, Snapchat and the Facebook-owned WhatsApp.

“The chat apps are definitely the next step,” Bradshaw said. “Figuring out how Snapchat, and even dating apps, how those new platforms are also being used by these actors. Those are the platforms really growing in popularity, especially among young people. We don’t know much about what’s happening on them.”