Reddit’s potential role in breaking news coverage

Alex Leavitt
Mar 31, 2014 · 11 min read

EDIT: This work has become a fully-fledged dissertation. You can read it open-access here:

On Friday evening, we had an earthquake in Los Angeles. A 5.1 in the eastern part of the city. My partner and I were at home when the shaking started, but the anxiety hit when the rumbling continued much longer than the quake we had experienced a few weeks prior. On Saturday morning, we bought an emergency kit and some harnesses for the cats. I also began thinking ahead to our earthquake plan: what to do, where to go, how to contact each other…

I study communication technology, and one of the questions social scientists in this area deal with is, “Why do people use particular channels to gather or spread information?” When it comes to disaster communication, like during an earthquake, these choices matter. Even more so when the invisible infrastructures we depend on everyday, like cell phone reception, suddenly become visible when they don’t work. For instance, think back to the Tohoku earthquake in 2011, when Japanese citizens took to Twitter in response to cell phone outages. Social media platforms have increasingly been adopted for breaking news coverage, especially mass broadcast media like Twitter. Some individuals, though, go to other outlets.

Breaking the News on reddit

Next month, my co-author and I will be in Toronto at the annual SIGCHI conference, to present research we conducted examining how reddit reports breaking news. There are some notable examples, from the Aurora, CO movie theater shooting to the recent comprehensive threads about MH370, as well as instances where such efforts broke down, such as after the Boston marathon bombings (as a side note, next month we will also be publishing some preliminary results from our analysis of the /r/findbostonbombers message logs). We focused specifically on one collective of users who shared information about Hurricane Sandy at the end of 2012 through the /r/sandy subreddit, and we examined how users collectively produced and filtered “news” information. We conducted textual analysis on posts and interviews with moderators to understand how individuals constructed a discourse about what information should and should not be allowed in the subreddit, and we modeled what types of content were likely to be posted based on a number of factors like voting behaviors and user attributes.

If you’re interested, you can read the paper here: Upvoting Hurricane Sandy: Event-Based News Production Processes on a Social News Site [PDF].

Reddit increasingly is being used by millions of individuals as a channel for information, whether critical or mundane. That role as a mass communication platform begs researchers to reconsider how the dynamics of interactive media—especially media that combine top-down editorialization with bottom-up production and filtering — shape information agendas (Mathew Ingram actually has a solid essay on this conflict at Gigaom). This issue is the crux of our SIGCHI paper: how does “networked gatekeeping,” where both moderators and the community act as the editors of news, impact breaking news production on reddit.

In this article, I will continue to reflect on the question of whether or not reddit can really be used as a platform and a collective for breaking news. I use a case study of data from the recent Los Angeles earthquake in the /r/LosAngeles subreddit. This is a question that reddit, the company, has had to deal with time and again. Recently, they announced experimental features for users to collectively curate live information in an easier-to-use format than the usual “self” post, reddit’s ordinary text-based thread. Creating a specific format for breaking news is a valid response to how news travels within reddit. Three emergent forms have primarily taken place: many contributions can be contained to a particular subreddit (e.g., /r/sandy), the contributions can be posted across multiple subreddits (Hurricane Sandy URLs, posts, and images appeared across many different subcommunities, like /r/news, /r/pics, /r/funny, etc.), or updates can be relegated to a specific, single thread within any particular community (like the comprehensive update thread during the Aurora shooting).

What an Earthquake Looks Like on reddit

In our paper, we focused specifically on the curation of topical news content within one subreddit. The recent earthquake in Los Angeles presents another example of how news can be reported. Of course, breaking news manifests in a rather uncoordinated fashion, regardless of the platform.

For context, I have been a member of the /r/LosAngeles subreddit since we moved from Boston to LA in 2011, and I have been familiar with the subreddit’s dynamics for a few years, as well as numerous members of the local community. Notably, whenever an earthquake occurs in the city, many people jump to the platform to post about it. I am also acquainted with a number of the moderators of /r/LosAngeles, and they have related to me how moderation of these events can become especially cumbersome, since so many individuals quickly post repetitive information to the subreddit.

Producing the News

Before the earthquake shook our apartment complex, I was sitting on the couch, browsing through reddit on my phone, and I posted a quick update to the subreddit. Two posts beat me to the scoop, but my thread in particular got adopted as the de facto thread on which hundreds of users eventually voted and commented. In the first 15 minutes, my post garnered 212 comments and a score of 132 (total upvotes minus total downvotes). Based on a number of screenshots I took throughout the evening, we can see the rapid growth of the post’s score (again, upvotes minus downvotes, not total number of votes) and its comments:

Number of comments and total score over time.

Below, you can also see the number of comments posted per minute:

Total comments per minute after posting about the earthquake

As of the writing of this article Saturday evening, the post has collected 607 comments (across 385 distinct users) and a score of 531, tallied from 734 upvotes and 203 downvotes (so, 937 voting individuals in total). The hyperactivity around breaking news is evident in the case of the Los Angeles earthquake.

As far as comments in the earthquake thread, the majority of the comments (based on me reading through each one as they were sent to my inbox) were individuals checking in to confirm they had also felt the quake in their neighborhood. Some, of course, were replies to discussion, as well as jokes: the highest-voted comment was an animated GIF of a local news anchor that became popular during the previous earthquake:

KTLA anchor Chris Schauble’s on-air reaction to the earthquake on March 17, 2014.

We might want to understand what kind of users are responding to breaking news. Are they newbies or veterans? Is commenting about an earthquake related to how much they contribute to the subreddit?

Number of user accounts per age of each account that commented in my earthquake post to /r/LosAngeles. (385 users)
Ratio of each user’s /r/LA contributions to total contributions. X-axis is post ratio, Y-axis is comment ratio. (385 users)

In the first chart, we can see that many of the users are “mid-tier,” in that many have been around for between 1-3 years, with some newbies and some veterans. Also, in the second graph, we see that many users tend to contribute across a range of subreddits rather than post and comment primarily to /r/LosAngeles. We might expect that users who are engaged by breaking news might participate because of their dedication to participating in a particular community, but the second graph shows few users contributing more than 25% of their posts or comments to this one subreddit.

So what activates a user to post about breaking news? Based on intuition in this case, it seems more likely that individuals might have come to the subreddit because of the connection to their locality. We can hypothesize: in fact, for 17.4% of users that commented, this was their first time posting at all in /r/LosAngeles! The earthquake might have actually encouraged them to engage with the local subreddit rather than prior participation in the subreddit drawing them to post about the earthquake.

What I’ve detailed above focuses entirely on the trace activity of people that contributed to the subreddit. Viewership is an entirely different matter.

Viewing the News

We can ask similar questions about how people use reddit as a space for consuming news as much as producing it. In our /r/sandy paper, we were lucky enough to get statistics on estimated viewers visiting the subreddit. I asked the /r/LosAngeles moderators to provide internal statistics about viewership during the earthquake. The impact of reddit as a place to find breaking news is quite obvious:

Pageviews per hour to the /r/LosAngeles subreddit. The spike occurs just after the earthquake. (Note: the Y-axis should have 2.5k and 3.5k but these are screenshots from the moderator panel.)
Unique visitors per hour to the /r/LosAngeles subreddit. We see a similar spike compared to the above graph, but this chart suggests that the pageviews above are not only generated by a small subset of highly active users. (Note: the Y-axis should have 2.5k and 3.5k but these are screenshots from the moderator panel.)

These graphs suggest that /r/LosAngeles was used as a channel for breaking news, and it is difficult to argue this fluctuation wasn’t related to the earthquake, based on the trends in the temporal data above. Compared to other graphs unpublished here, there was a similarly-sized spike a few weeks ago during the other earthquake. One question that emerges is: Do users drawn in by the quake stick around? It’s unclear for the moment (and the subscription statistics I have for the subreddit did not aggregate in time for the writing of this article).

There is, too, a need for further research to highlight the exact motivations for why someone would use versus another channel. My initial assumptions point to reddit increasingly taking on the role of mainstream media, just like television news — a crucial factor in how social scientists continue to think about the role that social media platforms play in impacting individuals’ perceptions of the world.

Next, we move on to a crucial factor in breaking news: how moderators structure who can say what through their powers of editorialization.

Moderating the News

One of the other critical debates that we outline in the Hurricane Sandy paper revolves around the issue of moderation. Moderators exist to guide each subreddit community to a certain ideal of proper contribution, voting, and discussion behaviors. Some moderators do this well, though there are a number of significant cases in reddit’s history where moderators failed quite spectacularly. One of the limitations in our paper is that we just didn’t get information about what posts were deleted from /r/sandy during its active lifespan.

In the case of the earthquake, I asked /r/LA moderators about this exact issue, and I received deletion logs from the past day. In chronological order, these are the posts that were deleted within the span of the first hour after the quake hit:

HOLY SHIT! Earthquake!!!
Big quake just now in SGV
Holy shit, big earthquake felt in Ktown
Earthquake in glendale
Earthquake just now?
Another Earthquake?
Am I Too Drunk Or Was That Another Earthquake??
Earthquake rollers…right now. Venice.
Holy crap! That was a long earthquake.
Sorry guys I just farted.
I wonder if there was an earthquake recently.
That actually wasn’t an earthquake…
Earthquake! (LA Basin)
Did you feel that?!
Anyone feel that one?
God is punishing LA for its immoral ways!
Omg tremor bros
5.3 Earthquake in La Habra!! OH CRAP!!!
Dude. did you just feel that?
What the hell! Another quake?
OMG Earthquake! 9:15pm PST
That moment we have a long earthquake.
What was I thinking of during the 5.4 shaker
5.3 earthquake hits in southeast Los Angeles count…
Really, guys? Come on..
Earthquake victim
Guys! Guys! Its okay. It’s not an earthquake. Its …

I spoke with one of the subreddit moderators about the team’s decision-making process in retaining or deleting particular posts. I also asked about my own post, which I noticed in the first few minutes had been removed from the subreddit and then reinstated. He wrote back:

we decided to just keep the most recent/active ones. since there [were] three that were just different enough to warrant their own discussions

We saw similar thinking from the /r/sandy moderation team around fostering appropriate content but especially dealing with the rapid influx of repetitive content throughout the course of the event (again, see the paper for more details). One issue that didn’t come up in our 2-minute conversation was the issue of moderating humor. Including or excluding jokes led to a big debate within /r/sandy, but I did not get a sense of how that factored into deletions in this instance.

For additional context, these are the posts that were posted within the first hour and that were allowed to remain in the subreddit:

that was a small shaker, felt it in the SGV
Did anyone just feel that? (San Gabriel Canyon/Azusa/Glendora)
Earthquake in DTLA! [my post]
Did you feel it? Where are you located?
I know there was one 20 minutes ago, but did anyone else just feel the aftershock?
OK. I’m new in town. Should I be worried about these earthquakes? And what do I do to not die?
Info on the recent earthquake. Rate your experience for science!

There were 22 other posts related to earthquakes posted up until Saturday afternoon, ranging from news and question asking to jokes and other minutiae, including another notification post related to a second earthquake (that hit Saturday afternoon) that also gained hundreds of comments and votes.

Reddit’s Role in/as the Future of News Infrastructure

With the development of the “liveupdate” category of posting, reddit the company is pushing the platform into a new role, one where its millions of participants and readers depend on it as news infrastructure. Reddit the platform still has many limitations to overcome for breaking news: most notably, there is a threshold for how quickly a breaking news post can make it to the default front page, as it needs to gain traction through many votes to reach the proper level of visibility via reddit’s algorithms. In other words, the process of voting slows down seeing the news. So reddit ends up being much slower to present the breaking news topic than, say, Twitter, where breaking news can appear directly in tweets (and later an additional layer of visibility emerges as keywords and hashtags hit the Trending Topics list).

To conclude, one issue remains unstable: accountability. By this I mean two things: that the platform and its community can become responsible, and that the platform and its community can become understandable. Nick Diakopoulos has written a lot on algorithmic accountability and how we need to understand computational systems technical and social architecture in order to understand their biases. Reddit limits the amount of accountability we can bring to its platform: investigations remain difficult if you wish to look at who votes for what, aggregated voting scores over periods of time, archives of viewership patterns, and records of moderators’ actions. The future of news on reddit may rely as much on new technical architectures for participation as additional granular data for understanding the impact of the platform on society (and vice versa).

    Alex Leavitt

    Written by

    Researcher of the internets. UX Research @Facebook & PhD from @USCAnnenberg. Former: @Playstation @MSFTResearch @DisneyInteract @SocialFlow @MIT. 日本語でOK!

    Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
    Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
    Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade