Mark Frankel
Jul 10, 2018 · 43 min read

Journalists have an ‘open invitation’ to an interesting and under-used beat. How should they use it?


We dispatched reporters to races we knew would be close up and down the country and spoke to members of the public everywhere but I think that we were just a little blind to the way the Labour Party organised itself — and its supporters, online.

The words of a colleague to me in the aftermath of the snap UK general election in May 2017. He was bemoaning the myopia of traditional news media in failing to understand and report on the popularity of the Labour Party Leader, Jeremy Corbyn.

The success of Labour’s grassroots campaigning group, Momentum, is well documented already. Websites, texts and WhatsApp groups were used throughout the campaign to mobilise thousands of foot soldiers to their cause. In the midst of the campaign Buzzfeed were quick to point out how Corbyn was ‘winning’ the electoral battle on Facebook. Others, post-election, illustrated how Momentum helped to get young people interested in politics and BBC Trending explained how Momentum made good use of closed Facebook groups to rally supporters to their cause.

Media organisations have often struggled to adapt their newsgathering and reporting to the reality of disparate news consumption habits and a public that increasingly favours peer-to-peer messaging platforms and social media networks.

There are challenges for us all in discovering and verifying stories we don’t ‘own’ or can’t attribute to other known opinion-formers. There are ethical dilemmas too in journalists seeking to insert themselves into unfamiliar online communities — either openly or undercover.

But, is there more we can — and should, be doing as journalists to move our reporting closer to the communities we seek to serve?

Is there still value in news journalists dwelling in social media platforms where participants are routinely attacked before they are heard and where media manipulation is so dominant?

And, if so, can and should journalists look a little deeper into this local beat and seek greater insight from digital communities in private, invitation-only networks?


For a period of 5 weeks, from early June 2018, I set myself the task of answering three straightforward questions from the perspective of a news journalist:

1. How easy and appropriate is it to join groups and communities intent on peer-to-peer online discussion?

2. What issues or barriers are there in journalists building meaningful connections in these online spaces?

3. How much of what can be observed in these forums would a journalist wish to use or relay to colleagues for publication or broadcast?

Platforms, groups and networks

We have plenty of choice when it comes to messaging networks, social media platforms and online forums today. On the face of it, some (for example, Snapchat and WhatsApp groups) are more private than others (such as Facebook groups and subreddit communities).

‘Closed’ online communities are often very open to those willing to participate in a constructive way. As I will explain, the barriers to entry are often low and may simply reflect how much you are willing to reveal of yourself and abide by the rules set by the moderators. On the other hand, it can be hard to find what you’re looking for in open communities, like Reddit, where conversation threads can be elongated and striking the right tone in conversation is important.

I could have chosen to look at any number of messaging and social media platforms — from WeChat and Viber to Telegram and Signal and even Slack. But for the purposes of this project I needed to narrow my inquires and decided to focus on four platforms. I selected two social media networks where news was already a lively preoccupation — one ‘closed’ (certain Facebook groups) and the other largely ‘open’ but under-used by many journalists (subreddit communities). I investigate the challenges of news access and distribution in WhatsApp groups. Is there anything for journalists to observe beyond the dissemination of falsehoods and media manipulation? And I examine whether hyperlocal forums, like Next Door, and the online gaming community on Discord, offer journalists the potential for new thinking?

Invitation-only online networks are often equated with the ‘dark social’ world of the internet. The phrase conjures up images of clandestine, disruptive and illegal behaviour, of individuals and communities seeking to organise in secret because their actions wouldn’t be permissible in public. This research project is not about those who seek shelter and anonymity in invitation-only online communities in order to sow hatred, plant conspiracies or participate in illegal activity. Others, like Jamie Bartlett , have written extensively on this subject.

Instead, my focus is on those who use the anonymity and moderation of these communities to find and make new connections with others, to share often personal stories born out of genuine insight and experience in places where journalists seldom explore.

If people seek the privacy of a forum with like-minded individuals to share their views they’re unlikely to think well of a lurking journalist. As I will also discuss in the course of this report, alongside the discovery and verification of stories of interest in these communities, building trust over time is vital. Many of those who inhabit these networks are looking for stories to find them in their news feed and to connect with their lives. It’s this immediacy that serves as a catalyst for conversation in these groups and platforms. It’s my contention that journalists need to change their ‘game plan’ to become part of these conversations.

Use of private social media networks

In early 2013 residents of East Boston were served with a proposal for the construction of an enormous billion-dollar casino complex in their neighbourhood. As Lynn Schofield Clark and Regina Marchi document in their excellent book, “Young People and the Future of News”, a community collective action group was formed, called the ‘No Eastie Casino Coalition’, to try and block the construction of the complex. The Coalition involved a range of people from the community, including a number of young people who organised via social media platforms.

As Clark and Marchi point out, the campaign was largely overlooked by the mainstream media at the time. The Boston Globe referred to the November 5th referendum as a “lock” and was surprised to see it rejected wholeheartedly by 56 to 44 percent.

Interestingly, the campaign to block the casino complex revealed another dynamic. Clark and Marchi found that the student participants chose to organise some of their action amongst a closed circle on Snapchat rather than in more open forums on Facebook or Twitter.

We found that young people at the margins who may have been reluctant to voice either support or opposition on Facebook or Twitter found the participation barriers to be much lower in communication among a select circle.

In fact, when Clark and Marchi looked at their use of social media in greater detail they observed that the students chose a variety of platforms for different forms of activity — using “Facebook for organising and talking about protests, Twitter for messages to followers about activities, and Snapchat for real-time unfolding of events.”

The desire to discuss news in relative privacy was a focus in this year’s Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Analysis from a YouGov online survey of 74,000 people in 37 countries makes explicit reference to the growing influence of so-called messaging platforms (such as WhatsApp, Snapchat and Viber).

Although Facebook still comes out on top in terms of overall consumption of news on social media, the proportion of those surveyed for this study that access news via WhatsApp has doubled in four years to 16 percent. (And, this is even higher in countries, such as Malaysia and Turkey, where it can be dangerous to express views in more open networks). As the report also makes clear, recent concerns over data protection and privacy have also played a part in encouraging greater use of messaging networks.

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2018 Reuters Digital News Report

Research focus

To try and understand a little more about the barriers and opportunities for story discovery in these platforms and networks I set myself a daily task. For a fortnight in June 2018 I spent a couple of hours (at different times of the day, Monday to Friday) looking for stories, angles and contributors in subreddit communities, closed Facebook groups and Discord channels. Although I made no attempt to hide my identity as a journalist I also stopped short of making direct contact with anyone I found of interest.

Some of the details of what I discovered will need to remain confidential, but I have logged what I’m able to present in an appendix to this report.

There were three elements to my preparation:

1. I created Crowdtangle ‘live display’ boards to alert myself to ‘over-performing’ stories bubbling up in subreddit communities and a range of public Facebook groups around topics of wide news interest.

2. I joined a range of public servers on Discord across a spectrum of interests — from gaming communities and political chat to mental health and followed leads from other users to new servers of interest.

3. I also subscribed to a number of other subreddit communities and closed Facebook groups on a range of news topics, from Brexit to U.S politics, drug legalisation and LGBT rights, adding more as and when I discovered them and was invited inside.

Each search began with a trawl of these groups, servers and communities. What could I observe that I’d be interested in knowing more about and why? How straightforward was it to discover more, connect with members and moderators and how might I use what I learned in a public setting?

I then turned to the international-facing BBC News website and a prominent local news-provider, The Boston Globe. Thinking about the stories that were featured on their front pages or at index level, how could I use these same groups and networks to drill deeper into these stories — to find new angles, contributors and insight? Again, what might the issues and barriers be and how would I seek to overcome them?

Clearly, this was largely a hypothetical exercise as I wasn’t seeking to publish anything and, in many cases, relationships and trust would need to be established and built up over time.

How ‘closed’ are closed groups and forums?

Next Door

Being a newbie in Cambridge, Massachusetts for five weeks, one of the first things I decided to do was to try and get to know my neighbours via the local social network, Next Door. The platform launched in the U.S back in 2011 and is used in 86 percent of U.S neighbourhoods. Next Door has expanded more recently into Europe (the Netherlands, U.K, Germany and France) and is now active in 185,000 neighbourhoods in the U.S and these European countries with ambitions to move into other parts of the world too.

To gain entry to your neighbourhood network you need to use your real name and physical address but don’t need to say much more about yourself if you’re not inclined. Once inside I quickly found advice about local plumbers, gardeners and the real estate market, updates from Cambridge police and from residents looking to buy and sell items but there were plenty of other things that caught my eye. Neighbours talking about local issues, burglaries and even the occasional political chat.

Next Door is an opportunity for journalists to keep an eye on a local beat. Where Facebook aims to create ‘virtual communities’ with those who share interests Next Door’s focus is on location. The attraction of the platform is that it’s hyperlocal, visible only to those in defined geographical neighbourhoods. It provides journalists with a contact book and portal into local feelings and attitudes on a range of subjects and includes feeds from news providers and 3,000 public agencies too (police, fire, weather etc).

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A public agency feed on Next Door
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A public agency update on a local story in Next Door

You chat to a neighbour or respond to a news article. News providers can also conduct ‘polls’ in neighbourhoods on given issues.

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The platform has had to revise its community guidelines following complaints about racial profiling and discrimination from some members but its growth in the last few years has been impressive.

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One recent message posted to the Agassiz Next Door neighbourhood

Next Door’s moderators or “leads” are all local volunteers with a keen interest in the community. They’re provided with training and 24/7 support and decisions on permissible activity and posts are down to them and their interpretation of the community guidelines. The company permits and encourages “civil and respectful” discussion about local ballots or elections and, in their community guidelines on on not using the platform as a soapbox they suggest members ‘create a group’ within their neighbourhood feed “to discuss national or state politics and other non-local campaign topics” — another avenue of opportunity for journalists in any given area to test the waters on a wider subject.

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Some Next Door neighbourhoods in Cambridge, MA

Facebook and WhatsApp groups

Both Facebook and WhatsApp can now count their active monthly users in billions. Over a billion Facebook users are using Facebook groups on a monthly basis. We have no idea, however, of the current number of active Facebook or WhatsApp groups nor do we have details on the recurring themes and topics of conversation in these groups.

Where Facebook is concerned, most closed groups are at least publicly searchable via the explore tab and users are offered local personalised recommendations too, based on your activity and friendships.

We also know that a number of these groups (particularly on WhatsApp) have become particularly noteworthy for the dissemination of false, manipulated information — and that this problem is especially acute in those countries where the messaging platform has grown the fastest.

WhatsApp groups

False information in WhatsApp groups is ubiquitous . Many activists and journalists have taken to creating online fact-checking services in an attempt to stem the flow of misinformation. These include La Silla Vacia in Colombia , Verificado in Mexico and many other coalitions of academics, journalists and activists in Europe, Africa, the Americas and Asia.

The spread of misinformation on WhatsApp is a particular issue amongst the more than 200 million users in India as the BBC’s Dan Johnson explains here . In the wake of one horrific WhatsApp story in India I turned to a small verification team, called Check4Spam@WhatsApp , and quickly discovered (via a WhatsApp chat where I was called “Dan”) how they had sought to debunk the story. There’s little doubt that all this verification work is a public good. At issue, however, is the impact it can have on the dissemination of false news without additional input and intervention from WhatsApp itself — something the current Indian Government has been particularly vocal about recently.

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(Screen grab care of Chek4Spam@WhatsApp shared with me on 11th June 2018)

Beyond the dissemination of false news, it’s hard to find WhatsApp groups with noteworthy conversation without a tip off and an invitation. A simple Twitter or reddit search for groups will throw up some random results. But many of those groups that are advertised publicly are of limited interest and/or full up (having accepted their capacity of 256 members).

One opportunity for journalists on WhatsApp is when users seek to advertise a group invite to those in another closed network, such as a Facebook group. I discovered a handful of interesting groups this way. This does, of course, present an immediate ethical challenge too if the journalist is acting under cover. There’s no introductory vetting process for WhatsApp groups. If you have an invitation link and the group isn’t full you’re in — until and unless a group admin chooses to boot you out. So the question arises, will you reveal yourself as a journalist when you enter the group or simply ‘lurk’ there to observe the chat? To act incognito will require some editorial justification and a degree of explanation to those group members if and when you choose to make direct contact with any of them.

Some journalists have been particularly enterprising in their investigation of WhatsApp groups. Shivam Vij is a website journalist and political commentator based in New Delhi. WhatsApp has seen phenomenal user growth in India and, as Vij has observed, is as widely used by politicians and activists as by members of the public.

Vij has been invited into a number of (Hindi-language) WhatsApp groups through friends and contacts. One day someone he knew sent him a single invite link to a WhatsApp group and from there he was invited to many more. Subjects will range from local politics and elections (when relevant) to food pricing, inflation and cow protection, the role of the army and Islamic militants and many groups are simply sharing memes, jokes and banter at a hyperlocal level. In many of these closed forums he’s observed highly partisan Hindu nationalism and the perspective of India’s ruling party, the BJP, is particularly dominant. “The BJP are ahead of other parties in matters of technology,” he tells me, and “many software engineers support the party”.

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(A screengrab care of Shivam Vij of a number WhatsApp Hindu-nationalist supporting WhatsApp groups. Note how they are all using the same profile picture. “One day”, he said, “all the groups I was in changed their image to the same picture.” “A sign,” he says “of some central organisation.”)

During February 2017 state elections in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, Vij saw how political narratives of different kinds played out across Hindu-nationalist WhatsApp groups. He tells me that it’s important to understand that BJP activists are promoting a different agenda at national, state and local levels and much of this is evident in these group discussions. To illustrate this point Vij recounts a story of an encounter he had with a teenager in a village in Uttar Pradesh. The boy told him that he used WhatsApp regularly and then showed him an extensive gallery on his Android phone of mostly political images . A meme was circulating widely of a woman on a Indian bank note with the phrase ‘Sonam Gupta is unfaithful’, based on a popular meme. The boy had an obscene photoshopped version of the same image with a picture of Prime Minister Modi grabbing the woman by her breasts and a message: ‘Modi has found Sonam Gupta.’ This image was being widely distributed through WhatsApp groups at a local level to bolster Modi’s machismo personna. India had been searching for the unfaithful woman but only Modi could have found her.

Vij is mindful of the significant editorial, ethical challenges in journalists writing about what they observe in these groups. Much of the extreme right-wing material he observes is unpublishable and he’s conscious of not becoming a surrogate to party political propaganda or assisting in any way in the dissemination of fake narratives. Misinformation is a significant hazard but so is party apparatchiks using WhatsApp groups to divert the attention of local supporters and party members away from a bad news story.

Having said all this it’s clear that these groups provide journalists with a valuable birds-eye view on a community they may otherwise struggle to hear. Alongside the spin and propaganda of certain messages and memes there are also frank exchanges between party members, activists and local communities and, as Vij has demonstrated, there are ways to write about what you hear.

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c.Shivam Vij

It’s impossible to know whether the meme you’re seeing in any of these WhatsApp groups has come from a party official or member of the public. Many of the messages are repeated and shared across groups and few participants are open about their affiliations in their profiles. There are undoubtedly secret groups where invitation links are more protected and conversations less open but there’s plenty to keep any journalist occupied in other groups if you have the time and energy to sift through the messages.

Vij says he understands that during the May 2018 state elections in Karnataka the BJP was running around 25,000 WhatsApp groups (to the Congress Party’s 10,000). A way into WhatsApp group chats will clearly be important during the 2019 Indian general election. “Most Indians are discussing politics via the medium of WhatsApp today”, he says, and it’s “vital” that journalists have a ring-side seat.

Facebook closed groups

Searching for groups in Facebook is a little more straightforward than on WhatsApp. Facebook users can search for groups that are either ‘public’, ‘closed’ or both using keywords in Facebook’s graph search or via Google. Although we don’t know how many active groups there are in total on Facebook it’s illuminating to discover the volume that are ‘closed’ on any given subject.

Almost every day I logged my search activity for news stories in invitation-only networks I was able to find a relevant closed Facebook group with several active members and often lively conversation. The barriers to entry in these ‘closed’ groups were often low too.

Anna Bofa, head of community partnerships for Facebook in EMEA, works closely with the product team on Facebook groups. She told me that Facebook is testing a new feature to allow people who don’t wish to be identified by their real persona to have secret profiles in a group, provided group admins accept them. Creating a safer environment for people to feel more willing to share is one matter but secret profiles will undoubtedly lead to further challenges, as some misuse them to scam and disrupt conversations and others lurk in groups for an ulterior motive.

At present, Facebook group administrators simply require users to abide by the rules of a group, acknowledge their interest in the subject or answer some basic identity questions before being invited into the discussion. In most cases those managing these groups are looking to avoid conversations being disrupted, members being harassed and moderation becoming overtly burdensome. I have encountered very few instances where those introducing themselves as journalists were not welcome to participate, ‘though as Buzzfeed’s Media Editor Craig Silverman has illustrated, it’s clear that some groups have been targeted by those seeking to spread false rumours and misinformation.

A simple search for groups with a focus on Brexit in Crowdtangle is a good case in point.

Of the 165 groups I could discover using Crowdtangle (on 5th June 2018) with “Brexit” as key word search (for title/description) only 59 of them were public. And, the majority of those groups with membership of over 1,000 were all ‘closed’. In other words, there is no way for journalists to observe conversations in many of these groups without seeking to join them first.

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The second largest group associated with Brexit (in terms of membership, as of 5th June) was a UKIP-supporting, closed group. Those seeking to join were asked to answer the questions (as below).

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I answered the questions as below and gained entry shortly afterwards:

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The same issue presented itself for those wishing to join a large ‘anti-Brexit’ closed Facebook group:

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Again, there are ways of approaching these questions as a journalist without perjury and compromising your impartiality and objectivity:

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Another WhatsApp route?

Unfortunately, there are no online forms you can complete within WhatsApp to find a relevant Brexit group. Beyond trawling through Twitter, reddit and Google, being fortunate enough to see a potentially worthwhile invitation via a closed Facebook group or Discord server or being invited into a group via friend, colleague or local club or society another possible avenue for journalists is via an NGO.

Witness is one such organisation that’s worked closely with communities to document human rights abuses through eyewitness video.

A large percentage of the footage collected in Brazil today is recorded and disseminated via social media apps and platforms — particularly in WhatsApp. The paramilitary and police use WhatsApp groups to coordinate their own activity. Local community groups use WhatsApp routinely to alert, update and share information involved in their video documentation of incidents.

Priscila Neri is a Brazilian journalist and activist and oversees the organisation’s work in Latin America. She explained to me how critical WhatsApp groups have become. “The biggest impediment in this space is trust”, she says. Three years ago the New York Times produced a report on the collection of eye-witness video through social media apps and platforms in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Coletivo Papo Reto is a group of community-based activists who use mobile phones and social media to document what they encounter in the Complexo do Alemão, a group of 16 favelas in the northern part of Rio. Today, representatives from the favelas participate regularly in carefully controlled WhatsApp groups to verify and share information on local incidents. These are then brought to greater public attention through a public Facebook page and to trusted journalists via Witness for further amplification. The verification process and admissibility of these videos in any legal process remains contentious with the authorities in Brazil but Witness work hard to ensure the videos and the chat history are properly recorded and archived. Journalists may not be able to inhabit the WhatsApp groups themselves, but they can (in partnership with Witness) see and assess valuable first hand evidence. As Priscila Neri tells me, this “chain of communication created at a local level can make a big difference, particularly if what’s filmed on WhatsApp is admissible in court.”

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(A June 2018 WhatsApp group chat posted to Facebook for wider publicity)

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An Instagram Post explaining how WhatsApp groups for Coletivo Papo Reto are organised

How ‘open’ are public subreddit communities?

Reddit has well over half a million monthly active users (with more than half of them based in the U.S). It’s a predominantly ‘open’ platform with only a small number of private communities. But, for the uninitiated journalist, the over 140 thousand active subreddit communities (posting at least once a month and many of them several times a day) can prove daunting.

The essentials on the platform are all covered in this wiki guide and I list some of my preferred subreddit communities (atow) at the end of this section. Reddit have also just announced a new ‘news tab’, “for those seeking a home for content that the community surfaces from a group of subreddits that frequently share and engage with the news.” Time will tell if the reddit news tab provides an easy way into some larger news communities for redditors. However, many of the most interesting stories circulate in a large variety of comment threads, and not always in the most obvious subreddit communities. The trick is knowing where to look and in not getting lost in a myriad of comments.

Most of reddit is open to any user but there are a small number of ‘invite only’ communities.

Private subreddit communities tend to be very small, under 20 subscribers, and many only exist to help moderators with logistics. There are a few much larger private subreddit communities. For those who can boast a significant profile on the platform. The Century Club is one example:

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It’s also possible to discover other ‘private members clubs’ of potential interest where (as with WhatsApp and closed Facebook groups) journalists would undoubtedly need to make an editorial rationale for going under cover before contacting community moderators. Here are a few I found simply by searching for “Brexit” and “Trump” on reddit:

Some reporters have embraced reddit. New York Times reporter, Kevin Roose’s exposé on deep fakes to name one. Others have embraced ‘AMAs’. A few, like The Washington Post and BBC News, have created reddit profiles (to build new connections with audiences and help encourage sharing/upvoting of articles (and, consequently, referral traffic back to their own news sites). But what exactly can journalists gain by adopting a greater focus on public subreddit communities in particular. Should we be looking to create ‘reddit reporters’ in our newsrooms?

To help me answer this question I went to meet Benjamin Brock Johnson, the host of a weekly public radio podcast called ‘Endless Thread’ from Boston’s WBUR, which launched in January 2018. The show is supported by Reddit and all about those stories they can find in subreddit communities.

Brock Johnson and two others spend hours each week literally combing through conversation threads in subreddit communities looking for interesting, under-reported stories. As the show has become better known more redditors have reached out to them directly. But, for the most part, they send lots of messages and come across numerous ‘throwaway accounts’ (where an account has ‘throwaway’ in the username — so you’re unlikely to hear back).

The show is backed by reddit but Brock Johnson is clear about their editorial independence. “Reddit gets to hear the show a day before it airs but has never blocked anything we’ve chosen to do.” They decided against an episode on reddit’s user generated porn community in the early days of the show but now have a new idea based on the r/gonewild subreddit community. A recent episode on Ken Bone “raised a few eyebrows” at reddit too but Brock Johnson is quick to point out that they didn’t reach any conclusions. He is also unwavering in his commitment: “Lots of stuff on reddit is quite insider, geeky and offensive but there are some genuinely fascinating stories too if you root through the comments on specific posts…Who would have thought that there would be such a vibrant community for the homeless on reddit, for example?”

The show looks to find people who can speak from first-hand-experience. Verification is a challenge with a small team but, to his knowledge, they haven’t been duped yet. When the programme reaches out to potential contributors they take a lot of care to bring them on board and to protect their anonymity if necessary. Redditors react badly to interlopers. As Brock Johnson emphasises: “one of the things that’s so powerful about reddit is the anonymity of the site. It allows people to be more honest than they might be on Facebook.” Endless Thread will always send a private message if they’re keen to talk directly to someone, give due credit and link back to articles as and where relevant.

Many of the subjects that the Endless Thread team have selected for podcasts are touchstone issues — addiction, death and suicide, sexuality, homelessness, to name but a few. The credibility the journalists have on reddit is important and one takeaway for those seeking to develop a local beat on the platform is the importance of establishing a foothold there yourself — with a clear appreciation of the grammar and lexicon used by redditors (witness the credits and shout-out to redditors at the end of their podcast) and a proven background of activity in different subreddit communities. One of the first things a redditor will do when you send them a message is to look at your profile before they reply.

There are some important ethical considerations too. One Endless Thread podcast focused on how a recovering heroin addict had found solace in a reddit opioids community. The team had to discuss their responsibility to him in broadcasting his story — and needed further discussion when their interviewee was keen to set up a way for other recovering addicts to contact him for help via the show.

Brock Johnson agrees that reddit is a rich local beat for journalists seeking to uncover original stories from a range of communities. “It’s a massive treasure trove of people talking about real issues and news organisations would be wise to be more active in the community, not parachuting in to report on individual stories but actually participating in the conversations there.” However, despite the success of the podcast, he’s wary of reddit substituting more generally for local reporting. The subcommunities are randomly organised and policed by moderators, “all of whom have their own outlooks and whims”, he says. Each community is only as strong and as open as the moderators allow it to be.

A few subreddit communities of note:


















‘Meaningful social interaction’

When Mark Zuckerberg announced changes to Facebook’s news feed in January 2018 his buzzword for ‘success’ (read: visibility of content on the platform) was ‘meaningful social interaction’. Much debate followed on the precise definition of the phrase and how it would be applied.

All journalists seek ‘meaningful’ connections with the public they serve, particularly when in pursuit of a new angle or story. Much of what I have outlined so far requires journalists to do little more than ‘lurk’ and observe the chat. So, what can we find if we dig a little deeper, create the groups and focus for interaction ourselves and play a more active role in the moderation of different communities on given subjects?

Many journalists and news media have created Facebook groups themselves to encourage users to share stories they wouldn’t otherwise hear and to build new audiences for their journalism. Facebook offer advice on group creation and management and has highlighted a number of news organisations for their work in creating groups over recent months.

News media has thought hard about how best to focus on Facebook groups — the specificity of the topic, whether to make the groups ‘public’ or ‘closed’ and of the resource commitment in ongoing moderation.

Colleagues of mine at BBC News, for example, have created closed Facebook groups around hyperlocal niche topics (such as on a campaign against tree-felling in Sheffield and of much broader interest (for example on the NHS).

The specificity and narrowness of a topic has proved an easier ‘sell’ to audiences with direct interest and experience and, in the case of the group on Sheffield Trees, led to a video story which proved highly engaging. There were challenges for the group admins in ensuring the members of this group didn’t use the forum to campaign for particular candidates during local elections and it was also hard to move participants on to other ‘local democracy’ issues (despite attempts to re-brand the group) once the group admins felt the topic had run its course.

Conversely, the broader themed NHS Facebook group is a different challenge altogether. The group may be clear in its remit but members appear to have joined for a variety of reasons. Some are keen to share anecdotes and respond to posts from group admins and members with their own experience and insight. Others, on the other hand, are looking for advice or want to campaign on a specific issue. New stories and angles have been forthcoming, but ongoing moderation is a big ongoing effort.

Anna Bofa from Facebook told me that the company were looking to introduce more auto-flagging options for troublesome words and phrases mentioned in groups and the ability for moderators to see posts before they’re made public. At issue, however, is the 24/7 commitment of moderators to the group. Rules can be published, invitation questions devised, and membership controlled in closed groups but there’s no way to ensure complete safety for those seeking to share in a Facebook group.

Despite the effort, however, closed groups created by journalists can be hugely rewarding. The BBC News family and education social media team created a ‘Teen Mums’ closed Facebook group to attempt to reach an audience we struggled to engage. The group needed to be grown and nurtured over several months and it was clearly inappropriate for some of us to be group admins. Over time, a number of women in the group have shared very personal stories that we would have been unlikely to have found via more traditional newsgathering.

Karyn Fleeting, head of audience engagement at Trinity Mirror regionals, oversees regional digital teams throughout England, managing dozens of Facebook groups. With the exception of groups they’ve created around ongoing court trials page admins have preferred to focus on public Facebook groups and have had particular success with groups dedicated to breaking news, traffic and travel alerts and ‘good news’ . As Karyn pointed out to me, the sense of exclusivity and privacy of a closed group can sometimes lead to more meaningful conversations “but people can’t share material from a closed group outside of that walled garden.”

Sometimes, however, sharing outside of the group is less important than creating a ‘safe space’, carefully moderated and controlled, to encourage sensible conversation on often controversial topics is valuable. ‘This is Your Texas’, ‘Vox Care’ and BBC Money’s Affordable Living are all good examples of well moderated closed groups where conversation often leads to story ideas.

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A closed (and now archived) Facebook Page created by Spaceship Media in partnership with news media

San Francisco based Spaceship Media is one organisation that’s invested heavily in closed Facebook groups. Their founders, journalists Eve Pearlman and Jeremy Hay, believe passionately in using groups to build bridges between divided communities, as they explain in detail on their website. The ‘dialogue journalism’ model they support is a partnership between interested media and the communities they serve. They seek to create a trustworthy, convivial and carefully moderated space for people to share their thoughts and experiences on a given subject. When appropriate and relevant, journalists are invited in to build relationships, seek quotes and amplify selected stories from the group to a wider public.

Spaceship Media has had a good deal of success with closed Facebook groups already, running a variety of initiatives including conversations about politics with a select group of Alabama women who voted for Trump and Californian women who voted for Clinton; a collaborative discussion about guns; and an ongoing project focused on women called ‘The Many’ , which has brought together several hundred women from across the country into a moderated Facebook group to discuss political, social and cultural issues in the run-up to November’s U.S mid-term elections.

I was fortunate enough to be invited in to observe the month-long Facebook discussion on guns in April/May of 2018 and witnessed a fascinating ongoing conversation between 135 courteous and well-intentioned participants from a variety of backgrounds and points of view plus around a dozen journalists and moderators. Many of those in the group were moved by the views and perspectives of others and a number of them were keen to keep the conversation going in different ways at the end of the month. As Jeremy Hay pointed out to me, more than half of the group participants were ‘listening’ but not posting but everyone had a story and interesting perspective to share. Here are two post excerpts, shared publicly with the permission of the two men who published their thoughts to the group in the first place:

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John Counts is a reporter for MLive, specialising in police and court stories, based in Michigan. He was both a moderator and reporter in the guns group and has written about the “dizzying amount of words” he and other moderators needed to keep across. They had to introduce guidelines for members on “stats-dumping”, encourage women to speak up to counter “mansplaining” and there was more than the occasional angry exchange to mediate.

Counts took on an evening moderation shift to work around his reporting commitments and told me that there were times when the conversation could “get a little crazy.” He recounted one particular episode to me when a staunch second amendment rights supporter, who was in an African-American gun club, clashed with a white police officer from Massachusetts over racial profiling and he had to weigh in to keep the peace. These “blow ups” didn’t happen that often and Counts told me that moderators could tell which posts submitted to them were likely to generate more heat.

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John Counts approached the group to discuss a story he’s interested in writing. He received dozens of constructive responses.

Around a dozen journalists were invited into the ‘Guns: An American Conversation’ closed Facebook group (in partnership with Unlike many of the other projects (where Spaceship Media acts as more of an intermediary between the journalists and group participants) there was an expectation that these journalists would approach members directly if they had story ideas or wished to pick up on comments and a number of stories have already flowed from this initiative.

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Adriana Garcia is also a seasoned journalist and currently project manager for ‘The Many’. The group is evenly divided between democrats, republicans and ‘others.’ It has been running since February of this year and intends to carry on until at least the U.S mid-term elections in November 2018.

I had privileged access to The Many for a week in late June to observe the conversation. Some of the discussion is overtly political and topical. I witnessed a fascinating conversation, for example, between a number of women about the implications of the Justice Kennedy Supreme Court retirement on Roe vs Wade. In another thread, women discussed media coverage of the shooting in the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Maryland. Conversations were wide-ranging, however, and included a focus on race, motherhood and childhood summer memories.

This community is already three times larger than the guns group and requires one part time and two full time moderators . They work 8 hour shifts with a one hour overlap and, when we spoke, Adriana had been awake until 2am monitoring the chat. She is fascinated to see how much is posted during peoples’ working days — ‘though they see a big conversation spike on Sunday and Monday nights. Garcia has also seen some online “fights” and had to mute and block a few participants but the vast majority have been highly engaged, some women have forged new friendships and the open-rate for her weekly group newsletter she told me is “very high.”

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Part of the vetting process for new group members

The creation and moderation of a closed Facebook group of this kind is no mean feat. There’s ongoing discussion about “slowing things down” and about the optimum size for a group before it becomes too hard to moderate. As Eve Pearlman said to me, “we’ve been bugging Facebook about a 9 to 9 limitation for some time now” as it’s important to be able to switch off.

Following an initial call-out via media partners, every participant is carefully selected to ensure the group is balanced and equally weighted (around gender, ethnicity, age, location and points of view). Spaceship Media also conduct questionnaires to determine what exactly participants are keen to know about one another. The commitment that the group members make to the project is matched by the efforts of three moderators who, as I observed, were posting on a regular basis to encourage conversation, manage expectations and help foster a sense of trust between participants and journalists.

Spaceship Media has a plenty of laudable aims: breaking down barriers between communities, developing greater trust between news media and the public on visceral, topical issues and helping their partner media organisations develop a new and valuable local beat., the Minnesota Public Radio Project and Southern California News Group have all embraced the use of community building through groups in their partnership projects. It’s questionable, however, whether that many news organisations have the capacity to run these kind of initiatives on their own?

As Hay and Pearlman were quick to tell me, everything they offer is freely available. “If a news organisation wants to invest in a local beat this is one way of doing it. You put resources into your reporter and give them 10 hours a week to invest in group moderation,” Hay said. The only question is whether news media are serious enough about the endeavour in the first place.

News-discovery in Discord

At face value, Discord, founded in 2015, is simply an ‘all-in-one voice and text chat for gamers that’s free, secure, and works on both your desktop and phone.’ For journalists, however, the platform can (if used discreetly) connect them to numerous hard-to-reach communities.

Over 40 percent of the 130+ million registered users active on Discord (up three-fold in a year) are based in the U.S, but millions of them are located around the world too, including in Canada, Brazil, the U.K and France. Although the Fortnight server (or guild) is currently the most popular (in terms of registered members) there are hundreds of other active and publicly searchable communities within Discord, where discussion ranges well beyond gaming into politics and current affairs , sexuality, mental health and many other topics of potential news-worthy note, including on gun use and ownership, hate speech and even Brexit. Dig a little and you’ll find a world of sub-groups and communities and plenty of recommendations to join new servers.

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Many redditors are also active on Discord. As Discord founder, Jason Citron, put it in an an interview for Rolling Stone in June 2017: “We wanted to build a trust model, where you could invite people you might meet in a party-finder into your private space, and kick them out when you’re done. As it turns out, that model works great for large internet communities. Subreddits were replacing their IRC (internet relay chat) links with Discord links. We kinda leaned into it, to make things better for those groups.”

Discord has attracted a good deal of attention for its propensity to become a breeding ground for hate speech and media manipulation . The anonymity and privacy that users can take advantage of through the platform has been used by individuals and groups with an extremist agenda, many of whom also have profiles on 4Chan and 8Chan . A simple internet search for servers via 4Chan is a sure way into a world of far-right conspiracy and hate.

Brian Friedberg is a research analyst at Data and Society and has spent time studying the ebb and flow of chat on Discord servers. It’s important to be clear, he says, that the primary purpose of Discord has always been for users “to chat about gaming, anime and pornography” and not about mainstream political discussion or direct action. The platform is also a great repository of information (witness ‘TheRedPill’ , for example, which is as active on Discord as on Reddit and regularly shares reading lists). Having said that, in recent times it’s become a natural home for the far-right, as the group Unicorn Riot has documented so effectively, particularly over the Unite the Right rally in August 2017. To Friedberg these Discord users “are essentially constructing fan fictions on a right-wing revolution.”

Friedberg doubts whether far-right groups will continue to organise their activities through Discord. Maybe some of them will move on to Twitch chat forums as an alternative? But there are still plenty of fascinating conversation threads to observe in a multitude of servers on Discord. Heated discussions in LGBT gaming groups, for example, and plenty of chat about local and national political issues across a range of servers.

For those less comfortable about talking in a fully open / public online forum Discord can provide them with an alternative outlet. Through my daily searches in different servers I found that many individuals would share links to documents I hadn’t seen in public websites and spoke freely about a number of subjects — from the Trump administration’s attitude to child migrants to supreme court judgments and local governor races. As Brian Friedberg says, Discord “gives you an immediacy of watching an active conversation and the chance to see the way that ideas are debated and thrown back and forth and how meaning is made in very self-selected ways.”

In many ways the platform harps back to those early days of the social web where largely anonymous groups would hang out in MySpace, AOL or Yahoo. There were ethical considerations for journalists wishing to make contact with people then and there are here too.

Beyond the investigation of extremism and media manipulation on Discord, to use the platform as a news journalist and seek out communities and stories of topical interest requires some careful thought and preparation. Some Discord users are conscious of ‘purveyors’ and those with an extremist agenda have deliberately sought to plant stories for journalists to find and then revelled in the publicity that followed publication of a story. The leaking of confidential files on Emmanuel Macron hours before voters went to the polls in the French Presidential election is a good illustration of this. We all need to be wary of the oxygen of publicity and giving extremism and media manipulation a platform.

Many of those who are active on the platform are invariably unwilling to express themselves in the same way outside the walled-garden of a particular server too.

So what should journalists be asking themselves before setting up a profile on Discord?

· What do you know about the community you’re seeking to find? Have you had an invitation to a server already? Are you looking for a story on a whim or have you had a tip-off via a redditor, for example?

· Are you able and willing to run your account transparently as a journalist and link to your wider digital profile?

· If so, how will you protect yourself against possible recriminations when you find someone you’d like to approach? And, if not, how can you justify your anonymity at the outset of your search and what will you do when you want to quote or reach out to a user?

Some gaming enthusiasts I spoke to recommended finding some buddies who could act as digital surrogates to connect journalists with users in note-worthy servers. As with many of these platforms, it’s possible to join a number of communities and to lurk and observe the chat there without conversing or publishing anything — ‘though some moderators will pose questions and require you to link your phone number or reddit profile for verification before allowing you to enter. It’s also important, as Brian Friedberg pointed out to me, to jump on a VPN (virtual private network) and post occasionally to some servers you’ve joined to avoid being kicked out.

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One Discord server seeking verification from a prospective new member
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All local beats, however, require attention, and this is no exception. An active profile will likely lead to more meaningful connections, to invitations to new groups and servers and potentially new insight on topical stories too (see text below). The question you need to ask is how far you’re willing to dig and whether your journalism justifies the creation of an alternative ‘verified’ profile?

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A discord user relays a personal story in the wake of the controversy surrounding the separation and detention of child migrants entering the U.S


At the turn of the century Harvard professor of public policy, Robert D. Putnam, published Bowling Alone: The collapse and revival of American Community. In this much-celebrated 400-page tome, filled with data analysis and thoughtful scholarship, Putnam looks forward to an age where the “Internet can be used to reinforce real, face-to-face communities, not merely to displace them with a counterfeit ‘virtual community.’”

Nearly two decades on, with the proliferation of online communities and social media networks, Professor Putnam’s question is as relevant as ever. But I would like to add a further line of inquiry: Do these digital communities provide sufficient meaningful engagement to their participants for them to be of greater value and interest to news journalists seeking insightful, original, authentic stories?

There are risks to us placing too much faith in these groups, as Peter Kolloc and Marc Smith observe in their book “Communities in Cyberspace”. For, “most online groups have the structure of either an anarchy [if unmoderated] or a dictatorship [if moderated].”

Understanding the dynamics of a group or network and the influence of those controlling access to the forum is clearly critical. Any group will have a propensity to reinforce the perspective of those who are most dominant/active within it and, hence, to filter the views and experiences of others. This is no more relevant than in ‘closed’ or ‘invite-only’ forums created by individuals or small groups of like-minded people.

Building trust and goodwill is important. As I have illustrated in the course of this report there’s little substitute for building meaningful relationships with those who choose to dwell in these platforms. Media manipulation is an ongoing issue and anonymity can work for both the journalist and the public seeking to exercise their right to free speech with protection. But journalists need to be clear about their purpose in going under cover in pursuit of a story.

As Professor Putnam is quick to point out:

Anonymity and fluidity in that virtual world encourages ‘easy in, easy out, drive-by’ relationships…If entry and exit are too easy, commitment, trustworthiness, and reciprocity will not develop.

The diversity of a newsroom is also a major factor in defining success across this digital local beat. There is the risk that these same groups simply reinforce the particular interests of their core membership rather than extend a voice to those from different backgrounds and perspectives. But there’s also a boundary for journalists. As they seek to participate in a range of niche groups, reference points for invitations to join are vital. Who do they know in that community? Are they likely to be invited in as a heterosexual white middle-class man? Is it fair for them to disguise their identity to gain insight to a community they would otherwise ignore?

Having said all this, it’s my strong contention that journalists need to redouble their efforts and think creatively in pursuit of invitations to these social media clubs and forums. It’s undeniable that the public we serve our spending more of their time in online chat rooms and peer-to-peer groups and we’d be foolish to ignore the opportunity to engage with them where they feel most at ease. We’ve all witnessed the demise of local journalism as newspapers have folded and media organisations have cut back on reporting. The platforms I’ve investigated are no substitute for traditional on-the-ground reporting. They can be unreliable, messy and often blighted by misinformation and hate speech. Nevertheless, there are significant opportunities within them for journalists to seek out new stories and forge essential new community relationships. Discovery and ethics will remain a preoccupation but the relevance of our story-telling to the communities we seek to serve demands that we pay these groups and networks greater attention.


There are many people who I turned for advice and who willingly gave up their time to educate and enlighten me on this subject. In no particular order I would like to thank:

Jeremy Hay, Eve Pearlman, Adriana Garcia, John Counts, Karyn Fleeting, Benjamin Brock Johnson, Claire Wardle, Nic Dias, Emile Robert, Ben Decker, Brian Frieberg, Shivam Vij, Jennifer Mayfield, Jamie Bartlett, Mattise Bustos-Hawkes, Priscila Neri, Anthony Rojos and the r/Boston subreddit community, Lei Guo for putting me in touch with her PhD students at Boston University and all those BBC News social media specialists I have leant on for tips and illustrations of good practice.


Daily log, 5th — 22nd June 2018

5th June

Philadelphia Eagles and Donald Trump:

The Eagles are the first NFL team to trial the new(ish) reddit chat room feature:

Plenty of relevant chat in this Trump forum on reddit:

Miss America’s makeover:

Attempt to make contact with some of those who’ve worked on the pageant via this closed Facebook group:

Massachusetts state police and overtime fraud:

Found an intriguing closed Facebook group for the MA state police: This one is harder to join: but a friends of police group is another option:

6th June

Homeopathy ban upheld by High Court in England to stop NHS funding:

The story quickly rises to the top of r/worldnews on Reddit in my Crowdtangle live display

And we know it’s a popular topic with audiences (witness early Hearken investigation by BBC News:

So, could we return to the story — contact those who got in touch originally and also seek more from those practicing homeopathy via this closed Facebook group:

Qatar airways chief and his sexist remarks:

A quick Facebook search reveals a closed group for cabin crew. Few recent posts but (if I can get in) it could be a way to make contact with staff:

Brockton hospital allergy incident. Story widely read and shared from Boston Globe:

The article lacks quotes from practitioners at the hospital but there’s a closed Facebook group for nurses (with no barriers to entry):

7th June

US Embassy pulls staff out of China following mysterious illness:

Conspiracy theories and rumours abound. Hard to find relevant specific communities and groups but it’s not hard to find some potential leads or talking points: or

Latest Grenfell Tower story about a probe into ‘stay put’ order to residents:

Worth exploring Facebook groups — particularly this closed one:

8th June

Fortnight story:

Do we not want to hear from gamers? Plenty of relevant subreddit communities:

AirbNb and a clamp down in Japan:

A load of great Reddit comments to drill down into in more detail: and a closed Facebook group on AirbNb news: and a professional hosts closed Facebook group:

Massachusetts Senate passing ‘red flag’ gun control law:

Plenty of useful closed Facebook groups on gun control (see SpaceShip Media group):

11th June

WhatsApp ‘child kidnaps’ story:

Plenty of recent history:

But how to find direct evidence of these WhatsApp messages. Challenge of finding the local groups and fact that much of what’s being discussed will be in local languages…

Reddit threads simply provide more discussion and sharing of the same: India Discord group touches on WhatsApp from time to time but hasn’t got much more to say. But a search of WhatsApp + India for Facebook groups provides a LOT of links to groups sharing links on a variety of subjects: (including some closed groups to mine for tip-offs).

In addition, there are a number of open-source WhatsApp fact-checkers operating out of India (see:

A related piece from ‘Check4spam@WhatsApp’:

12th June

Resignation of Justice Minister Phillip Lee over government’s Brexit strategy:

Plenty of reaction from other MPs and journalists but what of his constituents? No closed Facebook group for Bracknell Tories but there is one for West London Conservatives: and many more besides. Also, hundreds of thoughtful comments on this UK politics subreddit thread:

U.S Attorney General to clamp down on domestic violence asylum cases:

Lots of online chat about this but how to find those directly affected? Language and access to relevant groups is key. Working with NGOs and taking back to relevant groups in chat apps?

Some starter clues here: and: Problem is moving from public to closed source but Southern Law Poverty Centre has plenty of leads. (

13th June

Canadians turn to boycott of U.S goods in response to comments made by Trump about Trudeau:

The story is not being covered on the BBC News website but featured prominently (over-performing in Crowdtangle) in the r/WorldNews subreddit and other thread discussions:

So, how to find Canadians who are following the boycott — or not? Two closed Facebook groups:

Canadians for Donald Trump:

Canadians living in the U.S:

Cal-3 ballot initiative to split the State of California:

Feels like a bit of an old chestnut (as the article points out) and is getting fairly short shrift in certain online communities:


Even those commenting on the Vote Cal-3 FB page are sceptical:

Boston to clamp down on short-term AirBnB rentals:

Closed Facebook group for those seeking short-term rentals in the Boston/Cambridge area: plus some useful illustrative comments on the r/Boston subreddit thread:

14th June

One year anniversary of Grenfell Tower fire:

Lots of sharing going on in closed groups:

New Ohio gun law proposed to eliminate public gun-free zones:

Not (yet) being covered by BBC News US Index but ‘over-performing’ in local news in subreddit community. Worth checking-in with members of closed/archived guns Facebook group:

New report on minimum wage workers shows unaffordable housing throughout the U.S:

Again, not being covered (yet) by BBC News — or indeed by the Boston Globe (who are still running the AirBnB clamp-down on short term rentals in the city). But worth tapping up members of the same closed Facebook group mentioned yesterday?

15th June

Minimum wage report resurfaces again via a CBSlocal report:

And now the Boston redditors are all over it — as it ‘over performs’ on Crowdtangle:

Sir Christopher Chope blocks private members bill on banning of up-skirting:

Plenty of discussion about this on Twitter and Reddit — with particular focus on his voting record and the pros and cons of forcing greater scrutiny of bills:

Harvard slammed for admissions process for Asian-Americans:

Recent report is the subject of much debate amongst college students on the Reddit thread:

18th June

Gaming Disorder and WHO classification:

A great one for Reddit/Discord and general online community chat and reaction.

Doing well on r/WorldNews subreddit: (plus worth checking out threads on r/gaming and r/mentalhealth) but also well worth heading to Discord..

Child Migrants separate from parents at U.S border:

Big discussion about this on r/politics subreddit:

Medicinal cannabis and UK legalisation:

Again — worth checking out groups on both Reddit and Facebook: and

19th June

Discussion about child migrants and medicinal cannabis in the UK continue..

The Texas Tribune closed group, ‘This is Your Texas’ is looking into all those groups that are mobilising to help child migrants:

And worth reaching out to those in the ‘closed’ legalise cannabis in the UK Facebook group:

Death of Rapper xxxtentacion following a drive-by shooting:

Subject of plenty of angry discussion about media misunderstanding on this r/music subreddit: and about glorifying his death here: and remembering his music here:

And probably worth approaching moderators about this private subreddit called ‘Bad Vibes Forever’: (community that’s existed for 2 years).

20th June

Canada legalises Cannabis for recreational use:

And subreddit discussion lights up:

and in this closed FB group:

Also interesting to note debate in Boston where legal rollout on recreational use has dragged out:

But not everyone agrees with legalisation agenda:

The plot thickens on shooting of Rapper xxxtentacion:

It’s not hard to find plenty of intrigue and interest (all non-verified): and personal messages from the Rapper to his fans:

And on the possible shooter:

21st June

Child migrants detained at U.S border:

Whilst the politics continues to play out online discussions about the cost/impact of the human tragedy continue. A search of Discord (has: links) produced this (which then became a discussion about the mid terms and voting intentions — in ‘TopMindsofReddit’:

Police make an arrest following murder of xxxtentacion:

Video from his father circulates:

Fake Fortnite Android apps:

Tech site are leading on a story that has been discussed for weeks in the gaming community:

22nd June

Story of man bitten by deadly snake and the only plane allowed to get to him with antidote on 9/11:

Extraordinary story (first told 7 years ago — but buried in thread of the subreddit r/todayilearned a family friend has more to add and could work as a great anniversary story). Massively over-performing in CT (well over 100x above normal) and amongst the most popular stories on the site as of 9am EST.

Reddit user posts (slightly randomly) about how to prepare for a ‘no deal’ Brexit scenario (and conversation takes off):

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