The Politics of Reddit and Rick Perry's Video Ad Fail


As my colleague Garance Franke-Ruta noted, a Rick Perry Iowa television ad went viral on YouTube yesterday, but not in the way that Perry intended. The video has been viewed almost 750,000 times and garnered 3,466 likes and 156,821 dislikes.

Traffic doesn't just flow to political campaign videos from nowhere. They get traffic the way any piece of content on the Internet does: links from popular sites and hits on social news platforms. While it's hard to know precisely which sites drive the most traffic to any given story, in this case, it looks like Reddit may have played a decisive role. From experience here at The Atlantic, we know that a single bit Reddit hit can drive six-figure traffic to a story. But we've never experienced something like what happened with this Perry video.

The way the site works, stories are submitted to individual subreddits like /video or /politics, these then accumulate points. At a certain algorithimically determined level, they go to the front page of that subreddit and then if they keep picking up momentum, they get splashed onto the front page of That's when the traffic really starts to pour in.*

Yesterday, some time before 7:30pm**, two links to the Perry video went to the Reddit home page back to back, one from /atheism and the other from /video. Both were notably opposed to the video. The one submitted to /atheism read, "Rick Perry's new Commercial, and he's not ashamed to admit that he is a Christian," while the other was stronger in its critique, "Rick Perry's shockingly bigoted campaign video. Titled 'Strong'. Uh ...huh."

Again, it's hard to parse the specific numbers here, but an Atlantic article hit the Reddit front page a few hours after the Perry videos. Already, Reddit has referred 45,000 people to The Atlantic from that link. Extrapolating out the greater amount of time that the Perry links have had to generate traffic, that they hit at a higher traffic time, and that there were two of them, I think Reddit drove at least 150,000 people to the video. And that's not counting all the second-order effects of people who saw the video via Reddit and then shared it on Twitter or Facebook.

I go into this level of detail because Reddit has already emerged as a self-conscious community. Given the site's massive traffic-driving abilities, the site's users will play a bigger and bigger role in online politics (/RonPaul anyone?). And really, I don't think we know very much about the politics of Reddit or how its information amplification power will play into elections present and future.

* This is mostly correct, but a reader had some key details to add. "Items only get frontpaged if a user subscribes to an individual subreddit. The "exception" is that a few subreddits are part of a default users profile (or part of when no one is logged in) [these include /politics /atheism, and like 8 others] However if a user is not subscribed to a subreddit, (or if its not part of the default ones and they are not logged in) no amount of votes will front page it."

** I don't know the precise time that these links hit the home page, but we do know the moment when the Reddit twitter feed pushed them out. The timing of the Twitter feed is not precisely linked to when a story hits the front page, but we know that the Twitter feed never sends links out before they get there. So, the Twitter feed timestamp forms the latest possible time a story could have frontpaged.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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