There are only amateurs at the head of Bernie Sanders’s unofficial online army: A furniture designer, a 15-year-old high school sophomore, a tech-startup founder, and a structural engineer. In short, it’s amateur hour, but it’s a particularly successful group of amateurs.
They’re responsible for Reddit’s /r/SandersForPresident, a subreddit that (as of 1:02 p.m. EDT Monday) has 115,634 members subscribed.
They’re not officially a part of the campaign, and they’re not costing the candidate a dime. Instead, they are a grassroots, loosely coordinated online effort to help push Sanders’s progressive candidacy. The question now is whether the masses can mobilize themselves into effective support.
The subreddit (what Reddit calls each community-run individual forum) and associated group Grassroots for Sanders were founded in 2013 by two guys who had never met and didn’t even know each other's names: David Fredrick (the furniture designer) and Aidan King. The only thing that linked them was their belief that Sanders should be the next president.
“We had never met each other, we had no names. It was the first time we ever talked on Reddit,” said Fredrick. “The next day we got started and started building up our sub.”
They spent a year-and-a-half going through the site’s subreddits, promoting /r/SandersForPresident on posts about politics and liberalism. By mid-April, they had reached about 6,000 subscribers, enough that they thought they could start reaching out to Sanders’s office to show that there would be support if he ran.
“Bernie Sanders has said that he wasn’t going to run unless there was some sort of upswell, some demand for it. We wanted to be leading that,” said Fredrick. “I think every two days we were emailing his office saying ‘Look, we added another 200 people. See, there’s something going on here.’”
Sanders announced at the end of that month that he was going to run. First, Sanders announced that he was going to run in an interview with USA Today—and then made that announcement on the subreddit, which ballooned to 40,000 members in just a few days, according to RedditMetrics.com. Fredrick says they gain 10,000 new members roughly every three weeks.
The subreddit has more than 850 new submissions and 3,000 comments every day, according to Fredrick, and it requires nearly constant moderation. Since June 30, there have been more than 48,000 moderation actions—such as removing posts and banning users—taken on the subreddit, according to Alex Stigler, another one of the community’s moderators.
The numbers are impressive, but winning the Reddit primary is worth exactly zero delegates in the real Democratic primary. Instead, the organizers hope that their online efforts will translate into support when it comes time for voters to cast ballots that count.
“In terms of literally turning Reddit support into real-life support, this has been a tiny struggle for us,” said William Godfrey, another subreddit moderator and Grassroots for Sanders member (and the structural engineer). “The inertia of inaction for a lot of our subscribers, both on Reddit and other social-media channels, is large and difficult to overcome.”
Godfrey says that to encourage redditors to participate in real-world events (or donate money), they give them “flair”, or little badges next to their username, if they verify they attended certain events or participated in certain fundraising drives.
“We have tried our best to gamify Reddit,” said Stigler. “If you provide proof that you had gone out and ‘Chalked the Block’ [an event that the subreddit hosted in August to encourage supporters to write about Sanders in sidewalk chalk in their neighborhoods] for Bernie Sanders … then you get a flair promotion.”
The subreddit also raises money directly for the Sanders campaign (Grassroots for Sanders does not solicit or accept donations themselves). Since the subreddit launched, they’ve raised more than $300,000 dollars from more than 12,000 individual donors, and organize occasional "moneybombs," where they encourage as many people as possible to donate in a short time frame.
Still, the redditors rarely stray far from their home territory of the internet. The subreddit primarily exists to disseminate pro-Sanders news, create infographics which are shareable on social media (which is led by the high school sophomore, Kris Papa), and encourage supporters to connect locally and support local events.
The Grassroots for Sanders organization and subreddit are just a piece of a loosely coordinated network of grassroots communities for Sanders supporters. Sites pop out of the “Coders for Sanders” group, which is a group of computer programmers and coders who build tools that they think will help Sanders.
“Coders for Sanders has been building out lots and lots of websites and resources—iPhone and Android apps—all created to increase visibility and knowledge of Bernie Sanders and his issues,” said Jon Hughes, a member of both Coders for Sanders and Grassroots for Sanders.
Hughes’ contribution has been the site VoteForBernie.org, which houses an interactive map that gives potential supporters information on how they can vote for Sanders in the primaries. The site includes information on whether a state’s primary is open or closed and information on how to register to vote.
Hughes said the site gets at least 10,000 unique visitors every day and just under 1 million unique visitors since the site launched three months ago, and has planned upgrades to the site, including a Spanish translation and color-blind-friendly map.
One of the biggest sites to come out of the community is FeelTheBern.org, which creator Daniela Perdomo (the startup founder) describes as the “Wikipedia of Bernie Sanders.” That’s a pretty apt description—it breaks down 18 policy areas into issues and specific policies that lay out where Sanders stands.
Perdomo led a team of 100 to 125 volunteers to write, edit, and lay out the entire website, which she says has attracted more than 2 million pageviews since launch. The site also recently launched a print-friendly flyer kit for supporters to distribute at rallies and to their neighbors.
Several of the activists said the next big project is the creation of “Grassroots Select,” which would help inform voters of downticket candidates that share the same positions as Sanders’s supporters, and potentially recruit like-minded people into running for a political office—all without coordinating with (or getting the approval of) Sanders’s official campaign.
And that’s about the norm for the grassroots movement for Sanders. While the campaign may send an occasional message or two to leaders, promote supporter-made tools they think are useful, and post an occasional update to the subreddit, the grassroots network has no formal tie to the campaign—by design.
“We’re all really focused on talking about the issues, and the campaign itself is focused on talking about the issues,” said Perdomo. “It is an issue-based campaign. It is not really about Bernie Sanders; he is like a vehicle for it. But it is really about the issues that are important.”
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.