Lawmakers’ new target audience: Reddit

January 24, 2013

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) isn't the first politician to use Reddit, but the sweet spot he found on the site on Tuesday provides an interesting case study for other elected officials.

McGovern's staff posted a link to the video below on the social networking site of him introducing legislation to overturn Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court decision that allowed corporations to make unlimited political donations. Within a few hours, the post accumulated more than 3,000 "up-votes," pushing it to the top spot on the site.


McGovern's staff has been posting under his direction on Reddit for more than a year. But Tuesday's posting was by far his most viral, prompting Buzzfeed to dub him "the congressman from Reddit."

Unlike Twitter and Facebook, which have a larger user base and on which politicians can easily cultivate a following among their constituents through posts about issues of local interest (see Cory Booker), Redditors are often anonymous. Links to stories about liberal causes tend to do well on the site, and stories about campaign finance do especially well.

McGovern spokesman Michael Mershon said their office has received a flood of calls and e-mails about the two bills he introduced Tuesday, with more than the usual percentage coming from outside McGovern's district. That could be due to its success on the Web.

The video "seems to be flying all over the Internet," Mershon said.

President Obama used Reddit at two crucial points in his campaign -- an "Ask Me Anything" in August during the Republican National Convention and again on election day. And the Onion hosted an AMA last week to promote its new e-book about its satirical version of Joe Biden.

Even without the instant recognizability of a real Barack Obama or fake Joe Biden, few politicians have had success on the site when they use it to push a cause Redditors care about.

Several members of Congress have done IamA or AMA Reddit threads, and Mershon said McGovern plans to do one soon. Darrell Issa, the House Oversight and Government Reform committee chairman, took to Reddit while members of Congress were debating the anti-piracy legislation that spurred massive opposition from Redditors (two bills, SOPA and PIPA, were later defeated). Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) went a step further, seeking to crowdsource a legislative proposal using suggestions by Redditors.

A well-placed Reddit link can bring attention to something as forgettable as a House floor speech. But actually getting Redditors to take action is much harder, as The New Republic's Molly Redden explained after Lofgren's experiment.

Mershon said that, even before Tuesday's post, comments on Reddit tended to be more thoughtful than comments from the congressman's other networking sites. In turn, Mershon said McGovern was careful to be "sensitive to the cultural norms" of the site and post sparingly on topics that would interest the community.

Natalie Jennings is a Web producer for PostTV.
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