Reddit is the 9th most visited website in the world. For many of its users, it’s considered the front page of the internet.
This might come as surprise to many, considering its old-fashioned, scattered layout that harks back to the earliest days of web design. It’s a sharp contrast to the flashy and constantly evolving ‘mainstream’ social media platforms, such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, which are constantly competing and copying each other with new features.
As a result, Reddit gets far less scrutiny on the subject of hostile misinformation within social media, but that’s a significant oversight.
Many of us use (and greatly appreciate) Reddit ourselves here at Propastop. It has an enormously positive role in bringing niche communities together online and has also helped fight misinformation in significant ways, both through the design of the platform and its rules and also through organic campaigns. For example, it has eliminated the largest pages devoted to harmful conspiracy theories.
The platform consists of thousands of topic-specific subpages, which cover every kind of interest and topic imaginable. Anyone can create a new subreddit with more and more niches until the topic becomes too narrow to keep the page active.
Crucially, the prominence of content on Reddit is largely controlled by users, not algorithms that are more powerful on other social media platforms. Users can upvote and downvote new posts, theoretically making it easy for all users to see the most interesting content. Elsewhere, algorithms were abused by coordinated propaganda campaigns and to some extent still are, although platforms like Facebook and Twitter have limited their reach somewhat over recent years due to backlashes against their harmful societal impact.
Reddit has about about 52 million users that actively use the site every day. Out of those, 4.5 million users are located in Russia while a staggering 850,000 are located in Estonia, despite a population of 1.3 million. Of course, users are not the same as individuals so the actual number of people behind those accounts is trickier to count.
Yet user-voted content systems can be abused in coordinated ways too. Pro-Kremlin propaganda has continued to permeate the platform and has grown rapidly in often subtle ways, including on subreddits that have no obvious connections to Russia-related topics. They often appear as funny memes, insightful comments, and interesting links – but contribute to the normalisation and popularisation of Kremlin talking points and false narratives, including distortions of history, even among significant numbers of real users.
Since the majority of posts focus on emphasising general narratives, rather than individual situations, it is important to identify them and define how wide these narratives actually spread.
As an example, we took a look at the Reddit subpage r/trueanon, the original purpose of which was to bring together people who are listeners of the conspiracy theory podcast TrueAnon. The page has a total of 28,744 members.
During the last month, however, we have seen a sudden surge in users talking about Estonia and the Baltic countries in general. The most significant narratives we observed were:
One notable occasion was 25 September, when Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas tweeted her support for NAFO, the grassroots movement combatting Kremlin propaganda online and fundraising for Ukraine. A story was shared to the page and the comment section immediately turned to focus on supposedly widespread support for Nazism among both the Estonian people and the government (regardless of the fact that the Prime Minister leads a liberal coalition and that the Baltic states re-established their independence on a movement to reject the Nazi-Soviet pact and both totalitarian ideologies behind it). Yet several users saying they are from the Baltic countries also joined in to agree with the narrative.
Sound familiar? We think so too. Similar narratives have been covered by Propastop before (for example here), but then based on information coming directly from the Kremlin. It is important to know where this information is going and in which direction it is developing. It is certain that many take such information too easily to be true.
Therefore, Propastop is starting a new section in order to focus more on English content on Reddit that promotes hostile narratives towards Estonia.