“Democracy Dies in Darkness,” the slogan of The Washington Post, has another iteration on Reddit, a social news aggregation and discussion platform. Last year, the Post established a Reddit profile—modifying its tagline to “Democracy Dies in Dankness”—to build connections with that audience and increase traffic to its website.
Dankness—defined as “disagreeably damp” or slang for high-grade marijuana—is perhaps a more apt term for a recent Post story based on an anonymous Redditor’s criticism of a Fortune 500 telecommunications company. As the trustworthiness of news outlets is under constant assault by President Trump, partisans of all stripes, and the American public, the Post’s article adds credence to charges of sensationalist “fake news.”
The episode involves a story on based on an alarming complaint that an anonymous person posted on Reddit about Verizon. The story, “Verizon denies allegations that it’s degrading mobile data service for Hurricane Florence victims,” was written by business and technology policy reporter Brian Fung. It provides a curious case study of how one comment from an anonymous agitator can generate a negative headline in one of the most authoritative newspapers in America.
Fung’s article relied on a single Reddit post from an anonymous source alleging that Verizon deprioritized his mobile data in the wake of Hurricane Florence. The implicit justification for writing a Post story was that a popular website BoingBoing linked to the Reddit post.
The Post lent this allegation its institutional legitimacy by asking Verizon to respond to the anonymous complaint. The story did not mention that the critical comment was posted by a self-identified “serial liar” on a subreddit dedicated to promoting socialist thought and dismantling capitalism.
Why Aren’t You Responding To Every Internet Crazy?
Fung’s story provided a semblance of balance. He quoted Verizon spokesman Richard Young denying the company had throttled data for customers in North Carolina and citing company data showing the network is running at 98 percent in Florence-affected areas. Fung noted that Verizon offered free voice, data, and text messaging to customers in the hurricane’s path and mentioned other social media reports that “appear consistent with Verizon’s account.”
It’s unclear, though, why Post editors and reporters considered the initial Reddit post credible enough to warrant using the Post’s platform and legitimacy to spread an anonymous allegation against a company.
“The story you’re referring to was written to give Verizon the opportunity to respond to an existing report that cited the reddit thread but that did not seek comment from the company,” Fung wrote in an email. He ignored specific questions about whether he tried to verify the identity of the Reddit user or confirm his service with Verizon. Fung also declined to explain why he didn’t provide more context about the subreddit where the user posted the anonymous comment.
“Our coverage added Verizon’s perspective and underscored that Verizon offered free mobile data to hurricane victims — correcting the uncertainty being spread by the reddit post,” he wrote.
The problem with this rationale is that it is not an objective standard. Using this reasoning, the Post could publish any verifiably false accusation against an individual or business—no matter how incendiary—because it gives the person “the opportunity to respond.”
It’s obvious that what gets covered in the Post can affect the reputation of a person or a company. The Post’s website received 80.8 million total visitors in June this year, a 6 percent year over year increase from June 2017, according to comScore statistics publicized by the Post. The private media company, owned by billionaire Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, does not disclose full circulation statistics, but an internal memo obtained by CNN in 2017 revealed that the company’s digital subscriptions surpassed one million readers.
“Unfortunately, this is the media environment we live in today—where an anonymous complaint on an internet forum can become validated via a headline in one of the most respected publications in the country,” said Jeff Gaunt, a director at Lambert, a public relations and investor relations firm with offices in New York and Michigan.
“During a crisis, these risks are that much greater,” said Gaunt, a former Chicago-area newspaper reporter and Democratic staffer in the Illinois state senate. “Companies need to be prepared to respond quickly to misinformation. But, more importantly, they need to do the legwork before a disaster strikes to demonstrate their commitment to their stakeholders. There’s no quick fix when one online complaint can generate national attention.”
Unverified Comments Are Not a Credible Source of Stories
Journalists increasingly turn to digital and social media to find sources and highlight emerging trends. Sophisticated journalists use analytics platforms to measure consumer sentiment about brands, analyze political activity by certain demographics or chronicle breaking news developments.
It’s common practice for news organizations to engage with social media—Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and others—to crowdsource images, video, and personal stories from people experiencing a national disaster. Myriad national and local outlets augmented their boots-on-the-ground reporting of how Hurricane Florence devastated North Carolina earlier this month.
Determining the line between a credible tip worth amplifying to readers or an anonymous report not worthy of legitimizing with coverage can be murky. Media organizations have often faced challenges adapting reporting practices to reach the millions of active readers (and potential sources) who prefer communicating on Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter.
Reddit is the third-most popular website in the United States and consists of specialized topic forums called subreddits. It published a guideline for journalists to consider when using the community to source stories, called pressiquette. Practices among news organizations vary. But Fung’s story about the alleged Verizon user doesn’t seem to meet any reasonable standard of journalistic sourcing.
Amplifying People Who Want to Ruin Capitalism
The Reddit post Fung cited in his story was authored by user “AbeFroman21,” a reference to the fictional “Sausage King of Chicago” in the 1986 film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” The post has multiple comments advocating the assassination of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and general criticism of “capitalist phone networks.”
A cursory glance at the post shows it was posted in a subreddit called r/LateStageCapitalism, described as promoting a “SAFE SPACE for socialist discussion.” The subreddit explicitly promotes its philosophy as rooted in “broad-based anti-capitalist though, with an underlying Marxist tendency that is steeped in intersectionalist Critical Theory.” The guidelines for posting in the subreddit—along with prominent links to the communist writings of Karl Marx, Friederich Engels, and Vladimir Lenin—might have raised a red flag that this source may have a particular bias worth mentioning (or simply discounting this source altogether).
“Support for capitalism—and the political parties which uphold it—is strictly prohibited… anti-socialist and anti-communist comments are also forbidden,” according to the subreddit’s rules. “This is a space for all comrades and all leftists. You are allowed to offer nuanced critiques of other leftist positions, but undermining socialism and/or communism as a whole is not permitted.”
Other posts this user has published on Reddit in the last year indicate that the person self-identifies as a serial liar. In a Jan. 2018 post titled, “I’ve been a fraud,” he details his battle with alcoholism and honesty.
“I feel like [I] lie to everyone around me,” he wrote. “I’m probably right about that. I think admitting that to myself is the first honest thing I’ve done in a while.”
This story seems to conflict with numerous industry standards and guidelines as well as specific Washington Post policies on fairness, sourcing, and third-party content. The guidelines direct reporters and editors to “be careful when aggregating information that is being reported by other news organizations based on anonymous sources…” and “not publish such information unless it has been approved by a supervising editor.”
Washington Post managing editor for ethics and standards Tracy Grant did not reply to a request for comment, nor did two business editors.
“With great power and access to information comes great responsibility in verification. It should be obvious, but you have to be very careful when pulling information or sources from social media,” Serri Grasile wrote in a National Public Radio guide for journalists using Reddit. “It’s so easy to get it wrong. People lie and exaggerate online all the time—and journalists fall for it all the time, too.”