Doomscrolling till daylight: How r/politics witnessed the 2020 US elections

While the 2016 U.S. general elections might by many be remembered for its crucial minutes, with the climactic crying or mocking so-called “liberal tears” ensuing after half a day of counting, the 2020 edition, much like the 2000 version, will likely enter the history books as a marathon-paced nail-biter. As Chuck Todd’s eyebags faded into view, the New York Times election needles slowly tilted to the left, and tanks of copium were moved from the Democrat camp to the MAGA-crowd, the mail-in ballots proved to secure a Biden victory. But if the ballot counting seemed to outdo even the slowest marathon contestant, on online platforms, the pace of discussion took the form of a never-ending sprint. On Twitter, for instance, election talk spiked every day, while on 4chan’s far-right /pol/ board, posting activity doubled, outperforming even its activity during 2016’s shock Trump victory.

Similarly occupied with the Trump-Biden faceoff were Reddit users. Here, election discussion predominantly gravitated around r/politics, Reddit’s largest subreddit for political matters with 7 million subscribers as of Nov. 2020. Notably, r/politics hosted several threads specifically dedicated to live election commentary, beginning on 3 Nov. 03:00AM (CEST) when the polls opened and ending around 11:00AM on the 7th after news networks announced Biden’s victory. In between the start- and finish lines, user u/PoliticsModeratorBot automatically opened new threads, followed by a swift migration of redditors coming to an end at the 83th instance (fig. 1).

Figure 1: Screenshots of all 86 U.S. election general discussion threads on /r/politics (taken 11 Nov. 2020).

The 83 r/politics threads are interesting objects of study since they touch on several questions: How did Reddit’s largest politics-oriented subreddit engage with the 2020 U.S. elections, arguably the most significant political event in recent years? What can these threads teach us about Reddit’s culture and materiality? And, more specifically, how did the unusual pace of the elections affect the Reddit users’ engagement with the elections, and with Reddit itself? To touch on these questions, this blog post explores the r/politics threads through a combination of digital methods, text analysis, and ethnographic observations, using data of all the threads’ 1.8 million comments by 153.696 user accounts. [1]

Pace: Phenomenological ephemerality

Both for its political gravity and its historic alignment with rising concerns on online disinformation, the 2020 U.S. elections pushed various social media sites to counter their everyday platform logics. Twitter made a step away from its manufactured virality by disabling replies and hiding Trump tweets. Facebook slowed down the application process for political ads and implemented a so-called “virality circuit breaker”. Instagram removed the appearance of its “recent” tab from hashtag-filtered pages to curb the spread of misinformation, handicapping its deliberate focus on trendiness. As Kevin Roose headlined, social media platforms “Did Better by Making Their Products Worse”.

On r/politics, everyday platform logics were also reconfigured, but here the shift did not come from moderation policies and of top-down intervention. Rather, the combination of the long-lasting counting process and a high volume of grassroots activity rendered the usually persistent and well-indexed space ephemeral. As Massanari writes, Reddit distinguishes itself from ephemeral spaces like 4chan or Snapchat because its data is persistent, allowing it to function as centralised hub for sought-after content. Its simple ranking algorithm and configurable sorting methods (e.g. “top past month”) furthermore make retrieving Reddit’s historical content easy – at least compared to the fleeting content of a Twitter feed or 4chan’s disappearing posts. Moreover, compartmentalisation in subreddits and threads means comment counts often do not exceed far beyond a hundred, making it doable to keep up to date with the most relevant activity, with posts and comments neatly arranged from most- to least appreciated.

In contrast, threads like the r/politics 2020 U.S. election threads counter Reddit’s logics of retrievability, persistence, and popularity because their main appeal instead lies in a sense of recency and liveness. Fast-paced and busy threads dedicated to an ongoing event, here referred to as “live megathreads”, are nothing new to the platform; they appear on many big subreddits, for instance with match threads on r/soccer acting as second screens for sport events. Instead of presenting the most popular content minutes or hours after a post is made, live megathreads offer a means for real-time participation. This sense of liveness is stimulated by subreddit moderators setting the default comment sorting to “new” instead of “best”. As a result, if “usual” Reddit is a curated boutique of the best wares, live megathreads feel more like standing in a crowd: reactive, delirious, and fleeting.

But for two main reasons, the recent 83-thread streak on r/politics was a unique affair beyond the usual oddities of live megathreads. Firstly, whereas live megathreads are usually dedicated to a short event, like sports matches or press conferences, the r/politics megathreads lasted far longer than usual as a result of the prolonged mail-in ballot counting. Secondly, the live megathreads were unique simply because of their massive comment volume. Threads often received over 20 thousand comments per hour during daytime in the U.S. (fig. 3). To provide some context, the amount of comments on even the most popular r/election posts of all time rarely exceed a few thousand comments. As a result, partaking in the election’s live megathreads felt like a fleeting rush without end; at times, hundreds of posts were made every minute, comments disappeared in a blizzard of more recent ones, and redditors waking up from their power nap were amazed a new thread had been opened while the previous had barely started (fig. 2). While the comments on the r/politics live megathreads are still retrievable and thus not materially ephemeral, the fact that the comment activity could only be partially read because it “moved too fast” thus meant the threads were phenomenologically ephemeral.

Figure 2: Redditor being amazed at the pace of the threads.

How this phenomenological ephemerality could manifest can be clearly seen when charting the post volumes per hour. While the first and last threads saw their activity lasting several hours, the lion’s share of the 83 threads received their comments within one hour or less. Taking a Reddit-break at 3PM on Nov. 4th and logging back on at 6PM meant six new threads had already flown by, each with over 20k comments each.

Figure 3: Amount of comments per hour on the 83 live megathreads on r/politics. Data gathered with Pushshift and PRAW.

Despite the consistent volume, the pace of the 83 threads did know some lulls and spikes. Most notably, the pace of commenting aligned with day- and night-time in the U.S. While Reddit is used around the globe, a Northern American bias is still present – for instance seen in the fact that r/politics, largest politics-oriented subreddit, only allows posts concerning U.S. affairs, and the “Americans are asleep” meme is commonly used to poke fun at the majority of redditors. Although the latter comments are often rebutted with “bold of you to assume American redditors sleep”, the comment trends in the 83 r/politics threads show this is indeed the case: while commenters were still enthusiastic during Election Night, every night thereafter saw significant drops in activity. The activity also slightly decreased day-by-day, possibly because of battleground states being decided, or simply as a result of fatigue.

Interestingly, the temporality of the threads itself became a frequent topic of meta-conversation, both with references to the past and future. For instance, the generally optimistic outlook of the early threads, anticipating a relatively easy Democrat win, was later revisited by users blaming the early posters for “jinxing” the results (fig. 4). Other users came back to the early threads with expressions of fondness and remembrance: “Remember when we thought it would get called within 24 hours? Good times”, or “I was so young then” (fig. 5). In line with the well-known entanglements between Reddit and gaming culture, other redditors “from the future” playfully repurposed organisation of the discussion in thread numbers by asking “who else died on level 39 and had to restart like me?” (fig. 6). Despite such visits to past threads, the point of phenomenological ephemerality still stands: fig. 3 shows none of the threads saw noticeable rebirths after their live discussion.

Figure 4: Users revisiting an older comment boldly claiming an easy win for Biden.
Figure 5: Reminiscing about the older threads.
Figure 6: Gaming references by redditors revising one of the prior threads.

Other forms of play with temporality came mostly from the anticipation of future threads, especially by raising the question on how many were still to come – with some redditors hoping it would not go beyond 46, the number of the potential Biden presidency (fig. 7). Instead ignored as infrastructural background noise, these interactions show how the pace and temporality of the 83 live megathreads became a prominent topic in itself, manifested by the unique interplay between Reddit’s playful culture, “meta-aware” users, and the materiality of the platform itself.

Figure 7: Speculation on the thread streak’s future.

Play: Thanks Obama, fuck Trump, nice

The prominent role of play also emerges when analysing the textual content of the 1.8 million comments. Figure 8 shows a timeline of the most significant words per thread, forming a window into each thread’s distinct discussion topics across the four days. Unsurprisingly, in the early treads, discourse mostly concerns the election process itself; from the emphasis on crucial counties (“miami dade”, “green bay”, maricopa”, etc.) to words concerning blue or red “mirages” (“remaining votes”, “early votes”, “uncounted”, etc.). What furthermore emerges are words indicating the r/politics threads acted as a “second screen” to mainstream broadcast media, similar to how live megathreads are used during sports events. In particular, multiple CNN presenters and guests were trending when they made remarkable comments on-air. This for instance happened when Jim Acosta mentioned Trump could not claim states so freely as Acosta could “claim a ham sandwich”, when former Republican senator Rick Santorum called Trump’s fraud allegations “shocking”, or when Anderson Cooper compared Trump to an “obese turtle on his back flailing in the hot sun”.

Figure 8: Slider and video of significant words per threads, ranked with tf-idf.[2] See the full image here. Made with Bernhard Rieder’s Rankflow.

The most aberrant threads, however, do not just repeat external commentators, but testify to the memetic culture of Reddit itself and its user’s “hivemind” producing this. Firstly notable in this regard are threads 26 and 31, active when crucial Georgia mail-in ballots counts were reported: “georgia energy” refers to variants of comments stating “༼ つ ◕_◕ ༽つ GEORGIA TAKE MY ENERGY ༼ つ ◕_◕ ༽つ”, a memetic reference to an episode of the anime Dragonball Z wherein lead character Goku charges a “spirit bomb” with the energy of people cooperating across the universe.

Figure 9: Significant words for threads at the time of Georgia’s “blue flip”.

The second moment when the significant terms shifted in an unusual direction was again highly memetic, but also testifies to the entanglement of Reddit’s materiality and user activity. Having reached thread 40, redditors started to associate the thread numbers to the number of U.S. presidents: 42 referred to Bill Clinton, 43 to George W. Bush, and so on. Once thread 44 arrived, the participants were already primed to unleash a barrage of comments stating “thanks, Obama” – a memetic phrase that was once used to ironically blame Obama for things he had no part in (and the title of the second-most popular post on Reddit of all time where the words were used sincerely). Unsurprisingly, this was followed suit by 45’s flood of “fuck Trump” comments. If it was not already clear, r/politics user base veers liberal and progressive.

Figure 10: Significant words in threads 44 and 45.

The starkest shift in terms comes from a thread wherein redditors similarly associated the thread number number to an outside phenomenon. This time, it concerned a thread that many had been anticipating long before its arrival: thread 69. Similar to 420, the mythical status of 69 means it rarely goes by without association to the sex position. In the case of r/politics’s 69th live megathread, the primary response was simply the word “nice”, in reference to a Michael Rosen clip and a South Park skit.

Figure 11: Nice map boy.

While the popularity of the 69 joke means it has arguably grown trite, later threads express more original vernacular play. Most notably, “map boy” appears at the top of the late-night threads on Nov. 4th and Nov. 5th (threads 57, 75, and 76). Emphasising how Reddit’s “second screen” use was anything but passive, “map boy” refers to the mystification by redditors of CNN presenter Phil Mattingly, who at the time was operating the virtual country map. As one commenter explained, a combination of fatigue, anxiety, and late-night hours proved a perfect mix for the creation of erotic fantasies concerning Mattingly’s striking looks (fig. 12). Unsurprisingly, the subreddit r/mapboy was started soon thereafter, containing fan-fiction involving Mattingly and co-host Chris Cuomo. While Reddit has long been associated with hetero- and toxic masculinity (and there was indeed no shortage of comments on the looks of female presenters), the mapboy fanfiction emerging at the end of the 83 r/politics threads was arguably more akin to Tumblr’s feminine, fictionalised, and diverse sexual orientation, possibly indicating a shift in Reddit’s male-centredness.

Figure 12: Redditors discussing the origins of map boy.

When the dust settled, several redditors expressed how the shared play surrounding “map boy” manifested a feeling of togetherness in times of dread, with one poster comparing it to other notable collective efforts on Reddit, like Twitch Plays Pokémon and the Boston marathon sleuthing (fig. 13).

Figure 13: Recollecting the events of the r/politics election frenzy.

While an unremarkable joke at first sight, “map boy” testifies to a paradoxical dynamic: despite the blistering speed and cacophony of 150 thousand voices, the 83 r/politics live megathreads still managed foster a sense of community. It is perhaps no coincidence that the phenomenologically ephemeral r/politics threads resembled the materially ephemeral environment of 4chan, a space which similarly birthed many successful memes. In both cases, instead of leading to a purely divergent and chaotic mix of voices, the fast pace means participants must be “extremely online” to remain up to date with the latest references, creating a powerful like-mindedness at the basis for the generation of in-group jokes. Thus, while the 2020 U.S. elections might not have been the “meme war” that was its 2016 sibling, its unusual pace nonetheless pushed subcultural innovations on the deep vernacular Web.

[1] I collected all comments from the 83 threads using Pushshift API. While Pushshift can sometimes contain minor data gaps, the fast pace of the election threads seemed to cause larger problems; 41 threads were incomplete, with the API returning only a few comments. To mitigate this, I also used PRAW, a Python wrapper for the Reddit API, to crawl through the incomplete threads (this took a few days) and merging the two datasets thereafter. The anonymised data can be downloaded here.

[2] Words are ranked by tf-idf using sklearn’s TfidfVectorizer. Tokens were lemmatized, both unigrams and bigrams were allowed, and tokens appearing in all or all but one of the threads were filtered out to identify words that were specific to the threads (hence why “biden” and “trump” are absent). Visualised with Bernhard Rieder’s Rankflow.

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