Social media is mainstream in 2016. Respected news channels display tweets alongside reports from professional journalists, and social news aggregators like Reddit are among the most visited websites in the world. For states, cities and counties, social media is a chance to connect with the people and show that government is made of real people who want to help.
There are only a few government agencies around the nation that use Reddit as a regular platform for citizen engagement. The prospect of starting a new account can be accompanied by fear of generating more work than the agency can handle or, even worse, opening up a communication channel for critics and trolls.
No one uses Reddit as often or to as much fanfare as the city of Austin, Texas. For the past three years, the city’s official Reddit username “austintexasgov” has used the Austin subreddit — Reddit’s name for its content channels — to post announcements, host AMAs — Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything” question-and-answer sessions — and to share interesting things happening around the city.
Users of Austin’s subreddit are generally supportive and thankful that someone at the city sought them out online and spends time answering questions and sharing practical information. On Oct. 19, for instance, the city posted a short reminder that early voting would soon begin, along with a link to the city’s website with more information. In August, the city relayed some information from the Public Works Department about a local news story that accused the city of not properly cutting their grass on certain properties. Some of the things the city posts are big and important, like flash flood warnings, others are more lighthearted with a lot of fun stuff mixed in, such as news about local artists painting storm drains around town.
Reddit is a great way for the city to connect with the people on their level and build a community, said James Williams, the staff member who operates the city’s Reddit account, and a producer at ATXN, Austin’s city-run TV station. But about six months ago, the city faced its first test when a troll emerged.
The troll, who goes by the account name “City_of_Austin,” posed as an official representative of the city, responding to citizens’ questions with false information. Keeping up with the troll was difficult, Williams said, because he can’t be on Reddit 24 hours a day, but it seemed like the troll was.
“At first, he would always sign off as the social media director,” Williams said. “We don’t even have a ‘social media director.’ But he’ll show up to every single post that I would do. We had ourselves, for the first time, a little conundrum here, like, ‘What do we do?’ because some people were totally buying into it.”
Mostly, the troll’s goal seemed to be making inside jokes that pander to the local crowd. When an early voting proposition failed to pass five months ago, the troll responded sarcastically to the delight of the forum with a comment that read, “Guys, guys, everyone chill. City of Austin recognizes everyones (sic) issues with the vote turnout, and its okay! The Mopac Express Lane Project is scheduled to be completed in 2017, we are aiming to put in more bicycle lanes and paths, and May 11th, we are trying ‘Don’t Rush Day’ where we ask everyone to work a half-day, or work from home. And a reminder, this has nothing to do with the city offices closing at noon May 11th so we can all make it to our party boat rental ‘Large Marge’ leaving volente beach at 2pm. Cheers, City of Austin. (sic)”
The troll gives the people a voice that the city can’t supply, Williams said, so it’s nice, in a way. But some people at the city were concerned about the troll giving out false information during a crisis or criticizing the city in a way that could create new problems. One person at the city didn’t know the account didn’t belong to the city, and emailed Williams, assuming that someone had taken control of their account and gone rogue.
Unlike Twitter, Reddit doesn’t have an official system for verifying identity. Moderators of subreddits can tag certain users as being official or parody accounts, which is what happened in the case of Austin and its troll, respectively, but those tags aren’t displayed on other subreddits. And Reddit’s username schema doesn’t indicate whether a given account is real or fake. Austin’s official account, for example, is displayed in all lower-case letters and without spaces, which might look to some people like it’s less official than the troll’s account, which capitalizes the first letter of each word in its username and included underscores.
After the troll began posting, some people in the city were afraid of the criticism, Williams said, but the troll wasn’t breaking any rules, so moderators couldn’t ban his account.
“There were a couple people [at the city] who were afraid of posting,” he said. “So, yeah, it did a little bit of suppression.”
Williams admitted the troll is funny sometimes, and was a minor speed bump in the city’s social media plan that was worth dealing with. Ultimately, the system worked itself out and the city didn’t need to do much, he said – when the troll is funny and good-natured, his comments rise to the top of the page accompanied with his “parody account” label. But when he doesn’t offer anything of substance, the users generally vote his comments to the bottom. Reddit’s users do a good job, he said, of supporting the city’s constructive participation in the community.