Reddit: An Instrument for Social Change?

Tyler Huggins


Groupthink, like Reddit, is a contentious phenomenon. Social psychologist Irving Janis describes groupthink as a hive mentality, a blind subscription to an ideology that often leads to disastrous results. The term was coined in an article by Walter H. Whyte (not to be mistaken with Walter H. White, of Breaking Bad fame) in 1952 and popularized by Janis in 1972, etymologically drawing from the English Socialist language (Ingsoc) used by Big Brother in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (especially in relation to the Ingsoc terms doublethink  and crimethink).


Since the inception of the groupthink model, groupthink has faced adversity in response to its lack of empirical support. However, the development of the groupthink model has led psychologists and sociologists to explore group theory and the influence groups have on critical thinking and problem solving.


In the digital universe, social communities actualize through the grouping of users with similar interests or affiliations, forming Facebook groups, Twitter groups (often referred to as Twibes) and subreddits. While Twitter’s and Facebook's traffic unquestionably eclipse Reddit's, Reddit fosters critical thinking, informed decision-making and concerted action (as opposed to sharing issues on Facebook or trending awareness on Twitter, redditors often take action). Reddit, as a community of spell-, fact- and source-checkers, demand critical thinking and conscientious action by a self-imposed system of accountability: Egregious spelling/grammar errors and misinformation is quickly redacted; rule-breakers are ousted and philanthropy is lauded.


"What is Reddit?"


Describing Reddit to a non-user is a Herculean feat. The karma, the content, the subreddits, the addiction, the love/hate relationship with memes, all compile to create the Reddit community. Trying to impart this to the unfamiliar generally elicits a blank look.  


According to cursory observations, Reddit is a social news site. While r/TrueReddit may beg to differ, Reddit transcends the Digg-esque label. The website is a crowd-sourcing vehicle for inquisitive types (mainly through the AskReddit subreddit) a fact-checking machine (all of Reddit) and a social community (subreddits); its services are nearly endless.


Reportedly, the average Reddit user is male, 25-34, and makes an income of less than $24,999 per annum. If income isn't indicative of intelligence, Reddit is the case study's poster child. Reddit users are generally well-read and represent an impressive collective intelligence. This cache of intelligent Redditors has turned this "social news site" into a voice for the voiceless, a vehicle of public influence for the economically underrepresented members of Americana. When these voices work together in harmony to support or decry policies, campaigns and personas, Reddit launches into the forefront as a progressive public voice.


This piece is by no means a veneration of the social news site (more a description of dormant potential). Reddit, through the website's karma and gold, sometimes rewards homogeneity, confirmation bias and doublethink. Act as the subreddit hive requests, receive approval. Act against the grain and be down-voted into irrelevance. The atheism subreddit (r/atheism) and the cannabis subreddit (r/trees) collectively demonstrate how to undermine the site's potential. R/trees and r/atheism suffer at the expense of their group behavior. Atheism, for example,  promotes tyrannizing otherwise inane Facebook posts.  Trees endorses a world where everyone is purportedly living in blissful commune with cannabis while behaving like automatons.


Side note: The subreddit r/circlejerk mocks the propensity of Reddit users to succumb to homogeneity. The diction of the self-posts and links, the trending topics, r/circlejerk mocks the very definition of Reddit: the road to upvotes and gold. Of course, r/circlejerk still operates within the realm of upvotes, which either reflects the gestalt of the subreddit at some post-modern level, or renders their subreddit dubious.


Reddit is growing. As Reddit's ranks swell, its social capital and influence metastasizes. With such dedicated and ardent members, the community's propensity for efficacious social action bustles beneath the myriad threads, self-posts and links. As Reddit grows, corruption through groupthink threatens to subvert the website's potential for social action.


The Origins of Groupthink


Whyte coined groupthink in Fortune magazine, summarizing the phenomenon with a working definition: rationalized action determined to best serve the group, a Social Man. The Social Man, wrote Whyte, is "completely a creature of his environment, guided almost totally by the whims and prejudices of the group, and incapable of any real self-determination of his destiny." In Whyte's opinion, social engineers (Whyte's term for modern-day sociologists) were distilling rebellion and individual potency out of American society, churning out "social technicians for a better society"; lubricants for our social machine via groupthink.



As social engineering became more salient in American culture, Janis took Whyte's observation on groupthink and the loss of American individualism and applied it to failures in government policy and practice. His research on groupthink was released a decade after the Bay of Pigs invasion, and he blamed the invasion's disastrous results on Kennedy's administration succumbing to groupthink. The dangers of groupthink, said Janis, are as follows:


Illusion of invulnerability (Excessive optimism)

Collective rationalization (No oppositional advocate)

Belief in inherent morality

Stereotyped views of out-groups (Us vs. Them)

Direct pressure on dissenters

 Self-censorship (No oppositional opining)

Illusion of unanimity

Self-appointed mind-guards (Insulation from criticism)


Positive Peer Pressure


Groupthink survives through the weapon of peer pressure. Tina Rosenberg, author of Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Change the World views peer pressure favorably. She omits discussing groupthink, employing a more sociologically friendly phenomenon: the social cure. In Join the Club, Rosenberg details several examples of how wielding positive peer pressure can solve salient global issues (curbing HIV incidence, toppling dictators, reducing teenage tobacco use, breaking caste prejudice). While symptoms of groupthink sometimes manifest to preserve the cohesion of the group (Otpor, a revolutionary group studied by Rosenberg, dispelled all political ideologies in favor of one group goal: ending the dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic), Rosenberg's social cure recognizes the group's pursuits above individual agendas, while still maintaining individual identities.


Groupthink remains a prevailing threat to any group. When a group ceases to be a series of individuals and acts with the illusion of unanimity and discourages any criticism, groupthink settles in and the powers of critical thinking and informed decision-making evaporate. It's a delicate balance, preserving the efficacy of the group toward its cause and retaining individualism. The Bay of Pigs invasion, the Iran hostage crisis, the war on terrorism, all fell to the power of groupthink and ignored the import of constructive dissent.


Reddit is the perfect foil to groupthink. At Reddit's core dwell opinionated, outspoken users with a penchant for knowledge and accuracy. These Redditors ask questions, conduct  constructive arguments and acknowledge faults (Reddit doesn't believe in humility. Instead, the community exposes imperfections through communitywide deprecation, a "shame on us" approach). With so many extremely well-informed and dedicated users, Reddit boasts the tools to fight off the symptoms of groupthink.


In Join the Club, Rosenberg describes Florida's Truth campaign against Big Tobacco, where Florida hired a consumer ad agency to run the campaign (instead of the usual route of employing a public health agency). The resulting campaign gained a nationwide following and did considerable damage to Big Tobacco's target demographic: teenagers.


Currently, Reddit's action has no monetary incentive. Their actions are more or less selfless. The community reacts when something unfavorable to the Reddit majority enters the public eye (SOPA, Chick-fil-A, etc.) and as the topic of unrest spreads throughout the subreddit-shpere, the reddit population swarms to the cause (it should be said that reddit karma does have some play in spreading the message). 


Can Reddit provide the social cure for longstanding social issues? It has all the tools, all it needs is the incentive. If Reddit can somehow move from reactionary to proactive, it will garner considerable influence over the imminent future. It's a social community ripe for positive social action.


Reddit has issues, but its potential for positive social change is undeniable. Which social issues users choose to address is up to them.


Author Bio:

Tyler Huggins is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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Torley, Flickr -- Creative Commons
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