The President of the United States, Barack Obama, took to social website Reddit last night to post a thread in IAMA – where people expect Redditors to ask them anything. Considering Reddit’s enormous user base, largely of a liberal web-savvy constitution, the move was a PR hit despite Obama refusing to tackle many of the trickier questions.
Obama spent thirty minutes responding to questions before, he claims, he went for dinner with his family. Of these responses, he claimed to be sympathetic for how tough the economy is for recent graduates, detailed what he considered an answer to ending the corrupting influence of money in politics, and the most difficult decision that he had to make during his term. He claimed that surging the USA’s forces in Afghanistan was the toughest thing he had to do, and insisted the country will end the war at the end of 2014. Obama also said that the White House will be releasing the recipe for its own beer soon, and that from his first hand experience, “it is tasty”.
With just 30 minutes to give – perhaps understandable for a man who is considered to be one of the most important in the world – he successfully came across as affable and serious with his responses, though it is perhaps easier for those of us who are used to it to detect some of the PR language and spin “going forward”.
As Reddit user darknessthatisnot noted, replying to the question “What made you come to reddit for an AMA?”, Obama “probably has something to promote”, clearly referring to the upcoming elections later this year. Obama opening himself up to such a potentially risky format and set of questions – especially among a community that is known around the web for its humour and occasional irreverence, not to mention its enthusiasm for internet activism as well as cat pictures – seems to have paid off for his public image. The top comments now are mostly the questions which the president answered, having received enough upvotes from the community to keep them up there.
However, the format did bring other questions to the table which much of the community also, clearly, feels are vital that he answer.
Among questions left unanswered were users wondering just when Guantanamo Bay would be shut down. Others asked about Obama signing off drone strike killings in Pakistan, while still more urged him to reply to what they considered the “failing” war on drugs, and the legalisation of Marijuana. Another user wondered what assurances American soldiers – who of those killed in action Obama referred to as “fallen heroes” – had that would ensure they got the appropriate care for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) upon their return.
For example, another user, cjj, asked: “As a former constitutional law professor, can you explain how it is legal to kill an American citizen with a Predator drone without due process?”
Social media is tricky to get right, especially for incredibly prominent politicians whose actions shape history and who sit on, by the nature of their job, sensitive and top secret information. Judging by the mainstream media’s enthused reaction, him and his campaign team have at least impressed the liberal media, and plenty of Reddit users themselves appreciated the time he gave to them.
Looking at the move purely from a public relations perspective, it was a success. Obama said enough to appear he was providing reasoned and thoughtful – and, crucially, honest – answers without giving much away, on one of the world’s most popular websites. Obama’s political candour blurs the lines somewhat. Thirty minutes is hardly enough for a sufficient grilling, and, combined with his ability to pick and choose what to reply to, made sure Obama and his campaigners decided the sway of the discussion.
In fact, there are similarities between Reddit itself and what America purports to stand for: democracy. Users democratically decide what makes and breaks the site and autonomously run their own sub-sections, called subreddits. Obama offered a nod to internet freedom in a reply to one question. He said: “Internet freedom is something I know you all care passionately about; I do too”. Obama contended that his party will “fight hard to make sure that the internet remains the open forum for everybody”. It is fair enough for him to offer these assurances on a personal level, but given the history of lobbyists acting on behalf of the content industry, and the brutality with which it and certain corners of the current administration has chased some of the web down, does not necessarily inspire hope.