President Barack Obama's half-hour "Ask Me Anything" session on Reddit earned the president credibility with young digital natives and an affirmation that the president "gets the internet." Mitt Romney's purchase of a Twitter trending topic, announced the same day, seemed like astroturfing by contrast. But earlier today, a conspiracy theory surfaced on Reddit's front page that accused the president of planting a question in his supposedly uncensored digital town hall.
The question in dispute — basically, why should demoralized young voters vote for Obama again — was posted by unemployed law school graduate Hilary Lee using the freshly-registered account hmlee. It didn't take much googling to figure out that Lee had been an intern at the Department of Justice and once wrote a boostery blog post about Obama. (Disclosure: until March, Lee was a contributing editor for The Verge's sister site SB Nation, a coincidence we discovered in the course of reporting.)
"I wish it were true because I could still use a job."
"So, is it possible that she heard about it on her own, created an account, and typed up an eloquent question that is a PR man's wet dream all within less than 6 minutes? Yes, it's possible. It's just not particularly likely," wrote Redditor londondubhawc.
Conspiracy theories are abundant on Reddit, but this one seemed like it might have political repercussions as the story spread via Twitter. Would the backlash erase some of the goodwill generated by the stunt? The Daily Dot even picked up the controversy, which filtered down to a few smaller blogs.
Still, the story fell off the Reddit front page in short order. The idea that Obama would bother to plant a question amid the thousands of softball questions from across a range of topics? It's possible. But it struck many as not particularly likely.
Lee quickly denied the accusation when reached by email. She hasn't had any contact with Obama's campaign since 2008, she said, and she made a new account because she was using someone else's computer and didn't have her password. She asked a softball question because she wanted the President to answer. It only took her six seconds to submit because she typed her question in a text editor and pasted it into Reddit after creating the account.
Here is Lee's full explanation:
I am not an Obama plant. I have no affiliation with the campaign. I worked for them in 2008, but I haven't done anything for them in 2012 -- mainly because I was busy finishing law school, looking for a job, and studying for the bar exam (priorities, you know). As to the connection to the Department of Justice -- yes, I interned there during law school for six months. My last day of work was in December 2011, so I haven't had any connection to the federal government for quite some time. And the idea that asking a question of Obama (even if some considered it a softball question) would somehow curry favor with the DOJ is... well, ludicrous. Though I wish it were true because I could still use a job.
And the mystery about the account is relatively simple as well. I've used reddit for years -- though mainly as a lurker. On my own laptop, my reddit account is typically logged in with the information saved in my browser. When the Obama AMA occurred, I wasn't on my own computer. I couldn't get my normal login to work and knew that if I didn't get my question submitted in a hurry it'd get lost in the shuffle. So I just created a new account.
As to hearing about the AMA in the first place, I got a gchat from a friend about two minutes prior to it starting who told me that it was happening and to keep an eye on reddit's front page for it to post. I guess you could consider the question a little bit of a softball, but that was intentional, in as much as I wanted to get it answered. I knew that the President, being a politician, wouldn't answer an argumentative or controversial question. Similarly, my question was more likely to get answered if it was at least reasonably grammatically correct. So I typed it up in notepad, proofread it once, and submitted it. Pretty simple.
Lee has been a registered Redditor since June 2010, but requested that her username not be published "so I can go back to quietly lurking after this all dies down." Sounds reasonable to us. But don't expect the conspiracy theories to end here: another Redditor has already accused a second inquirer of being a plant.