Since the presidential election, the media has paid an enormous amount of attention to the alt-right, a loose confederation of trolls, white nationalists, conservatives, and neo-Nazis. From intense scrutiny of Steve Bannon — the former Breitbart executive appointed to be Donald Trump's chief strategist — to blanket coverage of a white separatist press conference last week in Washington, DC, the spotlight has been commensurate with a major new force in American politics.
But there's a fundamental problem in our understanding of the alt-right: No one knows how many people the controversial movement comprises. Like Anonymous and other leaderless, internet-driven movements before it, the alt-right leverages social media to amplify its message while keeping its membership, if you can call it that, obscure.
Last week, the journalist John Herrman noticed one eye-popping number: 7,528,000, or the total number of subscribers to the subreddit r/altright. That would make r/altright one of the 50 most popular pages on Reddit, up there with huge general interest subs like r/food and r/gadgets.
And this morning, that number had grown by a factor of 1,000, to the humungous figure of 8,190,000,000, or roughly half a billion subscribers more than the population of planet Earth.
So what the heck is going on?
The moderators of r/altright appear to be playing a simple trick with an input prompt. Reddit allows moderators to customize the name for subscribers to a subreddit in the right-hand column where the subscriber count appears, so the group of subscribers could be called "readers," or "followers," or "fanatics" — whatever you like. In the case of r/altright they appear as "Fashy Goys."
A simple right-click inspection of the page HTML shows that name, but it also shows something else: six zeroes.
That places the true subscriber count directly next to a multiplier of 1,000,000 (or when Herrman noticed it last week, merely 1,000). A moderator appears to have done the same thing with the online count for the current number of subscribers:
On the moderator page you can find the real number of subscribers, 8,191, or approximately .000001 of Earth's population.
Eight thousand subscribers isn't nothing: As the Anti-Defamation League found in its examination of anti-Semitic abuse against journalists, a relatively small number of internet users can make a hell of a lot of noise. But it does provide a new data point about an amorphous movement that may have a vested interest in appearing bigger than it really is.
Reddit did not respond to a request for comment.