User backlash after Tencent’s Reddit interest

Chinese internet giant Tencent is reportedly leading the pack for Reddit’s Series D round, with the social media giant aiming to raise between $150 and $300 million, but not everyone is happy.

Reddit, a social media platform for news aggregation, web content rating and conspiracy theories, has been beating its chest to the press over the last couple of weeks to drum up interest for the funding round. According to Alexa website rankings, Reddit is the 17th most visited website worldwide, while it claims to have 330 million monthly active users, 138,000 active communities and 14 billion page views a month.

And it appears to have caught the attention of one of the worlds’ fastest growing internet businesses. According to TechCrunch, Reddit is hoping to raise between $150 and $300 million, which would value the platform between $2.7 billion and $3 billion. Details are thin for the moment, but what is worth remembering is the Tencent stake would be relatively minor.

That has not stopped criticism on the platform from users however. Many are linking the Chinese distaste for free speech with the demise of Reddit. Some are using the freedoms afforded by the Reddit platform to voice their concerns that Tencent might be able to block certain conversations and impose some levels of censorship. Reddit is currently blocked by the Great Firewall of China, though some fear with Tencent’s involvement the censorship could be extended elsewhere.

What is worth noting is Tencent is not acquiring the business but investing in it. Depending on the total amount pumped into Reddit, Tencent will certainly gain some influence from a strategic and development perspective, all investor do to a degree, but it will be very limited. Another factor to consider is that depending on the type of shares which Tencent acquires, it might not even be granted a seat on the Board of Directors.

That said, such is anti-China rhetoric around the world, this deal will catch the attention of politicians. There is perhaps little which can be done to prevent the investment, though the involvement of a Chinese business might bring greater scrutiny down on Reddit. While it has not be the centre of any scandals to date, it certainly does have the capability of influencing a wide, deep and highly engaged audience. The success of the business will partly rely on the management team’s ability to manage this new dynamic with politicians.

While Reddit is one of the most popular social media platforms on the internet, it is rarely considered in the same bracket as sites such as Facebook or Twitter. The number speak for themselves, though as the site does not look anywhere near as polished and as it does not feel as overtly commercial, it has snuck under the radar to escape the same scrutiny which is placed on the other platforms. We suspect this will change over the coming months however.

Recently the business has been going through somewhat of a refurbishment to take it into the big leagues. With a site redesign, the introduction of a native video player and the team has started to sell cost-per-click ads in addition to promoted posts, cost per impression and video adverts, it is starting to get the feel of a genuine internet business. This, alongside investment from a Chinese company, might bring it more to the attention of governments and regulators, many of whom are attempting to crack down on internet companies.

For Tencent, this is an investment which makes sense. Having created a monstrous business in China, primarily through the influence of WeChat and QQ, the team is looking to spread its wings in the international markets. There certainly has been some organic growth into the international space, though Tencent has certainly not been shy about investments and acquisitions.
Over the last few years Tencent has invested in several game developers including a minority stake in Robot Entertainment, videogame developer and publisher Glu Mobile paying $126 million and 84.3% of Finland-based developer Supercell for $8.6 billion. The firm also has holdings in Riot Games, Epic Games and Activision Blizzard. All of these titles have increased the presence of the firm in the international arena, as well as its influence in the data economy.

While expansion into the international arena is nothing new, attempting to muscle into the social media and news aggregation segment has got a few people anxious. Considering the Chinese approach to freedom of speech, Tencent’s involvement in Reddit has gotten a few users asking questions, while governments are bound to wade into the equation sooner rather than later.