The Populist Revolt of r/wallstreetbets

Justin Pan
4 min readJan 27, 2021
Photo: logo for r/wallstreetbets

Nearly a decade ago, disgruntled citizens flocked to Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan. On a POPS owned by Brookfield Properties and Goldman Sachs, they held signs that said “Arrest Wall St. Bankers” and “Rome Burns Again”. For over a month, the 99% campaigned against income and wealth inequality in the United States. In the backdrop of the world’s largest investment banks, they decried corporate influence in politics and the unrelentless growth of the 1%. But without a clear roadmap to any meaningful change, the movement simmered to a wisp. On Nov. 15th, Bloomberg (the mayor, not the corporation) cleared out Zuccotti Park, and Occupy Wall Street became one for newspaper archives and history books.

Today, a new generation of protestors have revitalized old grievances in new forms. Armed with the ease of modern-day trading and Reddit, they short stocks instead of waving signs and mobilize on r/wallstreetbets instead of on Wall Street. While OWS lacked efficacy due to its broad and often vague spectrum of goals, such as student debt forgiveness and unemployment reduction, this group of Robinhood traders have rallied tightly around GameStop Corporation (GME). In their push to send GME share prices to the moon, what used to be a subreddit devoted to Elon Musk and finance memes has mobilized against institutions they once found common ground with.

Just as OWS recognized that Wall Street was too powerful, r/wallstreetbets has taken on the same anti-establishment flavor. However, by self-funding their own movement and trading via strength in numbers, they’ve managed to achieve tangible results in ways that OWS never could. Change from OWS was entirely dependent on policy, and when it was clear that the best they could achieve was opprobrium from Republicans and lip service from Democrats, the movement had nowhere left to go. r/wallstreetbets has no interest in changing the rules, as they don’t necessarily see them as unfair. By reinforcing one another with battleground cries to stand firm and screenshots of their own all-in investments, they’ve established a unified front solidified with capital, beating hedge funds at their own game. So far, it’s been enough to force a $2.75 billion Citadel and Point72 bailout of Melvin Capital.

Most successful (and unsuccessful) protests in history are fueled by identifying the opposition. For r/wallstreetbets, it’s been hedge funds and the financial media, which they see as a mouthpiece for establishment money. Just as CNN is vilified as the media arm of the left, and Fox for the right, r/wallstreetbets has turned their ire onto CNBC, professional hedge fund apologists and suppressors of the average investors.

Source: https://www.reddit.com/r/wallstreetbets/comments/l66f7o/even_the_mooch_knows_were_coming_for_the_suits/

In Berniesque fashion, the standard-bearers of the subreddit speak of a “tug of war between tradition and the future”. They maintain that they can think and make decisions for themselves, which “scares the FUCK out of old school institutions and hedge funds”. They hold that these institutions have controlled the market since its inception, and that it’s time for the little guys to have their turn. This revolutionary sentiment may have been inadvertent in conception, but it’s become inevitably political, and it’s made r/wallstreetbets stronger as a result.

To be clear, r/wallstreetbets does nothing for the broader socioeconomic issues addressed by OWS, and nor does it claim to. Its participants aren’t a diverse bunch, but technologically-savvy Millennials and Zoomers who have some money to burn. While some have donated to charitable causes such as food banks and St. Jude, most of them are there for the sake of making money, or losing it in the spirit of trying. However, within the subreddit, there are tales of comforting humanity: people paying off student loans and the cost of a dog’s knee surgery. They’ve identified their own fight, taken it to the bottom lines of billion-dollar portfolios and hedge funds, and made dents. Whether or not they genuinely care about limiting the power of hedge funds and the betterment of the average retail investor is debatable, but their ability to achieve results is laudable, especially considering the strength of their opposition.

This isn’t a universal effort; just over half of U.S. households have money in the stock market and only 14% are invested in individual equities. The populism here is also relative. It’s the average retail trader’s battle against hedge fund giants, which means nothing for nearly half of Americans. But in an age where protests are often more performative than practical, the camaraderie and determination of r/wallstreetbets has put the entire world on notice. Though the long-term consequences of this crusade are still unclear, there are undoubtedly lessons to be learned for those who want their own efforts to result in real pressure, and maybe even tangible change.

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Justin Pan

UChicago grad in Economics/English. Equity Analyst. Writer. Reachable at jpanct1@gmail.com