Social Media

Reddit's Messy Fight Over COVID Misinformation

Denizens of the popular online forum protested the spread of COVID misinformation, but the company rightly wouldn't cave to their demands. It still cracked down on 55 subreddits in the end.


This week, Reddit banned r/NoNewNormal, a discussion forum on the site that called into question conventional wisdom about masking and vaccines, while also "quarantining"—or applying an opt-in requirement for viewing—54 other subreddits that violate the site's "Rule 1" about inciting violence or promoting hate "based on identity or vulnerability."

Reddit says it banned r/NoNewNormal for "brigading," or the practice in which frequent users of one forum go into another to hijack the discussion. In this case, COVID denialists and policy skeptics (the two are not the same, though Reddit's rules clarification post conflates the two) engaged in 80 brigades in a one-month span that were "largely directed at communities with more mainstream views on COVID or location-based communities that have been discussing COVID restrictions." The subreddit had been previously warned that it was flouting the rules.

Interestingly, COVID skeptic and denialist forums are seemingly dominated by more positive internal feedback than the typical subreddit. According to Reddit's analysis, not only has COVID content increased since the larger July emergence of the delta variant in America, but subreddits that call into question pandemic-era bromides and policy choices have a far greater percentage of "content positively received" and, therefore, exposure, than typical subs.

As one Reddit content moderator wrote when announcing the ban and quarantines, "An important part of our moderation structure is the community members themselves. How are users responding to COVID-related posts? How much visibility do they have? Is there a difference in the response in these high signal subs than the rest of Reddit?"

The moderator noted that "in these high signal subs, there is generally less of the critical feedback mechanism than we would expect to see in other non-denial based subreddits."

But it's also important to pair this defensible moderation decision with an understanding of the public protests that other Reddit communities have engaged in. Weeks ago, moderators of over 450 other subreddits submitted an open letter to the company asking it to "take action against the rampant Coronavirus misinformation" on the site:

"We could have been better off months ago, but disinformation and lies have been allowed to spread readily through inaction and malice, and have dragged this on at the cost of lives. There are those who deny that the pandemic even exists, there are those who think that wearing a mask will literally suffocate you, there are those who think it's no worse than a regular flu virus, that it's a bioweapon, and everything in between….

There is no area of recognised safety procedures when it comes to battling the spread of a dangerous virus that is not under attack here. All empirically proven measures which can help save lives are under attack. Masks work1 , but not according to the propaganda. **The vaccine is safe,**2 it is not untested, and it is not experimental technology or DNA manipulation, but people getting their information from these propaganda subreddits are told the opposite."

"There can be no room for leniency when people are dying as a result of misinformation on this platform," the open letter continued, ending with a pointed demand: "Subreddits which exist solely to spread medical disinformation and undermine efforts to combat the global pandemic should be banned."

Reddit refused to acquiesce, responding instead with a forceful defense of the site's value proposition—"dissent is a part of Reddit and the foundation of democracy. Reddit is a place for open and authentic discussion and debate. This includes conversations that question or disagree with popular consensus"—and roughly 150 subs went private, putting up protest messages informing visitors of their grievances.

It's difficult to tell whether Reddit's decision to crack down on inappropriate user practices was influenced by widespread outcry. When its most recent announcement was greeted with frustrated responses, company representatives continued to defend their concept of the site as a place to explore ideas, even unpopular or offensive ones.

But internal Reddit data on forum traffic and upvotes indicate that the people who frequent COVID-skeptical subreddits have a hunger for exchanging heterodox takes on masks, vaccines, and pandemic-era policy missteps. It's fascinating that engagement within such communities is more positive than is typical for other forums. It's almost as if giving people a wide berth to feel as though they can legitimately question the party line is important—something Reddit seems to understand, but most free speech–antagonistic zealots who call for heavier content moderation fail to grasp.

"The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it," wrote John Stuart Mill in On Liberty. "If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error."

Today's writers of open letters clumsily imply that barring people from "the opportunity of exchanging error for truth" will result in submissive acceptance instead of heightened suspicion of the approved consensus. This error in thinking sells short just how frequently public health authorities and their mainstream boosters have been wrong on important issues like the lab leak hypothesis, overselling the frequency with which breakthrough infections occur, and simultaneously underselling the benefits of masks (that old "noble" lie!) while overselling the benefits of mask mandates, not to mention officials' persistent attachment to hygiene theater measures that should have been retired long ago or never rolled out. This doesn't fully erode their credibility, nor does it absolve vaccine denialists, many of whom traffic in bad information. It does, however, complicate the idea that skeptics and critics have nothing useful to add, or that their ideas will magically comport with mainstream opinion once suppressed.