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.

NEXT: Review: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

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  1. We’re still allowed to lie and say Biden isn’t senile, right?

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  2. Caveat emptor. If you are getting medical advice from someone that is not your doctor, you may wsnt to have your head checked.

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      They’re not sending their best.

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  3. >>COVID misinformation

    18 months of it straight from our government.

  4. I never really imagined that “Orwellian” would become quite such a relevant term in my lifetime.

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    2. It’s a social media site. Just don’t use it.

      1. I don’t. My comment wasn’t specifically about Reddit. Are you deliberately missing the point?

        All those children reporting their parents to Big Brother so they could be taken away and tortured were just private citizens acting voluntarily, so nothing to worry about, right?

      2. It’s a backbone provider, a cloud services company, a payment processor, and an app store and a hardware manufacturer. Just don’t use them.

  5. “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.””

    I think a lot of people view this as proof that the Skeptic forums are echo chambers. But I’ve been on some of these skeptic Reddits before and I have found that if you give a contrary view that is contrite and not attempting to be a trolling dunk on others, it will get upvoted. (Haven’t been on these specific subreddits, tho).

    But just consider that metric of “critical feedback”. If Einstein had started discussing his theories of relativity on a subreddit, would you expect to see a lot of contrary views after some time? Or would you expect to see the “Positive feedback” amplify as his theories were increasingly born out?

    My point is, everyone agreeing is not a metric of something’s correctness or not- it could be that there is an echochamber forcing conformity, or it could be the discussions largely center around uncontroversial truths.

    Indeed, these metrics are a bit of a strawman. We as individuals owe it to ourselves and society to focus on the arguments themselves and be less concerned with meta-data as an authority of whether the actual arguments are correct.

    1. My point is, everyone agreeing is not a metric of something’s correctness or not

      That’s antiquated Enlightenment rationalist thinking. We consensus now.

    2. Screw Reddit. I got permabanned for “inciting violence” for suggesting the NCAA “should be burned to the ground”.

      Reddit: For idiots, by idiots.

      1. For children by children.

    3. But if you call things by a different name it helps to put them into boxes that you can control easier. That way whatever substance was there is lost and you can rebut whatever argument you feel like without having to deal with the original.

  6. I can certainly sympathize with the desire to slow the spread of Covid misinformation, if only I were stupid and egotistical enough to believe that I have some special insight into which parts of the information available on Covid were true and which were false. Damn my humility in believing I don’t know everything and that I might be mistaken in what I believe to be true!

    1. You’ll be forced to drink hemlock for corrupting the yutes of America with that kind of thinking.

  7. Also an aside: Ms Wolfe has brought the writing quality of Reason up *substantially* over the last few weeks. Congratulations.

    1. She was formerly managing editor at The Federalist.

      Formerly of Austin, Texas, she now lives in Brooklyn, New York.

      I’m eagerly awaiting the heel turn.

      1. As someone currently of Austin, Texas I’d say that giving New York a Reason writer and gaining Michael Malice is a very favorable trade.

  8. 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:

    “Subreddits which exist solely to spread medical disinformation and undermine efforts to combat the global pandemic should be banned.”

    And 450 moderator positions just opened up at Reddit, right?

    Seriously, if you’d rather shut down Reddit than moderate, go work somewhere else. James Damore never called for portions of Google to be shut down.

    1. Worth mentioning: subreddit moderators aren’t Reddit employees in most cases, they’re fuckheaded nobodies with no lives who spend 12 hours a day exercising authority over their little volunteer fiefdoms because it gives their otherwise vacuous post-modernist lives some semblance of meaning along with their collection of 45 cats. Imagine, say, sarcasmic, or shreek, or Tony, but instead of just being passive aggressive whinging cunts they have the power to ban anybody who interrupts their circle jerk.

      1. My bad…

        And 450 volunteer moderator positions just opened up at Reddit, right? If you’d rather shut down subreddits outside your fiefdom than moderate your fiefdoms, go moderate somewhere else. James Damore never called for portions of Google to be shut down.

        1. Anyone can start a subreddit on any topic. They become the moderator with full authority of who can and can’t post content. They delegate that power to other humans, and sometime write scripts that automatically moderate content.

          Those moderators can shut down their own subreddits at any time and they simply cease to function. The moderators aren’t replaced.

          You haven’t experienced peek autism until you’ve had a post removed by a script written by a reddit moderator based on keywords.

          the presence of multiple moderators on a single forum with the power to remove posts and ban users leads rapidly to groupthink. You can’t say anything that might offend an arbitrary list of people.

      2. So…just like Wikipedia?

          1. Lot of white rage going on there.

            1. If White Rage is severe enough, it becomes the trans-racial Red Veiny Rage.

              1. I have veins, but even I want to learn more about Red Veiny rage.

        1. It’s a tough one, because in most ways Wikipedia is truly awesome. I wish he had created as an open standard that anyone could fork.

    2. I can’t imagine that any of the subredits exist solely for those purposes.

    3. “James Damore never called for portions of Google to be shut down.”

      Of course not- he merely declared that the female employees of the company be marched off to Handmaid’s training!!!!!!

  9. “COVID misinformation”

    Like COVID came from a wetmarket, masks work, double masking is best, Ivermectin and HCQ doesn’t work, oh wait they do, maybe they don’t, the jab isn’t making anyone ill, the WHO is an independent body, gain of Function wasn’t funded?

    Remember how an important study was published demonstrating that Covid evolve naturally, and everyone who disagreed was called racist hatemongers?
    And then remember how it turned out that the study’s authors had been the ones conducting gain of function research, in Wuhan, in coronaviruses, and failed to disclose the conflict of interest?
    And remember how Twitter banned actual Oxford University virologists for saying it looked artificial based on the ass-covering study?

    Be suspicious as fuck of anyone who claims to be able to discern “misinformation”, regarding research.

    1. Ivermectin and HCQ doesn’t work

      I’d be interested to see a study comparing walking, vitamin D, ivermectin, HCQ, and the vaccines. I’d be willing to put down $$$ that the latter 4 options do better at preventing infections and are just as good at preventing ‘serious’ outcomes. Especially across variants.

      Not to mention that the first two also combat diabetes, heart disease, etc., etc.

      1. Early on in this pandemic (and going forward) I felt naturally (vaccine or before) confident in my chances and that’s fine if you disagree think I was a crackpot but I run 6 miles a day at a sub 40 minute total pace and eat well. Vascular or respiratory at that time I felt I was well prepared to handle this head on.

        1. I also weight train regularly and still play basketball when a game is around

        2. My sister and brother-in-law both contracted COVID (before the vaccines were widely available), neither get any exercise, neither eat particularly well, one has diabetes (reasonably well-managed). Both are in their mid-50s. They neither were hospitalized nor went to the doctor. They got over the major symptoms in about 5-7 days, and got over minor symptoms (loss of taste/smell) within 14 days.

          1. My elderly Aunt who’s a cancer survivor caught it on the Friday before Xmas. She hosts and we were all ready to call Xmas off or host it elsewhere. She refused, was back by Tuesday, and hosted Xmas with her usual full spread. To this day her biggest complaint about COVID was that the lockdowns, payouts, and shortages of medical personnel have made it more difficult to schedule her dialysis appointments. Nobody else developed symptoms or tested positive until a couple of months later. I can’t count on one hand the number people I’ve been in close, prolonged contact with, sans vaccine or masks, within days of their testing positive. AFAIK, neither I nor any member of my immediate family have ever been infected.

            I don’t know anyone who’s died of it who didn’t know my parents before I was born.

      2. Give it a few more months for additional variants to become more common and ivermectin (even if it doesn’t work at all) will be more effective than the vaccine.

        Just my from the ass prediction.

  10. Joe Biden has falsely claimed he visited the Tree of Life here in Pittsburgh after the massacre three years ago.

    In fact, Trump came to the Tree of Life, while Democrat Mayor Bill Peduto and Democrat Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald refused to meet Trump.

    1. There’s a reason Ken says progressives are America’s most horrible people.

      1. Is it because they’re America’s most horrible people?

        1. Winner winner chicken dinner.

      2. Others of us are thinken the same thing.

  11. Having Reddit claim “Reddit is a place for open and authentic discussion and debate.” Comes across and incredibly ironic.

    The open pleas from the moderators is a much more civil response than what typically flows from the site. Their structure rewards popular opinions and buries any that aren’t. When combined with the tendency of ‘redditors’ to engage in hate labeling and disingenuous attacks on anyone who doesn’t toe the party line the site devolves into a place where anything but open discussion is common.

    1. Discussion is totes open, as long as you parrot the MSM/DNC talking points, don’t question authority/the government, and don’t post to any of those icky subs.

    2. Reddit is a hive mind of selfish twats.

      1. Reddit is also about the most manipulated propaganda engine on the internets.

        NOTHING reaches the front page organically. It’s all about legions of socks doing your bidding and there are even businesses out there that’ll do subtle upvoting for your content and downvoting for other people’s to get you a head start.

        1. That’s why I only use it to look at naked pics of hot moms.

          1. reddit has hot moms? asking for friend.

            1. Tons of them. Tell your friend to search for onmww.

  12. The Illuminati created Covid to kill off the conspiracy theorists. The conspiracy theorists were becoming a threat to the global power structure.

    1. The Illuminati just aren’t what they used to be. Can’t even come up with a sufficiently deadly virus to kill off the weirdos.

      1. Only the unvaccinated are dying. Only Trump voters are unvaccinated. Therefore, only Trump voters are dying.

        I still don’t see why the left is whinging so much.

  13. “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”

    what a joke. where was this policy months ago when every women-only sub, especially those critical of trans rhetoric, was outright banned?

    1. LOL. Check out Jordan Peterson over here.

      Freedom of speech doesn’t mean hate speech. Get with the program.

      1. LOL. K, sis, feel free to give your rights away. We’ll be over here fighting for them. Even yours.

        1. You may want to get your sarcasm detector checked.

  14. I’ve tried to use reddit a few times, but I honestly found it close to useless. There is something lacking in the ideas that up/down promote.

  15. No matter what Reddit or our other silicon overlords do….it won’t make Masks work (or work enough to be mandated….especially for kids, outsides….etc)

  16. Amoral billionaires and trillion dollar companies have far too much power and influence. The left likes this so you should hate it.

  17. I got involved in that fight.

    I am pretty scrupulous about keeping my Reddit account free of politics, but this petition came spamming across all of the subreddit groups that I frequent (science and space, mostly) and I could not hold my piece.

    These people are straight up authoritarian communists. I engaged them at length in every forum. I explained in detail why the answer to bad speech is more speech. Why you don’t want to live in a world where unpopular opinions are suppressed.

    Despite being genderless and faceless, I quickly became a sexist white supremacists who does not understand the history of depression due to my white privilege. Just like some paid activists around here, the answer to “reddit should not be censoring ideas, and you should not be pressuring them to do so” was “they are a corporation, so they can do what they want.”.

    These people are gleeful brownshirts. They have no doubts. They know that they are on a holy mission, and anyone who does not support them should justly be silenced and ostracized.

    Things are much worse than you think they are. For a major chunk of the under-35 crowd, free speech is not a positive ideal. In fact, they do not view free speech as “you can say what you would like”. They view free speech as being the right to espouse the correct ideology in whatever way you choose. Free speech must confirm, else it is not free.

    They also believe that all money is community property. Anyone who has more, for arbitrary values of more, is hoarding ill-gotten resources. They are criminals. This is how they can support forcing landlords to allow tenants to live rent free, with no sympathy at all for even the most sympathetic building owner who is losing their life savings due to these mandates.

    They have control over large swaths of the nation, and they are on a holy quest to liberate the rest of it from the Nazis who would allow free speech for all. This is their greatest sin, since only racist Trump supporters have an affinity for freedom of speech

  18. I got banned from their /worldnews sub because I replied to a hysterical article about “long covid” with one about how long covid was essentially created by a bunch of crystal healers

    Not saying some people don’t continue to still have effects from it (my sense of smell has not fully recovered 8 months later, I still can’t smell bleach), but people are acting crazy over it.

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  22. Does anyone honestly think the nation is gonna talk this out, or have y’all also come to expect blood before it’s done?

    ‘Cause I don’t see the Brownshits relenting any time soon, and I will choose to fire rather than submit when they reach my porch.

  23. /r/LockdownSkepticism is one of the best COVID discussion groups on the Internet. I hope the Reddit mob doesn’t target them next.

    I used to occasionally check out /r/NoNewNormal, but the quality there was about the same as /r/politics. It’s ridiculously two faced to ban them for doing what most every other sub-reddit does, but it’s no great loss of high quality discussion.

  24. Reddit is full of children. They censor tons of posts, and the uovote system works as a community signal for wrong-think. Very closed minded people on the site. I tried recently to reply to a financial question because I had the knowledge, and got censored for “political language” I told the censor fine remove the “political language” (which I guess was me listing valid reasons why I didn’t like the financial regulation in question) and got a snarky reply that basically said fuck off, which was dumb because nobody gave the guy and answer to his finance question.

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