A week after its CEO said that COVID misinformation wasn’t much of a problem on the site, Reddit has reversed course and banned r/NoNewNormal, a subreddit it said was responsible for massive amounts of COVID-19 misinformation on the site. In addition, Reddit said it had quarantined 54 additional subreddits and was building new tools to help moderators fight the spread of disinformation.
In a post on the r/redditsecurity subreddit, a section of the site that’s a “running log of actions taken to ensure the safety and security of reddit.com,” Reddit admin worstnerd announced the changes and also heavily implied that there has been an increased prevalence of COVID denialism on the site in recent weeks: the number of reports associated with COVID disinformation has drastically increased in recent weeks, and the overall percentage of COVID-related posts on the website that come from COVID denialism-focused subreddits had increased from 1 percent to 3 percent of the overall number of COVID posts on the site.
To fight against COVID-19 disinformation on the platform, Reddit said it would take three actions. It immediately banned the subreddit r/NoNewNorrmal, a popular community that discussed COVID-19 conspiracy theories, quarantined 54 additional COVID-19 denial subreddits, and implemented a new moderation feature that allows mods to better signal when they see one community raid another. “It will take us a few days to get this built, and we will subsequently evaluate the usefulness of this feature,” worstnerd said in the post.
According to worstnerd, Reddit decided to take action after a deep dive into the data. “[COVID-19] has caused confusion, fear, frustration, and served to further divide us,” they said in their post. “It is my job to oversee the enforcement of our policies on the platform. I’ve never professed to be perfect at this. Our policies, and how we enforce them, evolve with time. We base these evolutions on two things: user trends and data.”
worstnerd said that common COVID-19 keywords had been relatively flat on the site since January of 2020 but had spiked since July, corresponding with new of the Delta variant. The spike is even more dramatic when looking at posts reported for spreading misinformation. “Since August, we see approximately 2.5k reports/day vs an average of around 500 reports/day a year ago. This is approximately 2.5% of all COVID related content,” worstnerd said. “While this data alone does not tell us that COVID denial content on the platform is increasing, it is certainly an indicator.”
On August 26, moderators from some of the most popular subreddits on the site joined forces to protest what they saw as Reddit’s permissive attitude towards misinformation. “It is clear that even after promising to tackle the problem of misinformation on this site, nothing of substance has been done aside from quarantining a medium sized subreddit, which barely reduces traffic and does little to stop misinformation,” the moderators said in a post announcing the protest.
Eight hours later, Reddit CEO Steven Huffman pushed back against the protests and doubled down on Reddit’s commitment to being a marketplace of ideas. “Dissent is a part of Reddit and the foundation of democracy Reddit is a place for open and authentic discussion and debate,” Huffman said in his post on r/announcements. “This includes conversations that question or disagree with popular consensus. This includes conversations that criticize those that disagree with the majority opinion. This includes protests that criticize or object to our decisions on which communities to ban from the platform.”
In the days after Huffman’s announcement, various subreddits began raiding each other. /r/ivermectin, once a space where people discussed how best to take the antiparasite medication instead of a vaccine, was filled with memes and shitposts and antivaxxers. Antivaxxers also left their subreddits to similarly raid other groups. According to worstnerd it was not misinformation and bad ideas that caused Reddit to ban take action, but this interference between groups.
“While we want to be a place where people can explore unpopular views, it is never acceptable to interfere with other communities,” they said. “Claims of ‘brigading’ are common and often hard to quantify. However, in this case, we found very clear signals indicating that r/NoNewNormal was the source of around 80 brigades in the last 30 days (largely directed at communities with more mainstream views on COVID or location-based communities that have been discussing COVID restrictions).”
worstnerd said that the brigading continued after the security team warned its mods to stop. “r/NoNewNormal is the only subreddit in our list of high signal subs where we have identified this behavior and it is one of the largest sources of community interference we surfaced as part of this work (we will be investigating a few other unrelated subreddits as well),” they said.
“We're extremely happy that the Reddit admin team chose to listen to their users,” representatives for Reddit’s moderators told Motherboard. “The actions Reddit took today were a good compromise, and we are very encouraged that they are taking COVID misinformation seriously. Misinformation has a real human cost—for our friends, our families, our loved ones, and our communities—and we salute Reddit for committing to removing it from their platform. Reddit, like any social network, works best when staff and creators are in a constant dialogue and working towards the common good. We hope today's actions are the first step towards that consistent dialogue."
Reddit declined to comment for this story.
Samantha Cole contributed to the reporting of this article.
UPDATE: This story has been updated with a comment from a representative of the Reddit moderators.