Information about the novel coronavirus and Covid-19, the disease it causes, comes from a kaleidoscope of sources: the World Health Organization runs a landing page that answers basic questions, President Trump has given a meandering press conference, and the U.S. Center for Disease Control is advising people on how to trim their beards.
Online, many turn to Reddit, the so-called “front page of the internet,” where a war is waging between its communities about who controls the flow of information.
Reddit has five communities dedicated to discussing the coronavirus. The r/COVID19 subreddit focuses on academic articles and scientific studies, r/Coronavirus is a place to share stories from reputable news sources, and r/COVID19_Support provides emotional support and resources for people afraid of the outbreak. Of the five, Reddit has quarantined only one of the communities, r/Wuhan_flu, saying “it may contain misinformation or hoax content.” Anyone can browse Reddit, but to view a quarantined community a user must create an account for the site and click through a warning message.
Selling itself as a free speech zone, r/Wuhan_flu traffics in unvetted information, conspiracy theory, and paranoia. At the time of this writing, a stickied post on r/Wuhan_flu alleges that the other Covid-19 Reddit communities are censoring information. One of its top posts is a discussion about how it might soon be banned, and another links to a South China Morning Post article with the wildly overblown description: “Even CHINA is admitting this is basically airborne AIDS now. Good luck!”
The r/Wuhan_flu subreddit is an outlier, and most of the content on the other subreddits is vetted information. The moderators work to make sure their communities aren’t spreading misinformation during a time of crisis and, according to Reddit itself, many of the moderators of the Covid-19 subreddits have scientific backgrounds.
“I’d rather have experts in the field being the ones deciding what is actually an instance of misinformation,” Chris Slowe, Reddit’s chief technology officer, told The Hill on February 5.
Things have changed in the two weeks since the article, however. The users of r/Wuhan_flu felt the other subreddits were censoring information and claimed that some of the mods were “Chinese Communist Party shills,” accusing them of banning too many users for minor infractions and blacklisting too many news sources. To prove this, r/Wuhan_flu users infiltrated the mod community of the other subreddits, gathered information about the alleged slights, then leaked the logs.
The other coronavirus subreddits, to a certain extent, have capitulated to r/wuhan_flu. r/China_flu removed one of its mods and another stepped down. Other moderators tossed up their hands and walked away. However, r/Wuhan_flu still sees a conspiracy because it feels the change in leadership hasn’t changed the way the other subreddits share information.
One former moderator for r/Coronavirus subreddit, who requested anonymity due to fear of doxxing and harassment, told me they felt Reddit dropped the ball by taking a hands-off approach to the situation.
“I feel it is becoming increasingly apparent that Reddit, with its voluntary content moderation system, is unable to respond adequately to the sharing of potentially dangerous health misinformation without significant reform in their moderation strategy,” said the former r/Coronavirus moderator. “The current system is insufficient at ensuring that health misinformation is not spread on that platform and needs significant reform.”
Reddit declined to comment on this story.
The flow of information is important during a crisis. People need good info about disasters, relief locations, and what to expect. That flow is one of the ways humanity fights a pandemic. But it’s hard to parse good information from bad online.
“This is a tricky question. For several reasons,” Theresa MacPhail—a medical anthropologist, Assistant Professor at Stevens Institute of Technology, and author of the book The Viral Network: A Pathology of the H1N1 Influenza Pandemic, told me in an email. “People need updates, or what [public health] professionals call ‘situation reports’, and they need basic info on symptoms and what they should do to prevent infection and what to do if they suspect they are ill themselves. This information should come from experts—public health agencies and key science journalists who have been on this beat for a while.”
The problem with new diseases, however, is that experts are learning new information everyday and things change rapidly. Smart people make mistakes, and new information is constantly coming to light.
“The trouble with free-flowing info during a crisis is that a lot of the early scientific reports haven't been vetted yet. So if they're being shared in open-access venues that's great for science and really bad for message control,” MacPhail said. Most people don’t have a scientific background and don’t know how to properly parse new information. “I've seen competent statisticians, who don't usually work in epidemiology, really get some of the data on infection rates and [case-fatality ratios] wrong.”
MacPhail said there was a big difference between disinformation and misinformation, and that we have to fight both. The public must trust that public health officials are giving out correct information. Once that trust is broken, it’s hard to recover. “We've seen what happens when this doesn't work well, with vaccination rates plummeting and real health risks rising as a result,” she said.
MacPhail praised Reddit for quarantining r/Wuhan_flu. “But I also think public health officials need to get better at communicating with the public,” she said.
“They're using old models of communication and they need more emphasis on social media and how to make things accessible and understandable to a broader public. They need to do better at translating what they know into different cultural registers.”