Some of the most popular subreddits are protesting the proliferation of COVID-19 disinformation and conspiracy theories on the platform. Moderators from several high profile subreddits, including r/awww, r/showerthoughts, and r/pics, are now calling on the site to do a better job of curbing the spread of disinformation.
“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,” user N8theGr8 posted said in a post announcing the protests, which lists dozens of subreddits who had signed on in solidarity.
The thread, titled “We call upon Reddit to take action against the rampant Coronavirus misinformation on their website,” was posted in the r/vaxxhappened subreddit. It’s a group where people trade memes and shitposts about anti-vaxxers. “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,” the post said. “This volume of blatant misinformation is problematic and dangerous.”
The post has been upvoted more than 160,000 times and cross posted on various subreddits. It called out Reddit for taking a lax attitude to fighting disinformation. “There can be no room for leniency when people are dying as a result of misinformation on this platform. Reddit as a global platform needs to take responsibility here,” the post said. “We are calling on the admins to take ownership of their website, and remove dangerous medical disinformation that is endangering lives and contributing to the existence of this ongoing pandemic.
Reddit pushed back 8 hours later with a post from CEO Steve Huffman in r/announcements. It didn’t mention the thread specifically, but there’s little doubt it was a response to calls to ban subreddits that spread disinformation.
Huffman began by saying the CDC was the best source of up to date information about the pandemic and urged people to get vaccinated. “We appreciate that not everyone agrees with the current approach to getting us all through the pandemic, and some are still wary of vaccinations,” Huffman said. “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. 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.”
Huffman said that Reddit appreciated that some people wanted them to ban communities that “challenge the consensus view” but stressed it would only take action against subreddits that are “manipulating or cheating Reddit to amplify any particular viewpoint is against our policies.” He specifically mentioned people peddling fake vaccine cards or encouraging people to drink bleach. “We will continue to use our quarantine tool to link to authoritative sources and warn people they may encounter unsound advice,” he said. “We humbly ask and encourage everyone to report content that may violate our policies.”
Huffman’s post doesn’t grapple with the fact that antivax content is all over Reddit. Reddit has long had a disinformation problem that the pandemic brought into sharp relief. In February 2020, it quarantined one of the subreddits that frequently discussed COVID-19 conspiracy theories. The subreddit is still there, available to anyone willing to click through a warning about its contents. As of this writing, a stickied post in the group is asking if it should join in with the other subreddits calling on admins to ban disinformation. Earlier this month, Reddit quarantined NoNewNormal, an antimask, antivax subreddit.
“I would highly recommend staying out of this as we're pretty much a neutral ground where both pro-establishment and those against can unite to discuss things freely,” the top reply said. “No one from either side has been banned for participating in fierce debates, which is nearly unique to this subreddit. We should not be pushing any agendas and keep to the original spirit of the subreddit.”