Reddit’s volunteer moderators have shared an open letter demanding the company ban subreddits dedicated to spreading COVID-19 misinformation. In response, Reddit co-founder and CEO Steve Huffman released the tech bro statement equivalent of a shrug emoji.
Posted Wednesday on subreddit r/vaxxhappened, the moderators’ open letter calls Reddit out for allowing dangerous COVID-19 misinformation to thrive on its platform largely unchecked.
“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 post read (emphasis in the original).
Among the signatories are the moderators for subreddits r/aww, r/dataisbeautiful, r/EarthPorn, r/Futurology, r/lifeprotips, r/pics, r/showerthoughts, r/tifu, and r/UpliftingNews, all of which have over 10 million subscribers each.
Reputable health officials have continually stressed the importance of wearing a face mask amidst the coronavirus pandemic, as well as maintaining a safe distance from others and getting vaccinated as soon as possible. These are all scientifically proven strategies that literally save lives. Unfortunately, social networking platforms such as Reddit continue to host rhetoric rejecting such measures, allowing coronavirus misinformation to spread, multiply, and actively endanger people.
“Reddit as a global platform needs to take responsibility here.”
“The main problem with a concerted disinformation campaign is that such a message attains an air of legitimacy through sheer volume of repetition,” read the moderators’ letter. “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.
“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. Subreddits which exist solely to spread medical disinformation and undermine efforts to combat the global pandemic should be banned.”
It’s an understandable request. If people are spreading falsehoods that are proven to directly result in serious illness and death, and you could limit their reach, basic decency demands that you’d do everything in your power to do so.
So, of course, Reddit has shrugged and declared the whole thing not their problem, because self-regulation has worked out so well thus far.
“While we appreciate the sentiment of those demanding that we ban more communities that challenge consensus views on the pandemic, we continue to believe in the good of our communities and hope that we collectively approach the challenges of the pandemic with empathy, compassion, and a willingness to understand what others are going through, even when their viewpoint on the pandemic is different from yours,” wrote the company’s CEO Huffman in Reddit’s r/announcements subreddit.
Apparently, as someone choosing to “continue to believe in the good of our communities,” Huffman appears to have never used the internet.
Huffman blamed evolving CDC advice for Reddit’s lacklustre policy, as though the contested content were just confusion-fuelled debates on what type of mask we should wear rather than rejection of masks altogether. He also stated that Reddit will take action against communities that violate the website’s rules such as “encouraging harm (e.g. consuming bleach),” and offered the consolation that they’ll continue quarantining subreddits.
Quarantined subreddits have warnings that they could contain misinformation, are excluded from search results, and don’t appear in non-subscription feeds such as Reddit’s Popular posts. But Reddit has already been doing that for months — the whole point of the moderators’ open letter is that it simply isn’t enough.
Spreading anti-mask, anti-vaccination rhetoric actively encourages harm, especially considering COVID-19 is still killing thousands of people every day in the U.S. alone. But it seems Reddit believes this harm isn’t serious enough to warrant harsher action.
Reddit’s empty platitudes and clear abdication of responsibility are disappointing, but not all that surprising. After all, it’s much easier to step back and pretend you and your $10 billion company have absolutely no culpability in the 625,000 people in the U.S. who have died from COVID-19 to date.
Mashable has reached out to Reddit for comment. On an entirely unrelated note, I’m starting a subreddit dedicated to telling people seatbelts and speed limits are a violation of their civil liberties, because apparently I can.