Reddit’s virus-focused communities are a Wild West of information – and they’re doing little to change it
- Reddit is one of the most popular websites in the world, so it's unsurprising that a subreddit about the coronavirus disease has more than 600,000 members.
- However, both the popular subreddit and coronavirus-related content has been left seemingly unchecked and unfiltered by Reddit moderators.
- Reddit's website doesn't display or prioritise any verified information from official health organisations, like the CDC and WHO, as other major platforms have done - including Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and Amazon.
- Reddit has faced criticism before for the actions of its communities, particularly for a type of vigilante investigations common on the platform. Reddit users were held responsible for incorrectly identifying a 22-year-old university student as one of the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.
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As millions flock to social platforms to find the latest on the coronavirus, Reddit is one of the last popular websites to hold out on providing and prioritising verified information from health officials to its users.
Reddit users have already clamoured to a number of coronavirus-related subreddits, including r/coronavirus, which has more than 600,000 members. However, information-hungry users are getting little help from the platform in directing them toward the most accurate and up-to-date news from official sources, such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Aside from Reddit, most major websites and platforms have enacted changes to ensure links to official health organisations have appeared at the top of search results for coronavirus-related queries. Reddit's lack of action raises concerns about what the platform is doing to prevent the proliferation of misinformation, an issue the Reddit community and its army of amateur sleuths have run into before - with serious consequences.
Nearly 100,000 people have contracted COVID-19, the coronavirus disease, which originated in China and has since spread to at least 86 countries. The resulting fear over contracting the illness has led to a global shortage in face masks, the cancellation of major conferences and events, and even an economic meltdown.
Social networks including Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and TikTok have all stuck notes and pop-up windows with links to the CDC and WHO at the top of search results, with many citing the move as a way to prevent the spread of misinformation. E-commerce marketplaces like Amazon, where many have went to stock up on face masks and hand sanitiser, have also implemented similar pop-ups and guidance on their websites.
- Reddit declined to provide an on-the-record statement to Business Insider, but directed users to a blog post posted Monday that advertises the platform's ask-me-anything sessions with doctors and coronavirus experts.
Without any links to official coronavirus information, a Reddit search for the disease brings up a slew of posts across the platform citing sketchy sources, linking to unverified social media posts, and making bold - and potentially fear-mongering - claims. One coronavirus-related post - shared in r/popularopinion with nearly 40,000 upvotes - blatantly forwards a racist belief related to the disease.
Redditors have responded to the need for information by launching a network of subreddit for users to share and retrieve the latest news stories, reports, and headcounts of affected individuals. There's r/coronavirus, which has more than 600,000 members, and was reportedly the fastest-growing subreddit on the platform as of Thursday. There's also r/China_Flu and r/COVID19, which each have tens of thousands of members.
It appears that banner initially enacted a banner at the top of some of the biggest coronavirus subreddits with links to the CDC and WHO, as The Hill reported in early February. However, those banners have since disappeared from Reddit.
In an effort to provide accurate information, moderators have provided links to useful resources, and have implemented forum rules about not sharing sensationalised, unverified or unreliable sources. Some of these moderators are experts and PhD students, according to The Hill, and one said he spends "hours each day" removing misinformation from coronavirus subreddits.
However, these moderators told The Hill that Reddit is still "rife with coronavirus-related misinformation."
Nevertheless, these subreddits lack official oversight. In scrolling through posts in the popular forum, r/coronavirus, Business Insider found a number of claims about newly reported outbreaks and the number of deaths. That's not to mention the various discussion threads where Redditors can share opinions, and the moderator-run coronavirus Discord group, where its 10,000 members are free to share conspiracies, theories, and debate best safety tips.
A former r/Coronavirus moderator told Vice that Reddit's moderation system has been "inefficient" in preventing the spread of coronavirus misinformation.
- At least two subreddits - r/wuhan_flu and r/coronavirusconspiracy - have been "quarantined" by Reddit for containing misinformation and "hoax content." The quarantine means these subreddits won't appear in users' search and recommendation results, and Redditors are required to explicitly opt in to view these communities' content.
A deep-dive into content on r/wuhan_flu, conducted by Vice, found that the page was full of "unvetted information, conspiracy theory, and paranoia." Users in the group have went as far as to accuse some moderators of the other coronavirus-related subreddits of being "Chinese Communist Party shills" who are censoring information.
As one of the top 20 most popular websites in the world, Reddit has been at the forefront of disseminating news. However, Reddit's prominence means the platform has the power to play a significant role in spreading misinformation if it doesn't take precautions to stifle it.
Perhaps the most well-known example of Reddit's power came in 2013 in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing. A group of Redditors-turned-amateur sleuths took it upon themselves to try to identify the suspects in the bombing, and zeroed in on a 22-year-old missing student after claiming he looked similar to photos of one suspect. Redditors and high-profile journalists were quick to share on social media the name of the student, Sunil Tripathi, who was later found dead and cleared of any wrongdoing. Reddit later issued a public apology to Tripathi's family.
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