Reddit, the sprawling social media site known for its community-guided ethos, rejected a plea from moderators of a pro-vaccine forum to do more to combat Covid-19 misinformation. Instead, Reddit doubled down on a well-worn “open forum” argument that has practically become a Silicon Valley cliche.
In a statement championing dissent as the “foundation of democracy,” CEO and co-founder Steve Huffman declined to ban anti-vaccine communities on Reddit.
“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,” CEO Steve Huffman wrote on the site’s official announcements page.
It’s interesting (and more than a little frightening) to see scientific fact be labeled a “consensus view” rather than “reality.” But putting that aside, the irony in Huffman’s statement can’t be ignored: Reddit’s huge collection of online forums, called subreddits, aren’t exactly famous for their “empathy” and “compassion.”
On the spectrum on social media wholesomeness, Reddit falls somewhere between Facebook and 4chan. It’s packed with goofy, extremely specific threads. It’s the site where a grassroots group of witches can get together to use “astral projection” and hexes to defeat the Taliban, on the r/BewitchTheTaliban page. If you’re into goblincore, Reddit’s got about 20,000 kindred spirits for you. But, with a reported 52 million users, it can also host more troubling elements, like hate groups and people encouraging others to drink bleach.
Huffman’s statement came in response to an open letter from the r/vaxxhappened subreddit, a pro-vaccine page that describes itself as a place to “collect the outrageous and dangerous tales told by dimwitted anti-vaxxers on all forms of media.”
In its letter, the group’s moderators urged Reddit’s founders to ban communities that “exist solely to spread medical disinformation and undermine efforts to combat the global pandemic.”
Dozens of other subreddits, including massive pages like r/dataisbeautiful and r/mildlyinfuriating, shared the group’s letter and joined the call to action.
“There can be no room for leniency when people are dying as a result of misinformation on this platform,” the letter reads.
Reddit is by no means alone when it comes enabling the spread of misinformation, propaganda and hate speech, though its approach to content moderation — relying on mostly on volunteers within individual communities — is far more decentralized than Twitter or Facebook.
Although Reddit has come a long way in terms of curbing hate speech and reining in trolls, the pro-vaccine moderators said the site hasn’t done enough to stop Covid lies from spreading through “sheer volume of repetition.”
Lawmakers, public health officials and the platforms’ own users have been increasingly calling for the companies to do more. And the standard Silicon Valley response so far is two-pronged: First, we’re a neutral platform for free speech. Mark Zuckerberg has defiantly outlined that position, championing Facebook as place for “free expression” of ideas. Of course, that neutrality claim is undermined by the reality of Facebook’s business, which involves closely tracking users and selling their information to advertisers. Incendiary, conspiratorial posts tend to spread like wildfire, encouraging people to spend more time and engage with more content. It’s pretty hard to go viral with sober, scientific information.
The second prong asserts that the best way to fight bad information on the internet is with good information. Facebook, Twitter and Reddit have all begun peppering users’ feeds with official guidance from the CDC and offering links to legitimate websites.
In his response Wednesday night, Huffman said Reddit would continue to highlight guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and take action against “fraudulent” content, such as fake vaccine cards, and any posts that encourage harm.
It’s a nice idea, but facts alone have never been an effective antidote to conspiracy theories.
On Reddit, as with Facebook and Twitter, dangerous ideas aren’t just given airtime, they’re given a megaphone. Silicon Valley leaders like Zuckerberg and Huffman shouldn’t be able to simply walk away from what they’ve created, claiming they stand for free speech and honest debate, especially when they’re profiting off the lies and misinformation their sites continue to amplify.
— CNN Business’ Brian Fung contributed reporting.