More than 100 subreddits with tens of millions of users between them are all going dark this week in protest of Reddit’s inexplicable decision to allow communities to spread misinformation about COVID-19 and its vaccines. Reddit’s stance became clear last week when the company’s CEO, Steve Huffman, responded to a moderator’s pleas to shut these communities down by saying it was essentially their problem to solve.
“While we appreciate the sentiment of those demanding that we ban more communities that challenge consensus views on the pandemic,” Huffman wrote, adding that the company “[continues] to believe in the good of our communities,” in spite of all the dangerous nonsense that those on the fringes sometimes promote.
Considering Huffman’s nebbishy approach to handling hate speech, open racism, and god knows what else on the platform, it’s not surprising that he’d demure on handling these controversial communities. So, Redditors are taking up the call instead; over the past two days, roughly 130 communities ranging from r/TIFU and r/PokemonGo to a subreddit solely dedicated to dunking on Calliou have all gone private to protest the platform’s choice.
“We have gone private in protest of Reddit’s inaction against Covid misinformation,” reads the message from Pokemon Go’s mods.
“As our users know Covid directly impacts this game because Go is played outside in real life with others. We have stood against Covid misinformation publicly before, and stood with the community when they petitioned Niantic to return the 80m distances so we could continue to play safely,” they added, noting the developer’s recent move to revoke the expanded interaction distances for Pokestops and gyms across the US and New Zealand. “To that end, we will stay private until NoNewNormal and similar subs dedicated entirely to misinformation are banned.”
Right now, the NoNewNormal subreddit—widely regarded as a hub for antivaxxers and antimaskers to congregate—has only been quarantined by the platform, and only after it reached more than 100,000 members. In a statement to VICE, the only reasoning Reddit offered was that the community needed to be quarantined “in accordance with Reddit’s Quarantine Policy.” On the page describing what “quarantining” does, Reddit describes the move as a preventative one.
“The purpose of quarantining a community is to prevent its content from being accidentally viewed by those who do not knowingly wish to do so, or viewed without appropriate context,” Reddit wrote. “Quarantined subreddits and their subscribers are still fully obliged to abide by Reddit’s Content Policy and remain subject to enforcement measures.”
The good news here is that Reddit has shown it can be swayed by collective Redditor dissent before. This past March, hundreds of communities also went private after word got out that Reddit had hired Aimee Challenor, a well-known figure in the UK politics scene who had been previously accused of some, er, pretty grisly stuff. Not long after the communities went dark, Huffman confirmed that the company had let her go, saying that Reddit “did not adequately vet her background before formally hiring her.”
Obviously, the current situation is about moderation, not a new hire, so it’s unclear whether Reddit will cave. But the platform eventually ended up banning The_Donald, so who knows, maybe Huffman will surprise us all this time, too.
We’ve reached out to Reddit for an update on the protests and will update here when we hear back.
Update 3:27PM EST: Well, it looks like the protests worked. on Wednesday afternoon, a Reddit admin clarified via a post on the platform’s official security and safety subreddit that r/NoNewNormal would be getting the ban users were begging for. Apparently, this isn’t because of the forum’s outright COVID denialism, but because they were targeting other pandemic-themed subs with abuse. Per the post:
Claims of “brigading” are common and often hard to quantify. However, in this case, we found very clear signals indicating that r/NoNewNormal was the source of around 80 brigades in the last 30 days (largely directed at communities with more mainstream views on COVID or location-based communities that have been discussing COVID restrictions). This behavior continued even after a warning was issued from our team to the Mods. r/NoNewNormal is the only subreddit in our list of high signal subs where we have identified this behavior and it is one of the largest sources of community interference we surfaced as part of this work (we will be investigating a few other unrelated subreddits as well).
On top of this ban, 54 other unnamed COVID-themed subreddits are getting the quarantine treatment that NoNewNormal was under until now. The post also notes that Reddit will be building “a new reporting feature” for mods to let them better tell the site’s operators when they’re being brigaded. “It will take us a few days to get this built, and we will subsequently evaluate the usefulness of this feature,” Reddit added.