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Reddit takes a teach-the-controversy approach to pandemic and vaccines

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Getty Images | Yuriko Nakao

Reddit yesterday defended its stance on allowing pandemic misinformation after hundreds of subreddit moderators joined an open letter urging the company to “take action against the rampant Coronavirus misinformation on their website.”

The open letter on r/VaxxHappened was joined by over 450 moderators and said that subreddits existing “solely to spread medical disinformation and undermine efforts to combat the global pandemic should be banned.” The hundreds of subreddits that joined the open letter include 10 with over 10 million subscribers each, over 40 subreddits with 1 million to 10 million subscribers each, and about 20 others with 500,000 to 1 million subscribers.

In response, Reddit posted an explanation of its approach, saying it will continue to allow “debate” and “dissent” on vaccines and other COVID-related matters, even when there is a scientific consensus.

“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,” Reddit wrote. Comments are not allowed on the r/Announcements post with Reddit’s response, but it can be crossposted to and discussed on other subreddits.

Disputing vaccine “consensus” is allowed

Explaining why it doesn’t ban Reddit communities that generally disagree with the “consensus” on vaccines, Reddit said dissent is “the foundation of democracy”:

We appreciate that not everyone agrees with the current approach to getting us all through the pandemic, and some are still wary of vaccinations. 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.

Vaccines have been safe and effective in reducing the number and severity of COVID cases, and the Food and Drug Administration this week granted full approval of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

Reddit pointed out that expert advice on COVID-19 has shifted during the pandemic and said that disagreeing with the CDC doesn’t violate the site’s policies:

When it comes to COVID-19 specifically, what we know and what are the current best practices from authoritative sources, like the CDC, evolve continuously with new learnings. Given the rapid state of change, we believe it is best to enable communities to engage in debate and dissent, and for us to link to the CDC wherever appropriate. While we believe the CDC is the best and most up to date source of information regarding COVID-19, disagreeing with them is not against our policies.

Reddit does set some limits on misinformation, saying that “manipulating or cheating Reddit to amplify any particular viewpoint is against our policies, and we will continue to [take] action [against] communities that do so or that violate any of our other rules, including those dedicated to fraud (e.g. fake vaccine cards) or encouraging harm (e.g. consuming bleach); and we will continue to use our quarantine tool to link to authoritative sources and warn people they may encounter unsound advice.”

Disinformation and lies help prolong pandemic

Though Reddit promised to tackle pandemic misinformation last year, the open-letter signers say that “nothing of substance has been done aside from quarantining a medium-sized subreddit, which barely reduces traffic and does little to stop misinformation.”

“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,” it said. “There are those who deny that the pandemic even exists, there are those who think that wearing a mask will literally suffocate you, there are those who think it’s no worse than a regular flu virus, that it’s a bioweapon, and everything in between. This volume of blatant misinformation is problematic and dangerous.”

Masks, vaccines, and social distancing are all “under attack” despite scientific evidence showing that they are safe and effective tools in fighting the pandemic, the open letter noted.

“Trying to keep children safe is painted as ‘child abuse,'” the post said. “Lies are repeated so frequently that misinformed people begin to believe them wholeheartedly, trusting that they can’t be incorrect because they’re surrounded by people who believe it also.” The post called on Reddit administrators “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’s response disappoints

Reddit’s response is now being discussed on the VaxxHappened subreddit, where members are disappointed in the company’s refusal to take more aggressive action against misinformation.

“What happened to ‘you’re entitled to your own opinion, but not entitled to your own facts,'” one person asked.

“I can’t stand how absolutely blatant and disingenuous misinformation is considered ‘the other half of the conversation,'” another wrote. “It’s not a conversation, one half is entirely evidence-backed, the other is not.”

Disclosure: Reddit is owned by Advance Publications, the parent company of Condé Nast, which owns Ars Technica.

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