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Reddit’s teach-the-controversy stance on COVID vaccines sparks wider protest

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Over 135 subreddits have gone dark this week in protest of Reddit’s refusal to ban communities that spread misinformation about the COVID pandemic and vaccines.

Subreddits that went private include two with 10 million or more subscribers, namely r/Futurology and r/TIFU. The PokemonGo community is one of 15 other subreddits with at least 1 million subscribers that went private; another 15 subreddits with at least 500,000 subscribers also went private. They’re all listed in a post on r/VaxxHappened which has been coordinating opposition to Reddit management’s stance on pandemic misinformation. More subreddits are being added as they join the protest.

“Futurology has gone private to protest Reddit’s inaction on COVID-19 misinformation,” a message on that subreddit says. “Reddit won’t enforce their policies against misinformation, brigading, and spamming. Misinformation subreddits such as NoNewNormal and r/conspiracy must be shut down. People are dying from misinformation.”

The r/TIFU subreddit message says it “is closed until the Reddit administration removes /r/NoNewNormal and other vaccine misinformation subreddits from Reddit. We cannot remain open and also keep our consciences clear.”

At r/PokemonGo, moderators posted a message saying that COVID directly impacts gamers “because [Pokemon] Go is played outside in real life with others… we will stay private until NoNewNormal and similar subs dedicated entirely to misinformation are banned.”

The VaxxHappened subreddit is still public but has restricted new submissions to approved users only.

Reddit allows “dissent” from vaccine consensus

Last week, the moderators of over 450 subreddits joined an open letter urging Reddit to “take action against the rampant Coronavirus misinformation on their website,” saying that subreddits existing “solely to spread medical disinformation and undermine efforts to combat the global pandemic should be banned.”

Reddit published a response defending its stance, saying it will continue to allow “debate” and “dissent” on vaccines and other COVID-related matters, even when it “challenge[s] consensus views.”

“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,” the company said.

Reddit does draw a line somewhere, as it said it will continue to take action against communities “dedicated to fraud (e.g. fake vaccine cards) or encouraging harm (e.g. consuming bleach).” But in general, Reddit said, “we believe it is best to enable communities to engage in debate and dissent, and for us to link to the CDC wherever appropriate.”

We contacted Reddit today, and a spokesperson said the company has nothing to say in addition to last week’s statement.

A few weeks ago, Reddit quarantined r/NoNewNormal, where anti-mask and anti-vaccine posts are common. Users can still go to that subreddit after viewing a message that advises “consult[ing] your physician” for medical advice and points to information on vaccines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Moderators protesting Reddit policies say the company has done “nothing of substance” other than quarantining that one subreddit.

“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,” the open letter 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.”

Disclosure: The majority shareholder of Reddit is Advance Publications, the parent company of Condé Nast, which owns Ars Technica.

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