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Reddit enlists users to combat coronavirus misinformation

Reddit enlists users to combat coronavirus misinformation
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Reddit is encouraging its users to combat misinformation about the coronavirus on its platform, prompting medical experts to take matters into their own hands. 

The unpaid curators of the popular website’s largest coronavirus-related discussion groups, the r/coronavirus and r/china_flu subreddits, are working overtime to ensure verified information rises to the top of the platform. Reddit’s leadership is encouraging those users to take the lead. 

“I’d rather have experts in the field being the ones deciding what is actually an instance of misinformation,” Chris Slowe, Reddit’s chief technology officer and one of its founders, told The Hill in a phone interview on Wednesday. 

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Reddit’s user-led content moderation system allows unvetted and anonymous users to decide what’s allowed on the website. That system has drawn immense scrutiny for years, with critics and researchers accusing Reddit, which calls itself the “front page of the internet,” of taking a back seat as users push conspiracy theories, hate speech and extremist messages. 

But this time around, amid an escalating health crisis that’s left people around the world with few answers, Reddit says its hands-off approach is working. The structure of the platform itself offers users several tools to control what they see and promote, and a team of PhDs and committed experts have helped curb conspiracy theories. 

“Being in infectious disease myself, I view this as some sort of extension of my day job, even though I’m not getting paid for it,” Emerson Ailidh Boggs, a Ph.D. candidate in infectious disease microbiology and a moderator of coronavirus subreddits, told The Hill.

Dr. Andrew Bohm, an epidemiologist who helps moderate the r/china_flu subreddit, said he dedicates hours each day to rooting bad information out of the forum. 

“We’re doing everything we can to make our resource a safe place for people to come for news discussion, important information, during this scary situation when people are coming to us because they are scared and they want safe, reliable information,” Bohm said. 

There are about 30 people moderating r/coronavirus and r/china_flu cumulatively, which have attracted more than 1.2 million unique users in the two weeks since they were created. And the moderators of the forums run a tight ship, with specific rules against “sensationalized” news and an emphasis on authoritative information from top health bodies like the World Health Organization (WHO). 

“I will say that from the very start we, the entire mod team, have been insistent on trying to keep this a place with as much confirmed news and as little speculation as possible,” Bohm said. “We all want to ensure that blatant fear-mongering is not being spread.” 

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The r/china_flu subreddit has a “rumors - unconfirmed source” tag for any shoddy information, which highlights questionable posts with bright red text and a dark red background. And the r/coronavirus subreddit tags potential misinformation with a “grain of salt” label, though r/coronavirus is less moderated.

“There are some speculations that the government is planning a TOTAL NATIONWIDE SHUTDOWN,” reads one top post from Wednesday, which moderators quickly flagged as unsubstantiated. 

“Approach with skepticism until confirmed by media that provides sources,” responded one Reddit user.

Tech companies and public officials have scrambled in recent weeks to rein in the massive influx of misinformation around the coronavirus, a mysterious disease that first cropped up in Wuhan, China, last month. So far, the outbreak has killed more than 560 people and infected over 28,000, nearly all in China. The WHO last week declared the disease a global health emergency. 

The information vacuum has led people across social media to turn to conspiracy theories — including those that link the virus to the U.S. government, the Chinese government, or the dietary habits of Chinese people, said Gabrielle Lim, a misinformation researcher with the Harvard University Shorenstein Center. 

Lim said “spreading false or misleading or decontextualized information” can obviously harm peoples’ health — but it can also fan the flames of xenophobia and racism. She said the worst narratives blaming Chinese people for the virus have resulted in “racial discrimination.”  

Reddit, which boasts over 430 million monthly active users, is the sixth most-popular social networking app in the U.S., according to analytics firm Statista. But its content moderation structure is very different from the top social media platforms like Facebook and Google, which rely on a mixture of artificial intelligence and human content moderators to enforce top-down rules against hate speech, harassment and more.

Reddit’s rules governing what users can post is less than 400 words, as opposed to the lengthy, pages-long documents from Facebook, Google and Twitter. Reddit users are prohibited from promoting criminal activity, such as sexual content involving minors, and explicitly encouraging violence. But beyond that, the task of regulating discussions falls to subreddit moderators. 

Those people, who voluntarily curate the discussion groups, can decide for themselves how they want to treat health-related misinformation. Reddit does not have any explicit policy against it. 

“We try to make sure that the communities can set their own norms,” Slowe from Reddit said. “And we intervene when we see things going off the rails.”  

So far, the top posts on r/coronavirus and r/china_flu are fact-based discussions about the latest information on a fast-moving health crisis. But some of the moderators said it would be useful if Reddit took a tougher stance.

When asked whether it would make his job easier if Reddit instituted a policy against health misinformation, Bohm said, “Yes, full stop.”

Rishab Nithyanand, an assistant professor of computer science with the University of Iowa who has researched misinformation on Reddit, said it’s totally up to moderators to decide how seriously they want to take the issue of bunk science and lies. 

“They’re completely unpaid ... [and] they’re really overwhelmed,” he said. 

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Reddit’s leadership maintains one fail-safe: if subreddits are frequently breaking guidelines they can be quarantined — removed from searches and requiring users to opt-in before viewing — or removed entirely.

Last week, Reddit quarantined one coronavirus-related subreddit — r/Wuhan_Flu —  for “containing misinformation and/or hoax content,” a spokeswoman said. 

The r/Wuhan_Flu subreddit includes several posts promoting debunked or unsubstantiated conspiracies including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation being behind the coronavirus and China purposely not treating the infected.

“The point is taken in the case of a health crisis, misinformation can be damaging,” Slowe said, adding that they quarantine subreddits when communities go “past a certain extreme.”  

The moderators of the quarantined subreddit say they will appeal Reddit’s decision and continue to fight the “media blackout.”

In addition to quarantining r/Wuhan_Flu, Reddit put a banner at the top of the subreddit directing visitors to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for “medically accurate information about the 2019 novel coronavirus.”

That’s one of the steps Reddit’s leadership has taken to direct users toward reliable sources, along with adding a link to a discussion on the subreddit r/AskScience, which is carefully curated to promote verified responses and experts, about the coronavirus to the website’s front page.

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And a spokeswoman said Reddit is currently in communication with public health groups to sponsor a coronavirus discussion on the platform in the coming weeks.  

Each of the Reddit moderators who spoke to The Hill agreed that the platform remains rife with coronavirus-related misinformation, but said they only have the bandwidth to deal with the forums they’re in charge of.

"With my own limited time, my main focus is on r/china_flu and how we can make it a higher quality information environment,” said one moderator.

Updated 12:07 P.M.