Reddit offers a non-response to uproar over COVID-19 misinformation

Reddit has finally cracked down on COVID-19 misinformation following growing calls to act, although it probably won’t satisfy many of its critics. The social site has banned r/NoNewNormal and quarantined 54 other COVID-19 denial subreddits, but not over the false claims themselves. Instead, it’s for abuse — NoNewNormal was caught brigading en masse (that is, flooding other subreddits) despite warnings, while the other communities violated a rule forbidding harassment and bullying.

The company didn’t, however, relent on its approach to tackling the misinformation itself. Reddit said it clamps down on posts that encourage a “significant risk of physical harm” or are manipulations intended to mislead others, but made no mention of purging posts or subreddits merely for making demonstrably false claims about COVID-19 or vaccines.

Reddit previously defended its position by arguing its platform was meant to foster “open and authentic” conversations, even if they disagree with a widely established consensus. However, that stance hasn’t satisfied many of Reddit’s users. Business Insider noted 135 subreddits went “dark” (that is, went private) in protest over Reddit’s seeming tolerance of COVID-19 misinformation, including major communities like r/TIFU.

Critics among those groups contended that Reddit let these groups blossom through “inaction and malice,” and that Reddit wasn’t consistent in enforcing its own policies on misinformation and abuse. As one redditor pointed out, Reddit’s claims about allowing dissenting ideas don’t carry much weight — the COVID-19 denial groups are presenting false statements, not just contrary opinions.

The situation is a familiar one. Reddit was accused of dragging its heels on hate speech, responding only when the outcry became too loud to ignore. The misinformation response suggests Reddit is repeating that behavior. Not that this would be shocking. The site often finds itself trying to balance its need to please advertisers with a desire to foster free expression, and this is just the latest instance of that balancing act creating an uproar.

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