Reddit on Wednesday banned an active COVID misinformation subreddit. The move comes after other subreddits called on the site's administrators to take more action against the spread of false information about the pandemic and vaccines.
An admin post in r/RedditSecurity confirmed that the subreddit r/NoNewNormal, which was full of COVID misinformation, was banned. Though the admin confirmed there's been a "pronounced" increase in COVID denial since July -- the same month federal and state governments began implementing vaccine mandates for employees -- the reason for the subreddit's banning was its connection to more than 80 brigades. A brigade involves members of one subreddit flooding another subreddit, usually to harass the other users.
The Reddit admin also said 54 other subreddits will be quarantined, which means they won't be listed in search results on the site and won't show up in certain Reddit feeds, such as Popular. NoNewNormal was quarantined on Aug. 11, but according to the admin, users on the subreddit continued their rule-breaking behavior.
The spread of misinformation has been a problem across social media sites amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. On Reddit, experts say the platform's voting system feeds into the issue, encouraging people to one-up each other with more attention grabbing and extreme posts. While Reddit says the decision to ban NoNewNormal was prompted by brigades, the move comes after a grassroots effort to put the spotlight on COVID-19 misinformation on the site.
On Aug. 25, a post from r/VaxxHappened was shared with more than a thousand other subreddits. It called for Reddit to take action against the COVID misinformation on the platform.
"There is a good chance that the disinformation that Reddit is currently inundated with will necessitate people a stay at the toxicology department in the hospital or even cost them their lives," the post read. "There can be no room for leniency when people are dying as a result of misinformation on this platform. Reddit as a global platform needs to take responsibility here."
Steve "Spez" Hoffman, the site's co-founder and CEO, responded Thursday after saying Reddit is "a place for open and authentic discussion and debate," and there would be no action taken against the subreddits spreading COVID misinformation.
"We believe it is best to enable communities to engage in debate and dissent, and for us to link to the CDC wherever appropriate," Hoffman said in a Reddit post. 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."
Due to Reddit's inaction, more than 100 subreddits including r/PokemonGo and r/TIFU went dark the past two days only allowing current subscribers to view it.
"We have gone private in protest of Reddit's inaction against Covid misinformation," read the message on the Pokemon Go subreddit before the banning.
NoNewNormal has been a point of focus of Reddit's COVID misinformation problem and had evaded banning until
What is NoNewNormal?
NoNewNormal started in June 2020 and has more than 122,000 subscribers, who are described as being "free thinkers." The subreddit's description says, "the phrase 'new normal' is pretty creepy. Let's talk about concerns with it, and what can be done to resist it.
Don't let the subscriber numbers fool you. While the number of subs pales in comparison to larger subreddits, NoNewNormal is very active. Prior to its quarantine in early August, there were more than 10,000 comments a day and over 900 threads, according to SubredditStats. This puts it in the upper echelon of active subreddits with millions more subscribers, including r/mademesmile (3.8 million subscribers), r/facepalm (5.5 million subscribers) and r/funny (37.2 million subscribers.)
The kind of content that gets shared on NoNewNormal runs the gamut, starting with threads about fighting against the "new normal," which normally meant railing against wearing masks in public. It evolved in the past year to questioning if people are dying from COVID and spreading anti-vax misinformation. Subscribers also gave more than 150 upvotes to a picture of Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, dressed to look like Adolf Hitler.
"We are not anti-mask/anti-vaccine," said one moderator for the subreddit, who asked to stay anonymous. "We are interested in the free exchange of ideas and debate...We strive to be a non-partisan coalition with the goal of simply returning to what existed before the world revolved around a virus."
Social media sites like Reddit provide a "virtual buffet" of misinformation, said Simon Copland, a Ph.D candidate in Sociology at the Australian National University who studies misinformation on the platform.
"Reddit's policies and ethos has meant that it has been a bastion of the edgy far-right, sitting alongside more extreme platforms such as 4chan and 8chan," Copland said. "The power of Reddit sits in the subreddit -- communities formed around specific topics. Subreddits let users curate their content, basically to ensure they only see what they want. It can mean someone can enter the platform and join a range of misinformation groups and not have access to any outside views."
Copland's research shows that Redditors stick with their own ideological groups and the voting system on the site leads to competition among users. This means users will tend to post more outrageous content to distinguish themselves from others, causing further extremism.
According to Copland, because Reddit doesn't have the personal ties like Facebook, it's easier to pull someone out of extremism as people's connections to ideas are shallower. The problem, however, is that once a subreddit is quarantined, like NoNewNormal currently is, some believers make the jump to even more extremist platforms.
"This has been one of the issues with the quarantine policy," Copland said. "My research, alongside that of others, has shown that the quarantine largely acts to push users off the platform and into more extreme spaces. In these spaces, individuals can often develop these deeper ties, and they become excluded from more mainstream ideas. They enter spaces that less moderated and where users are less likely to see alternative views, which can mean you have a smaller group, but whose ideas are more extreme."
Since its banning, NoNewNormal users are already spreading links to a separate site dedicated to keeping the COVID misinformation flowing. Subscribers to the pro-Trump subreddit, The_Donald, also found their own forum after it was banned in June 2020.