Misinformation on Reddit has become unmanageable, 3 Alberta moderators say

Misinformation flooding some of Alberta’s biggest online communities has become a major problem during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to three volunteer Reddit moderators in Edmonton.

In separate interviews with CBC News, the moderators said the number of posts pushing misinformation and conspiracy theories about COVID-19 has surged in their Reddit communities. The vast majority of posts, they say, come from users who have never participated in their online communities before.

Thousands of Albertans rely on local Reddit communities as news aggregators and discussion forums, but volunteer moderators say keeping these places free of pandemic-related misinformation and disinformation — misinformation intentionally spread — has become increasingly difficult and time-consuming. 

Posts questioning the safety of vaccines and masks, linking vaccines with 5G networks, comparing COVID-19 to the flu and promoting unproven treatments like ivermectin have become common, the moderators said. 

“Our moderation queue went from probably one or two of those a week to dozens to hundreds every day, and it is unsustainable — we cannot keep up with that,” said a 32-year-old Edmonton man who is a moderator for r/Alberta, a community (also known as a subreddit) with more than 138,000 subscribers.

CBC News is not naming the man because he has received personalized threats and harassment from people whose posts he has removed in the past and he fears he could be targeted again.

A fellow r/Alberta moderator, who is an Edmonton student in his 20s, said death threats have become common in the team’s inbox and the authors of misinformation posts often urge moderators to kill themselves.

Moderators often receive messages from people urging them to kill themselves. (r/Alberta moderator)

r/Alberta is not the only online community dealing with a deluge of misinformation.

Troy Pavlek, a moderator for r/Edmonton, a subreddit with more than 136,000 subscribers, said moderators handle between 50 to 100 misinformation posts per day. 

He said people opposed to masks and vaccines pose as health care workers and spread messages like, “Have you heard that vaccines can kill you?”

“The acceleration, just like our case counts, has gone exponential,” he said.

Troy Pavlek, a moderator for the subreddit r/Edmonton, says misinformation on Reddit has become a big problem during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Troy Pavlek)

Moderators protest, demand company take action

Last month, moderators of r/Alberta and dozens of other subreddits around the world protested “rampant COVID-19 misinformation” on Reddit and asked the American company to take responsibility for it.

Following the online protests, the company banned one subreddit, quarantined 54 others and added a reporting feature for moderators to flag community interference.

A Reddit spokesperson told CBC News the company takes the issue extremely seriously and has a goal of decreasing the burden on moderators.

The spokesperson said the company has changed how it detects users who evade bans by creating new accounts and said that moderators can turn to a pool of experienced peers for help when experiencing unexpected traffic surges.

Moderators say recent changes are inadequate because the flow of misinformation has not slowed down.

Volunteer Reddit moderators say they feel burned out but responsible for keeping online communities free of pandemic-related misinformation. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

“The very spread of these ideas in multiple spaces, multiple times are undoubtedly doing real harms to society, increasing the spread of COVID-19 and almost certainly leading to death,” said Rebekah Tromble, director of the Institute for Data, Democracy & Politics at the George Washington University.

She said unless massive social media platforms like Reddit downsize, the problem will persist.

Regulators could step in, she said, and many are waiting to see how a set of internet governance rules will play out in the European Union. 

Rebekah Tromble of the George Washington University says misinformation online is harming society and accelerating the spread of COVID-19. (Madeleine Cummings/CBC)

Battling burnout

The Edmonton moderators said their teams have been struggling with burnout for months. Some moderators have left their positions and recruiting new ones can be difficult.

Despite being on the receiving end of so much invective, the volunteers said they cannot bring themselves to walk away because that would mean allowing more misinformation to spread in communities they care about.

“If I were to stop doing what I’m doing, then the misinformation just gets worse, and once we’ve made it a home for misinformation, once we’ve said this is OK, this is not something we’re going to stop, then it sweeps in more and more, and this community, which has been a joy for me in the past, will never be a joy for anyone ever again,” Pavlek said.

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