Pokémon Go creators Niantic recently proved slow in addressing widespread fears about the game forcing players into close proximity with other humans amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Now, in a ripple from that, the game’s Reddit sub, r/pokemongo, has switched itself to ‘private’, in response to what they see as Reddit’s failure to adequately police the spread of Covid misinformation in response to the story.
At the beginning of August, Niantic made the inexplicable decision to revoke the expanded interaction distances for Pokestops and Gyms in the US and New Zealand. Where it had been increased worldwide from 40m to 80m in response to the beginning of the pandemic, in those two nations it was put back down to 40m, right as both countries were experiencing new spikes in Covid cases. Players obviously reacted angrily, but it took Niantic a bewildering three weeks before they retracted the obviously terrible idea.
During most of August, this obviously led to much discussion of the topic on the game’s Reddit channel, which in turn led to the arrival of a lot of users from less...scientifically minded Reddit subs, such as NoNewNormal, Conspiracy, and Conservative. Clearly this has meant a lot of distracting conversation about matters not directly relevant to POGO, and as a result the community has decided to go silent in protest against Reddit.
They say that until Reddit bans the NoNewNormal sub, and significantly improves its moderation regarding Covid misinformation on others, it will stay private. Currently the sub’s front page reads:
“We have gone private in protest of Reddits inaction against Covid misinformation. As our users know Covid directly impacts this gamer because Go is played outside in real life with others. We have stood against Covid misinformation publicly before, and stood with the community when they petitioned Niantic to return the 80m distances so we could continue to play safely. To that end, we will stay private until NoNewNormal and similar subs dedicated entirely to misinformation are banned.”
Further explanation is given in a post made by user BootsMade4Walking, that details their desire for, “visible and immediate action against subs that are dedicated to spreading misinformation around Covid.” As it continues the demands do get somewhat more ambiguous, including (our emphasis), “we will stay private until NoNewNormal and similar subs dedicated entirely to misinformation are banned.”
It’s part of a larger movement on Reddit to try to get the platform to change its moderation policies to ban Covid misinformation.
The absolute and total failure from social media firms to prevent the spreading of Covid-19 disinformation and conspiracy theories will be a shame the tech world experiences for a long time. While the numbers of deaths directly caused by the spread of lies about the virus—and the vaccinations that help protect against it—will never be possible to calculate, their blood is partially on the hands of the companies that have always known they are ill-equipped to deal with the scale of their own creations.
Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and others have all been shown to be woefully incompetent and incapable of dealing with the use of their services to spread deadly nonsense to the unwitting and the gullible. Reports have shown throughout the pandemic how disastrous their professed attempts at control have been. Now Reddit users appear to be demanding better from their hosts.
While there are very valid questions to raise about freedom of speech, and the rights for a person to express themselves, it’s crucial to note that most of the social media outlets have never claimed to offer such a service, and profess to prevent the spread of such virulent content over virus misinformation. However, Reddit has always been different on this matter, and has no such clear-cut policy, but rather a more ambiguous proposal, despite increasingly desperate calls for that to change.
In fact, as CNN reported last week, the company has refused to budge, doubling down on its refusal to extend moderation beyond that of its user-led volunteer moderators. This was in response to an open letter from hundreds of Reddit subs (including r/pokemongo), begging for changes. On Wednesday last week, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman (u/spez) posted saying,
“While we appreciate the sentiment of those demanding that we ban more communities that challenge consensus views on the pandemic, we continue to believe in the good of our communities and hope that we collectively approach the challenges of the pandemic with empathy, compassion, and a willingness to understand what others are going through, even when their viewpoint on the pandemic is different from yours.”
Perhaps more contentiously, he also says,
“Dissent is a part of Reddit, and the foundation of democracy. Reddit is a place for open and authentic discussion and debate. This includes conversations that question or disagree with popular consensus.This includes conversations that criticize those that disagree with the majority opinion. This includes protests that criticize or object to our decisions on which communities to ban from the platform.”
Then what might perhaps amount to a dogwhistle with the peculiar statement,
“When it comes to COVID-19 specifically, what we know and what are the current best practices from authoritative sources, like the CDC, evolve continuously with new learnings. Given the rapid state of change, we believe it is best to enable communities to engage in debate and dissent, and for us to link to the CDC wherever appropriate. 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.”
The suggestion that the CDC might be about to change its mind on vaccines at any moment is clearly contemptible, and an absolutely ludicrous attempt at a justification for the site’s refusal to budge on this matter. The irony being, if he’d just stuck to his statements about providing a space for free speech, he’d at least have a consistent argument.
This response has led to the reaction of r/pokemongo, with other subs potentially to follow. So far r/pokemongo is the only sub that signed the open letter with over a million subscribers to have made such a move. Clearly subs like r/pics and r/gifs going dark would be far more likely to get a reaction out of Huffman than that of just one mobile game.
If other large subs do follow, it will prove an interesting moment in Reddit’s history, having to choose between maintaining its commitment to open discussion, and losing a significant volume of its regular traffic.