Reddit defends how it tackles misinformation as it opens Australian office

The head of social news aggregator Reddit has argued its own community and administrators are the best moderator against misinformation, as the company plans to open an office in Australia for the first time.

In the past year since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, misinformation on social media platforms has been under close scrutiny. Much of the focus has been on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, while Reddit has escaped the spotlight.

Like other social media platforms, Reddit has had to grapple with growing calls to deal with misinformation and conspiracy theories propagated on its platform.

Reddit moderation works at three levels: site level, community level and user level. The company has an overarching content policy for all its communities which, if violated, can see content removed, users banned, and subreddits either quarantined or banned. Then subreddits have their own community rules which are enforced by the users, who act as administrators or moderators of those communities.

Up or down voting posts on Reddit is the last form of moderation, where users in the community rate a post or comment, changing what people see first on the page. People also frequently comment and correct misinformation as part of the debate in Reddit communities.

It is this system, Reddit’s chief operating officer Jen Wong told the Guardian, which sets Reddit apart from other social media sites.

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“Ours is, I think, really unique and different, and it really works for us,” she said. “What’s really interesting about Reddit is, it’s over 52 million people a day who are engaged in the content very deeply, and each one of those communities gets to write their own rules and enforce those rules.

“The first assessor, of whether that post is good, is the community … if it doesn’t make it out of that community, nobody else is going to see it.”

Reddit has specific content removal policies, and in 2020 removed more than 200,000 pieces of content from its site. The main reason for content being removed was hateful content at 55,000, harassment at 51,000 and sexualisation of minors at 45,000.

Reddit doesn’t break out the amount of misinformation it removes, but says that falls under a separate category, called content manipulation – of which Reddit removed over 84,000 posts, comments and private messages in 2020.

After the 6 January insurrection on the US Capitol, Reddit followed other social media companies in banning those who had encouraged the insurrection, notably the /r/The_Donald subreddit, which had more than 800,000 users.

While users of some of the more general subreddits, like r/Australia/ will be protected from misinformation due to the community of users and moderators, there are many large subreddits with tens of thousands of users focused on conspiracy theories, arguing against lockdowns, or promoting various disputed treatments for Covid-19.

Queensland University of Technology senior lecturer Dr Timothy Graham, who has looked at Reddit and misinformation across social media platforms, told Guardian Australia the downvote button was a “seismic difference” in combatting misinformation compared with Twitter and Facebook.

But he said its effectiveness varied widely depending on the community – pointing to one specific conspiracy-focused subreddit which has 1.5 million members.

“All you have got to do is … have a quick look at what’s on that subreddit to realise what passes for OK in terms of moderation is very different than what you see on the rest of the site,” he said.

“You’ve got almost a centralised approach [to content moderation] nowadays with Twitter because it is the final arbiter. Facebook is the same now they’ve got an oversight board as well, which adds another level to the governance system … whereas Reddit is like, ‘OK, you’d like libertarianism, well, we’ve got you covered’.”

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Reddit did not comment on the record when asked about several subreddits, but pointed to the company’s efforts to combat misinformation during the Covid-19 pandemic, including curating Ask Me Anything (AMA) series with public health experts, homepage banners directing people to authoritative information about Covid, and adjusting search to direct people to the US Center for Disease Control when searching for Covid-19.

Wong said the current moderation policy was working for Reddit but “nothing is perfect” and it was in a constant state of improvement.

Reddit is opening its first office in Australia based in Barangaroo in Sydney, headed up by former Woolworths and Amazon executive David Ray. The company decided to launch in Australia due it being Reddit’s fourth-largest market after the US, Canada and the UK. Traffic from Australia is growing 40% every year, and users in Australia contribute 158m posts, comments and votes every month.

For the average Reddit user in Australia, the office opening will not mean an immediate change, but Wong said the company was focused on providing more niche subreddits beyond the most popular in Australia, which involve finance and sport. She said local communities, food, high school and real estate would be the focus.

“I think you’ll start to see diversification of local content, so more communities with that context and definitely diversification of topics. And fast forward 12 months from now, that’s what I would expect to happen.”

Facebook and Google in Australia have been signing deals with media companies for payment for content under the news media bargaining code. The code could be used to designate platforms like Reddit to force negotiations over the payment for content.

Wong said she was aware of the policy environment in Australia before deciding to launch, but argued Reddit was not using news articles in the same way other social media platforms do.

“Reddit users absolutely talk about news stories and they definitely post links, but our product doesn’t take any of the content snippets or anything, it has none of that content on our platform,” she said. “And in fact, most of the value is derived by original commentary … we don’t derive any revenue from publisher content.”

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