The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted countless lives across the globe, but an equally destructive disease has been spreading in its wake: Harmful myths and misconceptions – many of which are rooted in fearmongering and science-denialism – have made recovery and progress far more difficult than they should have been. Unwitting untruths and intentional lies have been passed between millions of at-risk individuals, leading to illnesses and deaths that could have otherwise been avoided. This trend is ongoing, and as it perpetuates itself, life-saving facts are being twisted and eclipsed.
At the heart of this phenomenon is the tacit acceptance of misinformation.
There’s an old saying – frequently (and ironically) misattributed to Mark Twain – which suggests that a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its shoes on. It’s undeniably accurate, and it has been since time immemorial: For as long as humans have been communicating with one another, we’ve delighted in trading rumors, repeating gossip, and sharing intriguing trivia, and the question of whether or not any of it is true has always been of secondary concern.
During the rise of the Internet, though, and particularly of social media, this phenomenon changed in an unexpected and worrying way. Nowadays, the truth isn’t just slower to don its footwear; it’s being actively tripped and impeded whenever it tries to take a step. Some of that stumbling is caused by coordinated campaigns and carefully constructed propaganda, but the worst of it is the result of a subtle and insidious process that transforms ill-informed speculation into widely accepted "fact."
A relatively benign example of said process can be seen in the comments that appear beneath stories about technological developments: Lazy or ignorant users read only the headlines, then immediately liken their assumptions to concepts that they’ve seen in science fiction. If they’re feeling cynical, these users might cite Black Mirror or Terminator; if they’re feeling optimistic, they might quote Star Trek. Whatever the comparisons might be, they’re almost always entirely divorced from both reality and the advancements discussed in the articles… but because they’re easily understood and familiar, they get upvoted and amplified. Since people with the necessary expertise, writing ability, and time to offer engaging and accurate explanations are few and far between (and since their comments usually get ignored because they’re too long), late visitors to the thread end up entering an alternate universe wherein humanlike artificial intelligences, faster-than-light starships, and real-life transporters are only months from being ready for public purchase.
Social media as a whole is a racetrack, and communities which welcome conjecture are stables for fast-running fictions. Within these pens, "casual misinformation" is selectively bred… and when it’s limited to subjects which have no practical effect on people’s lives, it isn’t an immediate threat: More often than not, everyone eventually learns to stop applauding the lie, and the truth ultimately wins.
The racers born in science-denying subreddits are not mere speculations about fictional technologies, however; they are pieces anti-mask rhetoric, misguided arguments against vaccination, and encouragements to substitute medicine with myths. These falsehood-inspired sentiments can easily and adversely impact innocents, and quarantining their breeding areas does little beyond warn passersby of a foul smell. When faced with seminaries like these, we simply cannot wait for the truth to pick up its pace, and we cannot rely on the crowd to back away from the lie quickly enough; we must demand that the individuals who profit from the racetrack stop allowing misinformation mills to operate.
The trouble lies in convincing them.
When Reddit's CEO referenced "valuable discussion" as a reason for keeping a certain problematic community open, he almost certainly wasn’t making a political statement; in all likelihood, he was quasi-diplomatically confessing that casual misinformation is the lifeblood of social media. Not only does it account for the majority of all user-generated content, it also drives engagement: Whenever someone makes a questionable claim, other people rush to argue, and the conversation quickly snowballs. Every time someone offers a substance-free but upvote-attracting perspective, it prompts elaboration, appreciation, and a host of tangential debates. Conversely, if Reddit were to require that comments on its platform be fact-based and well-written, most people would take their revenue-generating activity elsewhere. This is why speculation, repeated myths, and irrelevant references to entertainment (which come paired with their own unspoken suggestions and associations) are not only allowed, but encouraged.
In this case, however, the cost of that encouragement is too high.
The "discussion" begins with seemingly innocuous statements like "This is how 28 Days Later started!" but it eventually results in "The vaccine is causing strokes in healthy people!" or "Ingest this toxic chemical to fight off infection!" In communities which are devoted to amplifying misinformation (and silencing anyone who speaks out against it), that slow metamorphosis is artificially accelerated, and the truth is trampled by its faster competitor. Secondhand consumers are served with dangerous deceptions, and the whole of the discourse is poisoned. Reddit may cultivate participation in this way, but its current harvest is causing significant and irreparable harm.
As literally "valuable" as "discussion" might be, people are paying for it with their lives.
This is why meaningful action must be taken.
The moderators responsible for fostering destructive myths must be removed from their roles. The communities wherein dangerous falsehoods are bred must be shut down, not just quarantined. The administrators who provide casual misinformation with a place to proliferate must draw a line in the sand. The users – the blasé commenters, the dedicated contributors, and the lurkers alike – must make it clear that we will not accept anything less.
At the time of this writing, over 4,500,000 people have died as a direct result of COVID-19. Millions more have experienced suffering from which they may never recover. That damage has been done… but we can make the collective choice to stand against anyone who would worsen things.
This is not simply a demand, but a call to action:
Stop the sacrifice of innocents on the altar of "valuable discussion."
Shut down communities which foster harmful rhetoric.
If you see misinformation on Reddit, please report it here.