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Reddit’s coronavirus community, with more than 1.2 mn members, has become a destination

Almost a million members signed up in the last two weeks to connect and share information about coronavirus on Reddit on the message board /r/coronavirus.

Reddit on coronavirus has 1.2 million members now.
Reddit on coronavirus has 1.2 million members now. (Pixabay)

On January 23, Emerson Boggs, a 25-year-old PhD student and virologist at University of Pittsburgh, signed up to moderate a small Reddit community with about 1,000 members who were dedicated to writing about a "relatively obscure topic' - a coronavirus that had been discovered in Wuhan.

In less than two months, this Reddit message board - /r/coronavirus has grown to include more than 1.2 million members, with almost a million signing up in the last two weeks.

The board now has 60 volunteer content moderators, Boggs is one of them, including researchers of infectious diseases, virologists, computer scientists, doctors and nurses. They all spend hours policing more than 50,000 comments posted daily by the community weeding out misinformation, trolls and unnecessary political discussions.

Their expertise and this unpaid labour they are putting in every day has helped create one of the most legitimate, up-to-date, civil forums for information and discussion.

"No matter how much it makes my blood pressure rise, it helps me sleep at night knowing I at least tried to help," said Boggs.

This subreddit is not the third-most active on the form, according to Redditlist, a site that tracks Reddit, and one of the fastest growing ever.

Every day, all the moderators work through thousands of comments and posts that have been flagged for review. They coordinate through Discord (a messaging platform) to make sure they are not duplicating work or to settle disagreements. Moderating posts involves checking information sources, deleting those that rely on flimsy or poorly interpreted evidence and adding labels, posting links to scientific papers that are not peer reviewed. Some of them also spend time creating tools to automate and improve workflow.

They have also invited well-known scientists and doctors to participate in AMA (Ask Me Anything) sessions and are actively recruiting more moderators.

"The pace of the outbreak has really shown the deficiencies of traditional outbreak reporting. Even working in virology, this subreddit is the most up-to-date source of information I am aware of," Boggs said.

Another moderator, computer scientist Rick Barber, 38, said "he often spends 10 hours a day reviewing content and building custom tools for the subreddit, including one that notified moderators on Discord if the moderation queue on Reddit was getting particularly long".

"The news gets worse every day. This is probably having a big impact on my overall stress level and ability to pay attention to other work," said Barber.

Barber has a lung condition that makes him more susceptible to COVID-19.

"But at the same time, I feel like it's worth it. I don't know that we are saving the world, but I do know people are coming here and finding things they can send in a group message to someone who isn't convinced they need to stay at home. Or finding some good news to show a friend who is in a state of despair about it," Barber said.

As the community has grown, the moderators have had to battle the spread of misinformation and panic about the pandemic. And they have done it by adhering to a "list of principles, the highest priority of which is to be a reliable information source".

And one of the best ways to do that has been by banning political posts.

"When you don't allow political posts, it's harder for misinformation to spread. I'd rather have policy discussion and talk about new cases and containment measures," said Patrick Doherty, another moderator.

However, this decision of zero politics hasn't stopped people from trying to turn the community into a "Twitter fight" since "folks who are habituated to using the internet to be hyper-tribal on the left and right".

"Both sides are equally capable of being indignant," Barber said.

Moderators have also banned text-only posts in which people ask questions or make observations rather than share links to credible sources. In contrast, the culture of the coronavirus subreddit provides incentives for users to share quality information, because they are rewarded with upvotes only if they follow the rules.

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