What It’s Like To Moderate Reddit’s Wildly Popular Coronavirus Forum

Photographed by Ryan Williams.
As I write this, about 50,800 people are browsing Reddit’s subreddit on the coronavirus pandemic. It has 1.9 million total members. That doesn’t make it the largest subreddit on the site (that honor goes to r/announcements, with 55.4 million members), but it’s the fastest-growing subreddit on the site.
If you’re not familiar with the site, Reddit is made up of user-generated forums, called subreddits, that allow people to share and comment on news, opinions, images, and links. Each forum is overseen by a team of moderators, or mods — volunteers who create and enforce rules, which can range from “no memes” to “be civil.”
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Due to its size, r/coronavirus currently has a team of about 70 mods. We talked to three early moderators about how the sub has changed in the past several weeks, how they cope with coronavirus anxiety, and whether Reddit is a good source of news right now.
Refinery29: I'd love to just start by hearing how each of you first got involved in moderating this Reddit.
Rick Barber, 38: “For me, I think it was January 24. I’d been following [coronavirus] very early on, because I have a lung condition — and anxiety. I'm not a power Reddit user. I actually use it fairly rarely. But I found pretty quickly that it was the best place to go for coronavirus information. I tried Twitter for a while and it was all images and videos of dubious provenance.
“The conversation on Reddit was very high quality. Within three or four days, though, it looked like the quality was starting to suffer, from scaling issues basically. I've never moderated a subreddit before, but I wanted the information offered to continue to be a high quality. So I offered to be involved.”
Emerson Boggs, 25: “I joined around the same time as [Rick]. I’m a virologist and I have a public health degree, so I probably spend more time than average looking at outbreaks. I started off as a fervent commenter, and then it was the same thing that happened with [Rick]: I wanted the ability to intervene because the science stuff got bad pretty quickly.”
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Patrick Doherty, 29: “I started [moderating] on February 1 or 2. There was a big conspiracy paper that came out, a pre-print that was about how there were sequences of HIV in the genome of the coronavirus. It was a bad paper, and I wrote a rebuttal. A lot of people upvoted my response and gave me gold, reposted it. Emerson saw it and asked if I wanted to become a mod, because I'm also a scientist. And I said sure. I don't think any of us ever expected it to become this. It was like 50,000, 60,000 subscribers then. It's gotten pretty crazy.”

You don't want uninformed people, and you don't want people scared over stuff that's not true.

Patrick Doherty
Okay, so Patrick mentioned he’s a scientist. And Emerson, you said you’re a virologist. Do many of the moderators have some sort of professional connection or interest?
Rick: “These guys are more legit than I am! I research online platforms. [Professional expertise is] not something we exclusively screen for. We've got everyday Reddit users on the moderation team. But there are a number of virologists and public health physicians, nurses.”
What does moderating actually involve? I’ve never done it before.
Patrick: “I don't think any of the three of us had moderated before this. We were all noobs. At the beginning, we were instituting rules and figuring out how we wanted to shape the sub. Now that that’s pretty set in stone, we’re focused on implementing and enforcing those rules, and helping new moderators get into the rhythm.
“Basically, users report posts or comments that they think violate the rules, and those go to a ‘mod queue.’ Moderators remove or approve those reported posts. If we remove them, we leave the reason. I also spend a lot of my time going through the front page and the rising page threads, looking for stuff that might've slipped through the cracks.”
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What are the most common rule breakers?
Patrick: “The big three are incivility, misinformation, and politics. Incivility can be anything from wishing someone gets the virus to racism about the virus. It’s a big umbrella. Misinformation is huge, and something we try to get rid of as quickly as possible. You don't want uninformed people, and you don't want people scared over stuff that's not true. The third big one is politics. We try to keep the sub focused on the virus as much as we can.”
How many hours do you think you spend per day doing this?
Emerson: “This is probably bad to say out loud — but it was a lot easier when I was at work. I would have the sub up in the background, and I would check on it whenever I was at a stopping point in a lab. I’m probably doing less moderating now that I’m at home. On a normal schedule I do two or three hours a day. Honestly, I’m not pulling my weight lately.”
Patrick: “I still work full-time, so mine's mostly lunch breaks and after work, I think. Rick might put a few more hours in than me.”
Rick: “Yeah, I moderate six hours a day or more. I'm on a lot. I'm not saying I'm always moderating, but it is one of the few things I'm doing right now.”

It’s difficult to digest so many different pieces of information, from so many different sources that don’t include a bigger picture.

Emerson Boggs
I actually stepped back from the coronavirus subreddit, because I found that the amount of information was making me anxious. So I’m really curious about how you all are managing your mental health when you’re so inundated with this information, and also living it real time with the rest of the world.
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Emerson: “It's easier than people would expect to turn your brain off. When we're moderating, we're not necessarily dealing with actual news. A lot of it is just individual comments. Every now and then, even if I've been monitoring, I’ll still have a moment where I realize that I don't actually know what happened that day. I feel like I'm a little desensitized to it.
“I think a lot of the panic comes from a lack of overall context. It’s not being adequately provided. It’s difficult to digest so many different pieces of information, from so many different sources that don’t include a bigger picture. It’s easy for people to get overwhelmed.”
Patrick: “I echo exactly what Emerson said in terms of not realizing what's going on. You're reading comments and looking for rules that are broken. And you don't necessarily take it in, you do become a little detached from it. But [personally], I also tune in a lot more now, because the U.S. has the most cases right now. It’s overwhelming reading about it all day, every day. So I do need to take a step back every now and then and just chill.”
Rick: “I’m definitely a very anxious person. Anxious enough that I've seen therapists over the years. And putting some of those tools to work has been really helpful for me. For example, if [a thought is] not actionable, then I don’t want to feed it. So early on, when I was thinking, ‘What if this gets really bad?’ I looked at a set of things I could do to prepare — getting this much food, for instance. Then I told myself, ‘Okay, I’ve made the decision to do these things. I’m going to live with that decision and not revisit it.’ I know, this is all therapy language.”
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Honestly, my friends with anxiety seem to be faring much better than other people, I think because they've already practiced living with it.
Rick: “It’s funny you say that, because by the time more people started paying attention — maybe three to four weeks in — I had already acclimated a little bit to the fact that this was an unusual situation that might upend daily life. And I’ve been able to share with friends and family, ‘I had thought about that too, and what I’ve done is this.’ So that’s been funny.”
So to that end, do you find that moderating helps you with your anxiety by making you feel like you're doing something more actionable, or keeping you mentally busy? Or is there ever a time that you do have to step back?
Rick: “Like Emerson said, it does kind of shut off your mind in a way. It's almost like refreshing a Twitter feed over and over again, but not really reading what's there. In that way, it's more Zen than expected to work through the mod queue.
“I think the problem with the mod queue is that it only shows you the worst stuff going on in the community. I try to be mindful of my general level of misanthropy at any given point in time. If I'm feeling frustrated, if I'm clenching my jaw, I know that it's probably time to take a break.”

It's way more Zen than expected to work through the mod queue.

Rick Barber
Do you guys still feel like Reddit is a top source of good, high quality news about coronavirus right now, better than something like Twitter?
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Patrick: “I think it's still useful. It has become very, very U.S.-centric, which is unfortunate for our subscribers and moderators from Europe and elsewhere. But Reddit's a majority American user base, so that’s inevitable. Still, I think if you have questions, you generally can ask them and get them answered on the sub.”
Emerson: “Yes. In addition to being more actionable than something like Twitter and other traditional social media feeds, the sub is also rapidly outpacing traditional outbreak reporting. These websites that pop up to tell you somebody had a fever in Pakistan 48 hours ago are run by volunteers and they are just completely overrun. I don’t want to say the sub is more accurate than other sources, but it’s more extensive.”
Rick: “In many ways, Reddit is closer to Wikipedia than to Twitter. Audience as a modality is not present on Reddit. On Twitter, the marginal contribution you make is paid attention to mostly in proportion to the number of people following you. On Reddit, on the other hand, your ‘karma’ isn’t as factored into assessing the quality of your contribution. So a brand-new user with no accumulated social capital can come in and say something brilliant and get recognized for it. And conversely, a user who has accumulated a lot of social capital can't just come in and say low quality things and still be heard. The reason Reddit is a more reliable source than Twitter I think is solely a function of its design.”
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Patrick: “Yeah, it's more like the best comments rise to the top, rather than the people with the most karma.”
I mean, that's one of the beautiful things about Reddit, I think, is you'll read this amazing, insightful comment that you're just thinking, ‘oh my God, this is changing my world.’ And then you see their username is lickmynuts. It's like, wait — who is this person?!
Is there anything else you want to add — anything you’ve learned from your experience moderating?
Emerson: “Yes, I’d say… Watching the rise of this subreddit has been a very uniquely Western experience. It's been kind of jarring to watch at what point the subreddit has swelled in numbers of members. Because it's been when Western countries become involved.
“Watching the reaction, both on the internet and in the real world, has really revealed a total failure in public health communication overall. This is unprecedented, but there's never really been a reason to believe that it wouldn't happen. One of the things we’re providing on the subreddit, is information about how to communicate about outbreaks. This is something that I think your average person in the United States just hasn't thought about. So in addition to being a good source for updates, the ability to communicate back and forth really easily on Reddit has helped a lot of people.”
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the CDC website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.

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