What it’s like for IDM student Emerson Boggs and team to moderate Reddit’s wildly popular coronavirus forum


VICE MEDIA –  Emerson Boggs, a PhD candidate in infectious diseases and microbiology at Pitt Public Health, was one of the early moderators for r/coronavirus, Reddit’s subreddit on the coronavirus pandemic, the fastest-growing subreddit on the site. The user-generated forum now has 1.9 million total members.

Boggs was one of three early moderators recently interviewed 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.

How did each of you first get involved in moderating this Reddit.

Says Boggs, “I’m a virologist, so I probably spend more time than average looking at outbreaks. I started off as a fervent commenter, and then I wanted the ability to intervene because the science stuff got bad pretty quickly.” The subreddit is also rapidly outpacing traditional outbreak reporting. The ability to communicate back and forth easily has helped a lot of people.

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.”

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.

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.”

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?

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.”

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.”

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Adapted from:  What Its Like Moderating The Reddit Coronavirus Forum, written by Mirel Zaman and originally published on April 15, 2020, 4:00 AM


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