On 29 September 2021, YouTube announced that it was banning all videos with vaccine misinformation, and it was banning the accounts of several dangerous anti-vaccine activists such as Joseph Mercola, Erin Elizabeth, Sherri Tenpenny, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. The tide is turning against the vaccine denialists who have used social media, including YouTube, to push anti-vaccine nonsense. It couldn’t happen soon enough.
YouTube said it would remove videos claiming that vaccines are not effective in reducing the rates of transmission or contraction of the disease. It will remove content that includes disinformation about the ingredients in a vaccine. And they will remove any video that claims that approved vaccines cause autism, cancer, or infertility. Finally, they will remove any information that claims that vaccines contain electronic trackers.
YouTube and vaccine misinformation
YouTube, which is owned by Google, posted new rules that include the following statement:
YouTube doesn’t allow content that poses a serious risk of egregious harm by spreading medical misinformation about currently administered vaccines that are approved and confirmed to be safe and effective by local health authorities and by the World Health Organization (WHO). This is limited to content that contradicts local health authorities’ or the WHO’s guidance on vaccine safety, efficacy, and ingredients.
This is something that I keep pushing. Information about vaccines posted by the CDC, WHO, and other public health organizations are based on science, almost all of it published in peer-reviewed journals. The anti-vaxxers think their anecdotes, VAERS dumpster diving, and outright manipulative lies are ” vaccine facts,” and they use social media, like YouTube, to push their false narrative.
It is incredible that they think what they’ve got is somehow more accurate than what the CDC and WHO have as data. It is pure arrogance.
But back to YouTube and vaccine misinformation. The new rules are pretty straightforward:
Don’t post content on YouTube if it includes harmful misinformation about currently approved and administered vaccines on any of the following:
• Vaccine safety: content alleging that vaccines cause chronic side effects, outside of rare side effects that are recognized by health authorities
• Efficacy of vaccines: content claiming that vaccines do not reduce transmission or contraction of disease
• Ingredients in vaccines: content misrepresenting the substances contained in vaccines
YouTube is making it clear that the new policy covers misleading claims about specific vaccines that have been approved by regulatory authorities, although it also covers falsehoods about all vaccines in general. Unfortunately, YouTube will still allow personal testimonies about vaccines (this is a huge loophole that can be abused by the usual suspects in the anti-vaccine world), content about vaccine policies and new vaccine trials, and historical videos about successes and failures.
YouTube has had a similar ban for the past several months on misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccines.
This new policy places YouTube in line with the new rules on Facebook and Twitter that remove posts that contain erroneous claims about vaccines, especially those that assert that vaccines cause autism or that it is safer for people to get COVID-19 than to get the vaccine itself. Twitter has a five “strikes” rule before it permanently bars people for violating its COVID-19 misinformation policy.
Unfortunately, a lot of anti-vaccine activists like Mercola, RFK Jr., Tenpenny, and many others still have active accounts on Facebook and Twitter, and they account for the bulk of the information on those platforms. So it seems that YouTube is taking a more strict accounting of these people than Facebook and Twitter.
Anti-vaccine activists have been able to build huge audiences online because social networks seem to prioritize videos and posts that are successful at capturing people’s attention. In other words, these anti-vaccine activists use these platforms to grow audiences that also benefit their online business, helping to sell useless products as Mercola has.
The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) recently published a guide called the “Disinformation Dozen,” a group of 12 COVID-19 vaccine deniers who are responsible for the bulk of anti-vaccine information on social media.
CCDH is one of the leading voices in calling out the anti-vaccine world, especially during this time of COVID-19 deniers. They have long pointed out that social media, especially Facebook, has become the major mouthpiece for these groups. And recently, President Joe Biden has called out Facebook for “killing people” as COVID-19 had evolved into the pandemic of the unvaccinated.
Mercola is #1 on the Disinformation Dozen. He has more than three million followers on Facebook and Instagram, while his YouTube account before it was shut down, had around 500,000 followers. His Twitter account, which is still active, has over 320,000 followers. So, it’s not like he’s going anywhere soon.
One last thing – First Amendment
Since anti-vaxxers are about as knowledgeable about constitutional law as they are with vaccine science, which is approximately 0 in both cases, what YouTube is doing does not violate the First Amendment rights of free speech (from the US point of view). That only covers government rules, so if YouTube was run by the Federal Government, one could lie about vaccines all day long.
However, YouTube, being a private company, can make whatever rules they want. If they said suddenly that they will only host videos about unicorns, they could. It would be a bad business move, but that would be their prerogative.
So, don’t waste our time with First Amendment rights that YouTube is being mean to anti-vaxxers by hurting their rights to push their ill-informed version of facts.
Let me put this as succinctly as I am able – good for YouTube. These anti-vaccine activists are using these free platforms to push lies about vaccines that cause harm to people. I’m glad that Google and YouTube have taken a stand.
By the way, I’ve been recently caught by Google as occasionally pushing “anti-vaccine” messages because Google bots are incapable of understanding nuance, sarcasm, and pure, unfettered snark. So, I know they’re being strict about vaccine information and misinformation.
Now, I hope that Twitter and Facebook (along with Instagram) will start cracking down on these people. It’s time.
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