YouTube expands vaccine misinfo crackdown, nukes anti-vax channels for good

Public health experts wonder what took so long

YouTube says it will remove anti-vaccine videos from its service and has already blocked the channels operated by several widely viewed anti-vaccine advocates.

"Vaccines in particular have been a source of fierce debate over the years, despite consistent guidance from health authorities about their effectiveness," the super-corporation said in a blog post.

"Today, we're expanding our medical misinformation policies on YouTube with new guidelines on currently administered vaccines that are approved and confirmed to be safe and effective by local health authorities and the WHO."

The internet video giant said that content making false claims that approved vaccines are dangerous, don't work, or misrepresent vaccine ingredients will be removed. This covers content linking approved vaccines to autism, cancer, or infertility. It also includes claims that vaccines facilitate the remote tracking of recipients, which is evidently a thing among the tin-foil hat crowd.

"We’ve steadily seen false claims about the coronavirus vaccines spill over into misinformation about vaccines in general, and we're now at a point where it's more important than ever to expand the work we started with COVID-19 to other vaccines," Team YouTube said.

Peter Hotez, Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and Professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Virology & Microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine, hailed the move as a step forward.

"Almost too good to be true," he said via Twitter. "For years YouTube has been a major vehicle for aggression and dog whistles against me and [my] family. For too long it’s been their anti-vaccine weapon of choice. I really hope they’re sincere and follow through."

In an analysis [PDF] published in March, 2021, Dr Daniel Allington, Senior Lecturer in Social and Cultural Artificial Intelligence at King's College London, documented the role that social media companies play in fomenting vaccine hesitancy, citing a variety of academic studies.

In summary, he argued, "Social media companies should take care to ensure that they are not allowing anti-vaccination messages to propagate. High profile anti-vaccination activists should be de-platformed without fanfare, and otherwise ignored."

He made that observation around the time Twitter implemented a vaccine misinformation policy and a month after Facebook did so. Now it's YouTube's turn.

Some are peeved

YouTube's latest effort to deal with vaccine misinformation comes a day after a Congressional hearing in which academic researchers argued that government-mandated access to social media data is necessary to understand the content and ads being presented on social platforms.

YouTube is expanding a policy implemented in May, 2020, in response to social media misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic. The company said since last year it has removed 130,000 videos for violating its COVID-19 policies.

In August, chief product officer Neal Mohan said, "[S]ince February of 2020 we’ve removed over 1m videos related to dangerous coronavirus information, like false cures or claims of a hoax."

YouTube's policing of misinformation isn't universally welcomed. Russia has demanded that YouTube restore access to two German-language channels controlled by Russian state media company RT after they were removed on Tuesday for publishing vaccine misinformation.

Roskomnadzor, Russia's communications ministry, sent a letter to YouTube parent Google calling for the removal of all restrictions on the two channels, RT DE and Der Fehlende Part, as soon as possible.

The Russian Foreign Ministry in a statement characterized YouTube's action as information warfare, censorship, and a threat to free expression. Roskomnadzor is said to have threatened to restrict access to YouTube in Russia if YouTube does not comply.

Dr Joseph Mercola, one of the Center for Countering Digital Hate's "Disinformation Dozen," lost access to his YouTube channel as a result of YouTube's policy change. In response, he issued a statement on Twitter decrying "censorship extremists" and making accusations about "rampant corruption in the media" and "tyrannical governments" working with the pharmaceutical industry in a coordinated "assault on our freedom and civil rights."

Timothy Caulfield, a professor of law at Canada's University of Alberta and Research Director of its Health Law Institute, via Twitter dismissed the notion that YouTube is censoring people.

"I continue to hear misleading 'censorship' rhetoric associated with countering vaccine misinformation (e.g., critiquing #YouTube's new deplatforming policy)," he said. "Reality: you don't have a 'right' to be on a private company's platform in order [to] spread harmful bunk."

Speaking of harmful bunk, Mercola in 2017 agreed to pay $5.3m to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that tanning devices sold by his companies were marketed using false health and safety claims.

The FTC said, "Dr Joseph Mercola and his two companies ran ads claiming that their indoor tanning systems are safe, that research proves indoor tanning does not increase the risk of melanoma skin cancer, and that their systems which deliver both ultraviolet (UV) light and red light can 'reverse the appearance of aging.'"

The Register has found that the absence of light completely erases the appearance of aging. We're looking into whether we can share more details via social media. ®


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