YouTube on Tuesday announced updates to its medical misinformation policy, tightening restrictions on what it described as “harmful” claims about COVID-19, vaccines and cancer treatments, but critics said the tech giant lacks the expertise to make these judgments and its plans to restrict such content could violate people’s civil rights and stifle scientific debate.
In what one critic described as a “substantial escalation” in YouTube’s “crusade against … medical misinformation,” the social media video platform on Tuesday announced updates to its medical misinformation policy, tightening restrictions on what it described as “harmful” claims about COVID-19, vaccines and cancer treatments.
According to Reclaim the Net, YouTube’s new policy is an expansion of the platform’s existing COVID-19 misinformation policy and is intended to cover what it calls “all forms of medical misinformation.”
Under the new policy, YouTube “will streamline dozens of our existing medical misinformation guidelines to fall under three categories — Prevention, Treatment, and Denial.”
“These policies will apply to specific health conditions, treatments, and substances where content contradicts local health authorities or the World Health Organization (WHO),” YouTube stated.
YouTube said it will implement its new policy when a topic exhibits high public health risks, is supposedly prone to misinformation, and when official guidance from health authorities is accessible to the public.
Proponents of the new policy said it will help YouTube better police harmful information and provide clarity to users as to what content is — or is not — allowed on the platform.
According to ZDNet, “YouTube’s battle with medical misinformation isn’t new; the platform has previously been in the spotlight for removing videos touting COVID-19 misinformation over the past three years.”
“Let’s hope this will help you avoid your aunt’s, ‘It works; I saw it on YouTube’ remedy next Thanksgiving,” ZDNet wrote.
YouTube policies may ‘violate civil rights’
Claiming medical “information — and misinformation — continuously evolves,” YouTube said it needs a policy framework that holds up in the long term, and “preserves the important balance of removing egregiously harmful content while ensuring space for debate and discussion.”
The social media giant said these changes reflect how it “is thinking about the future of medical misinformation policies.”
But medical experts who spoke with The Defender said the policies may limit the range of acceptable speech online.
Cardiologist Peter A. McCullough, M.D., MPH, said that by targeting and moderating critical content, “YouTube is violating civil rights and intentionally deceiving its audience.”
“YouTube is essentially a common carrier for media content,” McCullough said. “It does not have the right nor the competency or processes to conduct peer review and adjudicate medical or scientific information,” he added.
Dr. Kat Lindley, president of the Global Health Project and director of the Global COVID Summit, told The Defender YouTube’s new policy “is a direct attack on the patient-physician relationship.”
The new policy “relies on the agencies, that in my opinion have failed in their primary role of public health policies, to now define what ‘misinformation’ is,” Lindley said. Its “one-size-fits-all approach” has failed. “Science should always be debated,” she said.
Lindley said social media platforms and public health agencies have frequently shifted the definition of what is “misinformation” and have often contradicted themselves. As a result, “many scientists and physicians pushed back and followed their moral compass in questioning ‘the science’ propaganda by the regulatory agencies,” she said.
YouTube’s new medical misinformation policy comes just two weeks after Robert F. Kennedy Jr., chairman on leave from Children’s Health Defense, sued YouTube and Google, alleging they violated his First Amendment rights.
According to the lawsuit, filed Aug. 2, YouTube engaged in a “censorship campaign” that included removing videos of his speech at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire and interviews with clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson and podcaster Joe Rogan.
Lawyers for Kennedy told The Defender an emergency hearing is scheduled for Aug. 21.
Policy shaped by guidance from WHO, other health ‘authorities’
YouTube announced the policy change in a blog post co-authored by Dr. Garth Graham, YouTube’s director and global head of Healthcare and Public Health Partnerships, and Matt Halprin, vice president and global head of Trust and Safety.
“While specific medical guidance can change over time as we learn more, our goal is to ensure that when it comes to areas of well-studied scientific consensus, YouTube is not a platform for distributing information that could harm people,” they wrote.
Stating that YouTube doesn’t allow content that poses a “serious risk of egregious harm,” the new policy disallows “misinformation that contradicts local health authorities’ (LHAs) or the World Health Organization’s … guidance about specific health conditions and substances.”
These policies will then be “subject to change in response to changes to guidance from health authorities or WHO.”
Aside from the WHO and local health authorities, YouTube’s policy also will include guidance from organizations like the Mayo Clinic.
YouTube’s new “framework” will include the removal of “prevention misinformation” — “content that contradicts health authority guidance on the prevention and transmission of specific health conditions, and on the safety and efficacy of approved vaccines.”
Also prohibited under the new guidelines is “treatment misinformation” — “content that contradicts health authority guidance on treatments for specific health conditions, including promoting harmful substances or practices.”
“Denial misinformation,” or “content that disputes the existence of specific health conditions,” including “content that denies people have died from COVID-19,” is also prohibited under YouTube’s new policy.
According to YouTube, the updated policy will “apply to videos, video descriptions, comments, live streams, and any other YouTube product or feature,” as well as external links, “clickable URLs, verbally directing users to other sites in video” and “other forms.”
YouTube takes aim at COVID and vaccine ‘dis/misinformation’
YouTube said its new policy is informed by “critical lessons about developing Community Guidelines in line with local and global health authority guidance on topics that pose serious real-world risks, such as misinformation on COVID-19, vaccines, reproductive health, harmful substances, and more.”
“We’re taking what we’ve learned so far about the most effective ways to tackle medical misinformation to simplify our approach for creators, viewers, and partners,” YouTube stated.
YouTube provided examples of what it considers “vaccine misinformation,” which includes “Content alleging that vaccines cause chronic side effects, such as cancer or paralysis, outside of rare side effects that are recognized by health authorities.”
- Claims that the MMR vaccine causes autism.
- Claims that any vaccine causes contraction of COVID-19.
- Claims that vaccines are part of a depopulation agenda.
- Claims that the HPV vaccine causes chronic side effects such as paralysis.
- Claims that achieving herd immunity through natural infection is safer than vaccinating the population.
Also prohibited under the new policy is “Content claiming that vaccines do not reduce transmission or contraction of disease” and, “Claims that any vaccine is a guaranteed prevention method for COVID-19.”
“Content misrepresenting the ingredients contained in vaccines” is also banned under the new policy, including “Claims that vaccines contain substances that are not on the vaccine ingredient list, such as biological matter from fetuses (e.g. fetal tissue, fetal cell lines) or animal byproducts,” or “Claims that vaccines alter a person’s genetic makeup.”
YouTube said it will also remove content promoting cures for cancer, for example, a video that claims “garlic cures cancer” or “take vitamin C instead of radiation therapy.”
Gavi says it “helps vaccinate almost half the world’s children against deadly and debilitating infectious diseases.” Established in 1999, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is one of its co-founders and one of its four permanent board members. Gavi maintains a core partnership with the WHO, UNICEF and the World Bank.
Science is ‘rough and tumble,’ ‘does not progress by consensus’
Despite such restrictions, YouTube said in its blog post that debate and discussion are “critical to the advancement of science and medicine,” adding:
“We always carefully take into account context when enforcing our policies, and allow content that provides educational, documentary, scientific and artistic (EDSA) context.
“This means that we may allow content that is sufficiently in the public interest to remain on YouTube, even if it otherwise violates our policies — for example, a video of a public hearing or comments made by national political candidates on the campaign trail that disputes health authority guidance, or graphic footage from active warzones or humanitarian crises.”
Several establishment media outlets, however, have reported that YouTube has previously faced controversy over its “misinformation” policies — for not doing enough to remove such content.
YouTube “has historically struggled to moderate the content that is uploaded on its platform,” CNBC reported, adding that “As a result, the company is often playing catch-up, racing to remove posts that violate its established guidelines.”
According to a paper published March 2022 in BMJ Global Health, “Approximately 11% of YouTube’s most viewed videos on COVID-19 vaccines, accounting for 18 million views, contradicted information from the WHO or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
For YouTube, this may be easier said than done, according to the Geneva Internet Platform, which said “the practical implementation of this policy remains a challenge.”
According to CNN, “As with many social media policies … the challenge often isn’t introducing it but enforcing it.”
Medical experts who spoke with The Defender said the issue isn’t enforcement of the policies, but the policies themselves and their impact on speech.
Harvey Risch, M.D., Ph.D., professor emeritus and senior research scientist in epidemiology (chronic diseases) at the Yale School of Public Health, told The Defender “consensus” should not be used as the standard for evaluating scientific claims.
Science does not progress by consensus. Science is rough-and-tumble. It progresses by new evidence that updates and upends consensus.
For this reason, reliance on ‘official’ medical or health agency consensus opinions are useless and only serve to damage science and thus to damage medical care.
Other experts said YouTube’s new policy will give the platform further power and control over medical narratives, further eroding trust in public health agencies.
Lindley said YouTube’s new policy “will have a negative effect on the health of its users and possibly cause irreparable harm, as trust in those agencies that YouTube relies on has been lost by the public and many of us in medicine.”
“Restricting speech and information to only that which is consistent with supposed ‘medical authorities’ concentrates the control of information to a limited number of entities with already immense and now even greater powers,” said Dr. Pierre Kory, a pulmonary and critical care specialist.
For Kory, who is president and chief medical officer of the Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance (FLCCC), the new policy is dangerous, because “‘They’ want to control all information, and this is one way in which they will accomplish it.”