YouTube Bans Anti-Vaccine Misinformation: Experts React


At the onset of the pandemic, YouTube revamped its community guidelines to prohibit content containing COVID-19 misinformation. Just yesterday, YouTube announced in a blog post that it will no longer allow misinformation about any vaccines that are approved and confirmed to be safe and effective by health authorities. These new guidelines include important exceptions, however, including “content about vaccine policies, new vaccine trials, and historical vaccine successes or failures” and “personal testimonies relating to vaccines”. We asked two experts from our Leveraging AI to Examine Disparities and Bias in Health Care Focused Research Program for their reactions.

Gianluca Stringhini is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Nina Cesare is a Postdoctoral Associate at the BU School of Public Health.

Nina Cesare, @nlcesare
Gianluca Stringhini, @gianluca_string
What do you think about YouTube’s new guidelines?

Stringhini: I think that this policy is going in the right direction. There is a fine line to be walked between dangerous misinformation and free speech, and I think that a policy allowing debate about public health measures like vaccine mandates but not the spread of unfounded health claims is reasonable.

Cesare: I support efforts to identify and block the spread of vaccine misinformation on social media. If we can take steps toward ensuring these posts spread only verified information, it is possible that collective vaccine skepticism will drop. 

Do you think this will have a significant impact on the spread of vaccine misinformation?

Stringhini: With YouTube being by far the major platform for video content, a significant reduction in health misinformation on the platform would definitely have an impact on how many users are exposed to it.

At the same time, having one platform cracking down on misinformation creates a space for alternative platforms to flourish, I’m thinking for example of BitChute, an alternative video platform where conspiracy theorists have been gathering. While the platform itself has fewer users, this content can still be shared on mainstream social media like Facebook and Twitter, allowing a large number of users to see it.

Cesare: I hope this shift will help reduce belief in vaccine misinformation, but I wonder if misinformation is or will be shared through other platforms. We witnessed a migration toward alternative social media platforms such as Parler when Facebook began to flag election-related misinformation. We may see a similar event with this policy shift.

Also, for those who continue to be skeptical of the vaccine’s safety and efficacy, this distrust may be deeply rooted in an array of broader issues. For these individuals, ensuring they digest accurate facts may not be an effective pathway forward. Building trust in medical institutions may help resolve vaccine skepticism. Identifying the root of this skepticism may be more complex.

How does a large social platform like YouTube ensure that all vaccine-related misinformation is blocked?

Stringhini: This is the tricky part. Unlike text, where we have fairly robust techniques to identify false claims using natural language processing, doing the same thing with videos is much more challenging. Analyzing a video stream requires image processing as well as audio processing, and these techniques are not as well refined and are also much more computationally intensive than text processing. A mechanism that only looks at the title of a video and perhaps at its description would not be as effective, since the video content may actually contain something different than what is advertised.

Cesare: Algorithmic identification of misinformation – especially misinformation transmitted through audio and video – is a computational challenge. Users are clever, and may find ways to bypass feature identification. 

Why is YouTube implementing this policy now?

Stringhini: I wish that they had implemented this policy earlier, but this is a much needed mitigation and I welcome its adoption.

Cesare: I suspect this is a reaction to the recent COVID-19 surge attributable to the Delta variant. Projections indicate that viral spread is much more likely among the unvaccinated portion of the population, and that unvaccinated people are much more likely to experience severe and possibly fatal symptoms that require hospitalization. Despite seeing a promising start to vaccine distribution efforts, we’re seeing a dangerous lag in vaccination. We’re past the time to make steps toward combatting misinformation.

Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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