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YouTube attempts to walk the tightrope on censoring ‘medical misinformation’

Social video platform YouTube has introduced another round of censorship but this time is showing a greater than usual consideration of the nuances involved.

We make no secret of our dislike of censorship in most forms but that doesn’t mean we’re free speech absolutists. Of course the law needs to be adhered to and internet platforms, including this one, have to moderate third party content. The same applies to YouTube but at times it has appeared to cross the line into acting in an editorial capacity.

Its latest announcement is titled ‘managing harmful vaccine content in YouTube’. Commendably it starts by conceding “Crafting policy around medical misinformation comes charged with inherent challenges and trade-offs. Scientific understanding evolves as new research emerges, and first-hand, personal experience regularly plays a powerful role in online discourse.”

To some extent this opening is probably designed as an attempt to sugar the pill of its subsequent censorship announcement, stating “content that falsely alleges that approved vaccines are dangerous and cause chronic health effects, claims that vaccines do not reduce transmission or contraction of disease, or contains misinformation on the substances contained in vaccines will be removed.”

Again, on the surface that all seem fairly reasonable but, as ever with censorship, the devil is in the detail. How do we define ‘dangerous’? This whole exercise is clearly designed with Covid in mind and, of the millions of Covid vaccines administered, the adverse reaction rate seems very low, but it’s not zero. There is a tricky balance to be struck between censoring all mention of a rare phenomenon and allowing people to make it into a bigger thing than it is.

There seems to be overwhelming evidence that the Covid vaccines both reduce transmission and the severity of infection, but they don’t eliminate either entirely. So, again, how do you allow people to acknowledge the existence of breakthrough infections while still trying to censor those who use their existence as false proof that the vaccines confer no benefits whatsoever?

Much of the establishment has unconditionally welcomed this move, noting only that it should have been done sooner and calling on other internet platforms to follow suit. Others, however, have once more called into question the power of a few unaccountable tech giants over the public square and flagged up the inevitable subjectivity of the new rules.

The public health elites, like lawmakers, are far from flawless. The possible provenance of this pandemic alone is evidence of that. But YouTube has to start its moderation somewhere and, just as it’s compelled to remove illegal material, if it’s going to moderate vaccine content the most obvious and least controversial starting point has to be medical establishment consensus. As ever the tricky bit will be enforcement and this move seems likely to affect plenty of balanced, rational commentators as well as obvious bad actors.


2 comments

  1. Avatar Canof 03/10/2021 @ 4:59 am

    “But YouTube has to start its moderation somewhere”

    No, it doesn’t, you authoritarian.

    • Scott Bicheno Scott Bicheno 04/10/2021 @ 10:55 am

      How about the law, you fanatic?

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