YouTube finally bans Anti-Vaxx content. Why did it take so long?
Amid reports of full hospitals due to unvaccinated patients contracting the coronavirus, YouTube announced on Wednesday that it would ban all anti-vaccine content on its platform. The streaming giant said that includes more than vaccine misinformation. The platform will block any content that takes a stand against any vaccine. The move represents a marked shift in the way tech giants take responsibility for their platforms.
But is the move a little too late?
YouTube is a platform that has played a central role in the spread of vaccine hesitancy. Known to be a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, there isn’t a single weird theory you wouldn’t find out there. But “anti-vaccine activists” like Joseph Mercola have described the ban as an attack on free speech.
On the flip side, several people have criticized YouTube and Facebook for not doing enough to tackle disinformation. Social media and streaming platforms have taken a “hands off” approach to regulating content. This approach impacted the lives of people during the coronavirus pandemic and the plight of many democracies. Dictatorships, fascism and authoritarianism are on the rise, thanks in large part to social media and YouTube.
But with YouTube finally taking the plunge on vaccines, what lies ahead? Other dangerous ideas that are proliferating online include denial of climate change, which many see as “free speech”. Unlike outright racism, xenophobia, and hate speech, anti-vaccine rhetoric and climate change denial doesn’t fit neatly into the categories of content that platforms claim to regulate. A recent report found that YouTube “actively promotes” climate denial.
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These questions, however, have almost served as the heart of the transition to a post-truth world where anything goes. People can now undermine decades of scientific research in minutes. Until now, it was legitimate to call it freedom of expression. Moreover, the vaccine and climate change denial is not explicitly aimed at anyone in particular and, therefore, is not as quickly identified as dangerous and harmful.
And this is where the problem lies. As one of the first internet platforms, YouTube has always been at the center of the free speech debate. Although it has served as a space to question the origin of knowledge and encouraged skepticism about the facts we hold inviolable, it has long since passed beyond the realm of healthy debate and transformed in dangerous territory.
“By working closely with health authorities, we have sought to balance our commitment to an open platform with the need to remove blatant and harmful content,” YouTube said in a blog post about the new guidelines. Left in the hands of YouTube, this balance leaned towards preservation rather than combating harmful ideas.
There are also fears that this decision reflects an undemocratic change that stifles the questioning of the authorities. But YouTube’s problem mirrors the underlying problem of lack of transparency. When government and scientific processes close to public scrutiny, lay people have a natural tendency to find out what is going on with the tools and resources at their disposal.
Often times, the people (except influencers who capitalize on the idea) spitting out refuted rhetoric are not people with malicious intent. They believe they are providing a service that benefits their fellow citizens. Reports of unvaccinated Covid19 patients realizing their mistake too late bear witness to this. However, surviving family members make it their mission to fight vaccine misinformation. But a few individuals are no match for a giant platform that is responsible for much of the problem.
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Rather than empowering through information, social media and streaming platforms offer a burst of empowerment about what powerlessness through disinformation is. Allowing disinformation to increase under the guise of free speech, in other words, is a deliberate obfuscation of the fact that there can be no free speech without free information.
The ruling therefore raises bigger questions about how big business and governments treat citizens with children’s gloves and why it needs to stop. He questions how much information governments disclose, how the media interpret it, and why those who receive it tend to distort it.
A recent UK-based study showed that a lack of transparency and trust affects the way governments respond to a crisis. Rather than building trust in communities, YouTube and social media platforms allow authorities and those in power to continue to make decisions without accountability.
“There are some important exceptions to our new guidelines. Given the importance of public discussion and debate to the scientific process, we will continue to license content on vaccine policies, new vaccine trials, and historic vaccine successes or failures on YouTube. Personal testimonials relating to vaccines will also be allowed, as long as the video does not violate other community guidelines, or the channel shows a model of promoting vaccine reluctance, ”YouTube added.
This ban is obviously a good thing. Instead of focusing on who’s talking and not on YouTube, it can be helpful to ask those in power to respond for more.