YouTube’s ban on disinformation

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Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have long lists of restrictions to limit information about the coronavirus that they deem misleading on their sites. YouTube went further last week with a fairly broad ban on videos that question the efficacy or safety of approved vaccines, including measles.

These rules may make sense to you. But they can also seem like an attack on expression and an insult to our intelligence.

Most people who watch YouTube videos claiming (wrongly) that an animal deworming drug cures the coronavirus will not swallow their pet’s pills, and most people who post concerns about the effects Side effects of vaccines are not vaccine fanatics. Are we not able to speak freely on the internet and decide for ourselves? Isn’t it counterproductive and anti-American to declare certain discussions forbidden?

There are no easy answers to these questions. But I want to share how my perceptions changed a bit after speaking with Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth College professor who studies misperceptions about politics and healthcare. Nyhan made me think differently about online misinformation – it’s not about you.

Nyhan suggested that we think of internet business rules as designed for the small number of people who strongly believe or are inclined to believe in things that can be proven false and have the potential to be dangerous. Let me explain.

The conversation resonated because it came to something that bothers me about the blanket term “disinformation.” It evokes a world where everyone is a neo-Nazis, anarchist, or scammer selling fake health potions or where people are susceptible to such hoaxes.

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We know that’s nonsense. But Nyhan said it was crucial that we have rules on the internet for the extremes of who is talking and who is listening.

“A lot of people will be exposed to misinformation and it won’t have any effect,” Nyhan told me. “But even if a few people believe powerful false claims like an election was illegitimate or that this vaccine causes autism, then a more aggressive approach may be required.”

Nyhan is not saying that popular websites should restrict any discussion that includes extreme or unpopular opinions. (He himself has written that the types of online limits on COVID-19 discussions shouldn’t apply to most political expression.)

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