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With anti-vaccination hysteria on the rise, it’s good to see that YouTube is taking the first step to deplatforming incredibly harmful content that contributes to new and potentially deadly outbreaks of diseases. Reported cases of measles have spread, particularly in Harris County. The incredibly contagious disease caused over 100,000 deaths worldwide in 2017 according to the World Health Organization. Fatal outbreaks occur in unvaccinated populations.
Social media has been incredibly important in the rise in anti-vaccine sentiment. The problem is that the ratio of evidence-based content regarding vaccines to nonsense and nuttery is very high. Julie Carrie Wong at The Guardian did an in-depth investigation on how search engines steer users towards the anti-vaccine side disproportionately over the scientific one.
“Simple searches of Facebook and YouTube show how anti-vaccination propaganda can outperform fact-based information,” says Wong. “Using a new account with no friends or likes, the Guardian used Facebook’s search bar to begin typing the word ‘vaccine.’ Facebook’s autofill quickly began suggesting search terms that would steer a user toward anti-vaccine misinformation, such as ‘vaccination re-education discussion forum,’ ‘vaccine re-education,’ ‘vaccine truth movement,’ and ‘vaccine resistance movement.’”
YouTube is joined by Pinterest in the fight against deadly ignorance. The social network took the step of blocking “vaccine” from its search feature. The measure is a temporary means of stopping the flow while the company seeks a more permanent solution.
The move by YouTube sparked predictable outrage online as many accused the company of censorship or deliberately hiding the truth of vaccines. That’s rather clearly false as you can still find plenty of content on YouTube from trusted, evidence-based sources like the Centers for Disease Control and our own Texas Children’s Hospital.
Anti-vaccination groups like the appropriately named Health Nut News denounced YouTube’s policy against videos promoting “vaccine hesitancy,” which is the latest meaningless re-branding of the dangerously misguided movement. Erin Elizabeth said that policy should not affect their ability to sell products or solicit donations.
Unfortunately, anti-vaccination propaganda continues to thrive. Facebook has groups on the subject with millions of users. Amazon continues to stream the pseudoscience documentary Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe directed by Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced and denounced doctor who popularized the lie that the MMR vaccine is related to autism. The videos may not be monetized on YouTube, but they are still there, and while the loss of revenue to charlatans and quacks is welcome the ideas remain popular.
“YouTube demonetizing anti-vaccine videos is a good move that sends a powerful message,” says health and fitness writer James Fell, author of the new book The Holy Sh!t Moment: How Lasting Change Can Happen in an Instant. “And while it hurts the ‘movement,’ it won’t stop them. Because just like there are those who think the Earth is flat or 9/11 was an inside job, we are talking about a group of true believers here. Marginalization of dangerous ideas is important, but it also makes some of those who hold such anti-scientific positions even more entrenched. They believe they are the only ones who know the truth, and that YouTube is part of some ‘big pharma’ conspiracy to poison the populace.”