COVID-19 disinformation at U.S. public forums vexes social media platforms and big tech

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There are many places to turn for specific information on COVID-19. Your doctor. Local Health Services. United States Centers for Disease Control.

But not, perhaps, your local government’s public comment session.

At a St. Louis County Council meeting earlier this month, opponents of a possible mask warrant made so many misleading comments about masks, vaccines and COVID-19 that YouTube deleted the video for violating its policies against false claims about the virus.

“I hope no one is making a medical decision based on what they hear in our public forums,” said County Councilor Lisa Clancy, who supports the wearing of the mask and said she believed most of his constituents did too. The video has been restored, but Clancy’s concerns about the impact of this misinformation remain.

Videos of local government meetings have emerged as the latest vector for disinformation about COVID-19, spreading misleading claims about masks and vaccines to millions of people and creating new challenges for internet platforms trying to balance the potential damage and the need for government openness.

The latest video to go viral features a local doctor who made several misleading statements about COVID-19 while speaking to the Mount Vernon Community School Corporation in Fortville, Indiana on August 6. In his 6-minute remarks, Dr Dan Stock told the board that masks don’t work, vaccines don’t prevent infection, and state and federal health officials don’t follow. not science.

The video racked up tens of millions of views online and prompted the Indiana State Department of Health to back down. Stock did not return multiple messages requesting comment.

“Here’s a doctor in suspenders walking up to the school board and basically saying what some people think: masks are BS, vaccines don’t work and the CDC is lying – that can be very convincing to the laity.” said Dr. Zubin Damania, a California doctor who has received so many messages on the Indiana clip that he created his own video debunking Stock’s claims.

Damania hosts a popular online medical show called ZDoggMD. His video demystifying Stock’s comments has been viewed over 400,000 times so far. He said that while there are legitimate questions about the effectiveness of mask requirements for children, Stock’s general criticism of masks and vaccines has gone too far.

YouTube has removed several similar videos from local government meetings in North Carolina, Missouri, Kansas, and Washington state. In Bellingham, Wash., Officials responded by temporarily suspending public comment sessions.

The false claims in these videos were made during the public comment portion of the meeting. Local officials have no control over what is said in these forums, and say that is part of the problem.

In Kansas, YouTube extracted a video of the May school board meeting in the Shawnee Mission district, which has 27,000 students, in which parents and a state lawmaker called on the district to withdraw its mask mandate. , citing “medical disinformation”.

The district, where a mask warrant remains in effect, responded by ending the live broadcast of the public comment period. District spokesperson David Smith acknowledged that it was difficult to strike a balance between making council meetings accessible and not spreading errors.

“It was difficult for me to hear things at the board meeting that weren’t true and know that these were coming out without contradiction,” Smith said. “I’m all about free speech, but when that free speech endangers people’s lives, it’s hard to sit through it.”

After hearing from local authorities, YouTube reversed its decision and put the videos back online. Earlier this month, the company, which is owned by Google, announced a change to its COVID disinformation policy to allow exceptions for local government meetings – though YouTube can still remove content that uses remarks on public forums in an attempt to mislead.

“While we have clear policies to remove harmful misinformation about COVID-19, we also recognize the importance of organizations such as school districts and city councils using YouTube to share recordings of open public forums, even when comments on these forums may violate our policies, ”the company said. spokeswoman Elena Hernandez said.

The deluge of false virus claims has challenged other platforms as well. Twitter and Facebook each have their own policies on COVID-19 disinformation, and say that, like YouTube, they attach labels to deceptive content and remove the worst of it.

Public commentary sessions leading up to local government meetings have long been known for the sometimes colorful remarks from local residents. But before the internet, if anyone was talking about fluoride in drinking water, for example, their comments were unlikely to be reported nationally.

Now, thanks to the internet and social media, the misleading thoughts of a local doctor speaking to a school board can compete for attention with the CDC’s recommendations.

It was only a matter of time before the misleading comments on these local public forums went viral, according to Jennifer Grygiel, a professor of communications at Syracuse University who studies social media platforms.

Grygiel has suggested some possible ways to minimize the impact of disinformation without muzzling local governments. Grygiel said clear labels on government shows would help viewers understand what they are watching. Keeping the video on the government website, instead of making it shareable on YouTube, could allow local residents to watch it without allowing the videos to be distributed more widely.

“Anytime there is a public arena – a city council hearing, a school board meeting, a public park – the public has an opportunity to potentially spread disinformation,” Grygiel said. “What has changed is that he is used to staying local.”


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