Censorship during pandemic creates new backlash against Facebook, YouTube

YouTube, Vimeo have removed video touting potential of experimental UV light treatment after President Trump mused aloud about a similar method to fight COVID-19.

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UV light treatment
Screenshot from censored video of experimental UV light treatment
(Aytu BioScience)
Last Updated:
April 27, 2020 - 11:33pm

YouTube has blocked a video touting the potential promise of a UV light treatment days after President Donald Trump mused aloud about a similar method to fight COVID-19.

The video sharing giant is citing violation of its terms of service as its reason for removing Aytu BioScience’s Healight treatment video, although earlier it had cited violation of its community guidelines as its grounds for censorship.

Video sharing site Vimeo has also removed the video, reports PJ Media’s Matt Margolis.

These are hardly the only cases of big tech platforms working overtime to shape what we see and hear online, from absurd health claims to, more worrisomely, protesters eager to have their views heard.

Conservatives are particularly sensitive to the trend following aggressive tactics to quiet their voices in the digital space.

Long before the pandemic, Twitter routinely punished conservatives like actor James Woods, who it said ran afoul of the platform’s policies. 

Squeaky clean YouTube channels like PragerU, offering right-leaning life lessons and more, saw their videos marked “restricted,” making it far less likely young viewers could watch them.

Now, with a majority of Americans eager for the economy to open, tech platforms are siding selectively with elected officeholders to maintain the status quo.

Facebook is experiencing backlash from critics, including Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley and Donald Trump, Jr., after the platform silenced some voices rallying support for lockdown protests. The platform took down posts tied to anti-quarantine gatherings in Nebraska, California and New Jersey, according to the BBC.

YouTube, in turn, vowed to remove videos running counter to the World Health Organization (WHO), the U.N. system global health body which has peddled dubious information from the Chinese government about the country’s pandemic fight and echoed the regime’s claim the virus wasn’t transmissible by humans: 

 

WHO also slammed Trump’s ban on incoming flights from China, a move eventually viewed widely on both sides of the aisle in the U.S. as a vital step in preventing the virus’ spread stateside.

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki explained its philosophy on so-called “misinformation” this week on CNN:

“But then we also talk about removing information that is problematic — of course anything that is medically unsubstantiated … anything that would go against World Health Organization recommendations would be a violation of our policy. And so remove is another really important part of our policy.”

Columnist Vijay Jayaraj at conservative Townhall.com wasn’t alone in railing against Big Tech’s overreach:

“This move by YouTube sets a dangerous precedent for censorship and has the potential to restrict the flow of information from competing sources — something that has been essential to the discovery of both truths and falsehoods and so to the growth of knowledge.”

Free speech advocates understand the sensitivity of both the times and the task at hand. Still, they suggest such aggressive measures may not serve the public interest. In fact, they may backfire in some cases.

Robby Soave, senior editor at Reason.com, is no fan of platforms like YouTube performing “heavy-handed” content blocking, although he doesn’t question their constitutional right to do so. 

“Obviously, they’re private companies, so it’s not a First Amendment issue,” Soave says. “If you say drinking bleach is going to cure coronavirus, they wanna take that thing down, and most people agree that’s OK.”

Still, blocking information comes with a potential cost, Soave warns. Consider content that could be seen as “problematic” involving a potential coronavirus treatment, like the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine.

“We could know tons more about that three days from now … it’s better if the platforms default to just letting it all be out there,” Soave says. “Any effort to control all the information people have is going to look foolish. We don’t know everything about the disease yet.”

David Keating, president of the D.C.-based Institute for Free Speech, says blindly supporting government dictums can do a disservice to the public at large.

“To this day in the U.K. the official guidance is not to wear a mask [to prevent coronavirus transmission],” Keating says, citing Taiwan’s more successful pandemic fight credited in part by mask use. “Basically, the government is lying to people … they don’t want them buying medical-grade masks.”

“One thing we’ve learned over history is that governments often lie,” he says. “And WHO, while not being a government, shares many of the same characteristics.”

Keating suggests blindly following conventional wisdom can lead to other ill effects.

“What would have happened if these platforms had these kind of policies, blindly following government advice, in the Jim Crow era?” he asks. “Would they have taken down NAACP videos?”

David Greene, Civil Liberties Director for the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, understands the need for various platforms to patrol content.

“All the major ones do moderate content — they take stuff down or treat it differently … even the ones with very expansive views of what’s permitted,” says Greene, whose group filed an amicus brief on behalf of PragerU.

While acknowledging that “YouTube has a legal right to do this,” he insists “they still should do it from a human rights framework.”

Greene understands the often thankless job faced by major tech platforms such as Facebook and YouTube.

“What the companies are trying to do involves thousands of impossible decisions … it’s impossible to do content moderation well,” he says. “Assuming everyone is well-intentioned, it’s still really, really hard to do. There’s a ton of gray area with everything.”

Mike Cernovich inadvertently showed how internet giants can shoot themselves in the foot when some content is selectively excised from the digital landscape. Earlier this month Amazon removed the right-of-center journalist’s 2019 documentary “Hoaxed.” 

The film, directed by Jon du Toit and Scooter Downey, lambasted modern journalism, biased reportage — and even took some swings at star Cernovich himself, who has confessed to being less rigorous earlier in his reporting career, including in his early, infamous support of the Pizzagate scandal.

“Hoaxed” jumped to the no. 3 spot on iTunes’ documentary list following Amazon’s decision. It also became the second highest selling documentary on the Apple platform behind 2018’s Oscar-winning feature “Free Solo.”