YouTube misinformation policy update: Gov. DeSantis’ office promises to fight censorship

Coronavirus

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TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — YouTube announced an expansion to their community guidelines on Wednesday, focused on what the company called harmful misinformation relating to vaccines and other health-related topics. In response to YouTube’s updated content policies, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office promised to oppose censorship and to continue fighting in defense of a recent law that is aimed at preventing deplatforming on social media sites.

The new YouTube guidelines include a three-strike content and account takedown policy with a 90-day timeline. For accounts that promote content directly in opposition to the new guidelines, an instant ban is also a possibility, according to YouTube’s new rules.

YouTube moderation and Florida

In response to an 8 On Your Side request for comment from the governor’s office, a spokesperson told WFLA, in part:

It is disappointing to see YouTube and other Big Tech companies double down on their repudiation of free speech principles.  The idea of free speech is based on the belief that when all are permitted to express their views, the truth will ultimately prevail.  Unfortunately, YouTube doesn’t believe this.  YouTube instead believes that it has a monopoly on the truth.  But we know that Big Tech companies like YouTube have themselves engaged in misinformation and the suppression of truth.

Statement from the Office of Governor Ron DeSantis, in part.

The statement from DeSantis’ office also follows a move earlier in the week to take on Facebook, another social media giant, for how its platform may have been used politically. DeSantis directed Secretary of State Laurel M. Lee and the Division of Elections to investigate the company for election violations after reports by the Wall Street Journal revealed a whitelist of influential users who were exempted from moderation norms.

Florida’s SB 7072, the so-called Big Tech crackdown law, gives state officials and private citizens options to take social media companies to court over removal of their accounts from online communities, especially if the individual is currently running for public office. It was signed into law in May.

8 On Your Side has also reached out to representatives for YouTube and Google, its parent company, for comment on how Florida’s anti-deplatforming law may affect content moderation and the new guidelines. We are still waiting for a response.

The law is already facing legal challenges and was blocked by a federal judge in June on constitutional grounds. Still, the governor’s office has pledged to continue defending the law and promised to oppose censorship and protect free speech.

“Governor DeSantis still believes in the power of free speech as an engine for truth and opposes censorship by platforms that hold themselves out as marketplaces for ideas. The governor will continue to aggressively defend SB 7072 in court, and once vindicated there, he looks forward to enforcing it for the benefit of Floridians of all viewpoints,” said a spokesperson for DeSantis.

Points made by governor’s office

In their response to the YouTube guidelines, the governor’s spokesperson provided examples of what they refer to as suppressing the truth, dipping back to the beginning of the pandemic.

The governor’s office referenced when Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the chief medical advisor to the president, said in March 2020 that masks would not stop the spread of COVID-19, and compared it to masks being made mandatory several months later.

The CDC has repeatedly advised that wearing masks helps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, along with other strategies such as social distancing and vaccination. The agency does not claim that all of these strategies are 100% effective, but that they do help to slow the virus’ transmission.

The governor’s office also referenced April and May 2020, when some speculation on COVID-19’s origins was labeled as misinformation, prompting pushback from Republican lawmakers in Washington. The speculation was that COVID-19 came from a lab in Wuhan, China, where the virus was first reported.

Investigation by the World Health Organization resulted in a team of scientists heading to China in July 2020 to understand the origins of the virus. President Joe Biden has called on China to be more cooperative in the international effort probing the origin of the pandemic.

The United States government was still investigating the possibility that the virus began in a Chinese lab, as of May 26. However, scientists – including Dr. Fauci – say they think the virus started in nature and jumped from animals to humans.

DeSantis’ office also made mention of a March 2021 commentary by CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, who said that vaccinated people cannot get or transmit COVID-19 while making an appearance on MSNBC. CDC data and studies show that while infection and transmission are still possible while vaccinated, symptoms of COVID-19 are less severe and infection is less likely than for those unvaccinated.

The governor’s office points out that cases of COVID-19 “far exceed this point a year ago” comparing 2021 to 2020. In that point, they are correct. However, the virus has changed and health officials say that the delta variant is more transmissible.

Data on case numbers and the spread of delta shows a different type of virus than at the start of the pandemic. While vaccination has helped curb the spread of COVID-19, breakthrough cases are still possible.

The last point made in the response from the governor’s office to the new YouTube content policies referred to a video of a DeSantis roundtable discussing mask efficacy in March. The statement from the governor’s spokesperson says the video of the roundtable was censored, and that “YouTube decreed that masks work to stop COVID-19 in schools.”

DeSantis and staff have used Rumble, an alternate video platform, multiple times since. Videos on the account are a combination of news conferences and interviews on television stations.

Some of the videos include officials and other speakers discussing topics such as monoclonal antibody treatments or feature patient testimonials after treatment with Regeneron. As of late, some videos are clips from DeSantis making appearances on Fox News. The first video on the account was published April 15.

Referencing the differing opinions and a lack of data suggesting masks in schools are not effective, DeSantis’ office said “there is no data to suggest that they work, and there are potential risks to kids from forced masking.” They asked what gave YouTube’s moderators the “expertise and authority” to call something medical disinformation.

In the announcement by YouTube for the expanded COVID-19 vaccine content guidelines, the company addresses how they designed their moderation policies for vaccines and COVID-19.

“As with our COVID guidelines, we consulted with local and international health organizations and experts in developing these policies,” the company said in a blog post.

Additionally, the COVID-19 medical misinformation policy guidelines that were already in place state that “YouTube doesn’t allow content that spreads medical misinformation that contradicts local health authorities’ or the World Health Organization’s (WHO) medical information about COVID-19.”

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