This week, video sharing service YouTube announced that it would take steps to remove content from prominent COVID-19 vaccine skeptics including Joseph Mercola and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. As first reported by The Washington Post, under its new policies, YouTube will ban any videos that make the claim that commonly used vaccines approved by health officials are ineffective or dangerous.
The video service has already enacted similar measures against accounts that have been sharing misinformation about COVID-19.
“Developing robust policies takes time,” Matt Halprin, YouTube’s vice president of global trust and safety told the paper of record. “We wanted to launch a policy that is comprehensive, enforceable with consistency and adequately addresses the challenge.”
Platforms For Misinformation
YouTube and other social media platforms have long been used to share conspiracy theories, and many of these – from flat earth to the moon landing to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (uncle of the aforementioned Robert F. Kennedy Jr.) – have been considered essentially harmless, even if those making and potentially watching them were actual believers.
However, some of the more recent conspiracies to gain traction have included the infamous “pizzagate,” which served as the catalyst for the QAnon movement, and of course COVID-19 – from its origins as well as vaccines. For the most part, this type of information has been allowed, even if in some cases it has been tagged as potentially misleading.
This week however, YouTube has stepped up to ban the spread of what it calls COVID-19 vaccine misinformation.
“Working closely with health authorities, we looked to balance our commitment to an open platform with the need to remove egregious harmful content,” YouTube said in a Wednesday statement posted to its blog. “We’ve steadily seen false claims about the coronavirus vaccines spill over into misinformation about vaccines in general, and we’re now at a point where it’s more important than ever to expand the work we started with Covid-19 to other vaccines.”
The question is of course what sets one conspiracy apart from another?
“Well, that is up to the platform to draw the line, and that can be difficult, but it generally seems to be where people could get hurt or sick,” said Dr. Kurt Braddock, assistant professor of Public Communication at the School of Communication, American University.
“The platform may be slow to react, but they do seem to move when there is the potential for violence such as after the January 6 riots at the Capitol,” Braddock told ClearanceJobs.
Clamping Down on Misinformation
There have also been concerns in the past year that as more Americans get their news and information from social media that not enough has been done to stop the spread of misinformation and even disinformation. However, here is where the platforms have in recent months increased the efforts to stop the spread of content they see as misleading or potentially harmful.
“Social media platforms’ removal of high-profile individuals spreading disinformation has a discernible effect on what general users see online,” explained Dr. Saif Shahin, assistant professor, School of Communication at American University.
“A few influential accounts tend to drive the bulk of online traffic as what they post is recirculated by hundreds or thousands of other accounts – or by malicious bots. Facebook reported a marked decrease in exposure to disinformation after it began clamping down during last year’s election. In my own research, I have found this to have happened on Twitter as well,” Shahain added.
One common complaint from users on the social platforms has been that this is a form of censorship or that it somehow violates one’s First Amendment rights. Neither argument holds water, said the experts.
“YouTube is a privately-owned platform, of course; its parent company is Google. As such, the First Amendment does not apply to it, because the First Amendment only applies to the government,” said Bob Jarvis, lawyer and professor of Law at Nova Southeastern University.
“Thus, while the government cannot ban speech – except in very specific circumstances, such as speech that imperils national security – private individuals and companies are free to ban any speech they wish for any reason, or no reason, at all,” Jarvis told ClearanceJobs. “The foregoing is not debatable – it is, as lawyers like to say, ‘black letter’ law. Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019 held that even when a private company provides a platform for others to speak – a traditional government function – the First Amendment does not apply.”
However, there will still be those that attempt to argue that the platforms are so universally used that blocking anyone is still a form of censoring.
“Any kind of argument about this being First Amendment or about censorship remains a non-starter, and those who believe these videos want to have a debate, but that isn’t the case,” added Braddock. “These companies can do what they want to do.”
However, a case could be made that even if it is legally true, it may not always be in the best interest of the greater good.
“Credibility of all content suffers in this dystopian age. Now that carriers openly affirm that they eliminate select material to protect it from criticism, everyone must doubt what we read and wonder what was omitted,” warned Jim Purtilo, associate professor of computer science at the University of Maryland.
“Science is the greatest victim of all,” Purtilo told ClearanceJobs. “Science is driven by disciplined questions and data, so when corporations or officials aggressively quash our opportunity to challenge views they diminish the quality of our conclusions. The crucible of science burns away nonsense and gives us greater confidence in what remains; censorship stops this quality improvement process in its tracks.”
The Clearance Issue
While activity on social media can potentially reflect badly on one’s character, unless that activity could put an individual in a compromising situation, it may not actually impact security clearance. That is true even if said activity resulted in that person being banned from a platform such as YouTube, Twitter, or Facebook.
“It is highly unlikely the ban itself would impact someone’s security clearance,” said attorney Bradley P. Moss, Esq, of the Law Offices of Mark Zaid.
“What the person did to get banned, on the other hand, is a different situation, but even that is still pretty farfetched,” Moss told ClearanceJobs.
Even if it’s unlikely to impact your security clearance, posting conspiracy theories probably isn’t a good way to land a job.