YouTube pledges crackdown on medical misinformation

Complementary Medicine

By Michael Woodhead

24 Aug 2023

YouTube has said it will start removing video content that promotes ineffective and harmful health cures as part of an update to its medical misinformation policies.

In the next few weeks the online video site run by Google will roll introduce stricter content rules that will target and remove medical misinformation and actively promote authoritative information from credible public health sources such as the WHO.

The move is part of a wider strategy by YouTube to remove misinformation about the prevention and treatment of health conditions and denial of scientific facts such as the existence of COVID-19, according to an article published by Dr Garth Graham, YouTube’s Global Head of Healthcare and Public Health Partnerships, and Matt Halprin, Global Head of Trust and Safety.

“Our goal is to ensure that when it comes to areas of well-studied scientific consensus, YouTube is not a platform for distributing information that could harm people,” they said.

YouTube said it will streamline dozens of its existing medical misinformation guidelines into three categories:

  • Prevention misinformation: We will remove content that contradicts health authority guidance on the prevention and transmission of specific health conditions, and on the safety and efficacy of approved vaccines. For example, this encompasses content that promotes a harmful substance for disease prevention.
  • Treatment misinformation: We will remove content that contradicts health authority guidance on treatments for specific health conditions, including promoting specific harmful substances or practices. Examples include content that encourages unproven remedies in place of seeking medical attention for specific conditions, like promoting caesium chloride as a treatment for cancer.
  • Denial misinformation: We will remove content that disputes the existence of specific health conditions. This covers content that denies people have died from COVID-19.

The update noted that cancer treatment is an area that is especially prone to misinformation, and comes with a high public health risk because cancer is one of the leading causes of death globally.

“When cancer patients and their loved ones are faced with a diagnosis, they often turn to online spaces to research symptoms, learn about treatment journeys, and find community. Our mission is to make sure that when they turn to YouTube, they can easily find high-quality content from credible health sources,” the authors said.

“Starting today and ramping up in the coming weeks, we will begin removing content that promotes cancer treatments proven to be harmful or ineffective, or content that discourages viewers from seeking professional medical treatment,” they wrote.

“This includes content that promotes unproven treatments in place of approved care or as a guaranteed cure, and treatments that have been specifically deemed harmful by health authorities. For instance, a video that claims “garlic cures cancer,” or “take vitamin C instead of radiation therapy” would be removed.”

The new policy will see YouTube promoting content based on “the stable consensus about safe cancer treatments from local and global health authorities, such as World Health Organisation (WHO).

“As part of our ongoing work to increase the amount of high-quality health content on YouTube, we’re publishing a playlist of engaging, informative cancer-related videos from a range of authoritative sources, and we’re collaborating with Mayo Clinic on new video content to share information on a variety of cancer conditions,” they said.

However the YouTube policy will still allow content that violates these rules in some circumstances, in the name of free speech and public interest.

These exceptions might include a video of a public hearing or comments made by national political candidates on the campaign trail that disputes health authority guidance, and personal testimonies or content that discusses the results of a specific medical study.

“Looking ahead … we’ll continue to monitor local and global health authority guidance to make sure our policies adapt. We want our approach to be clear and transparent, so that content creators understand where the policy lines are, and viewers know they can trust the health information they find on YouTube,” they concluded.

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