YouTube announced a total ban Wednesday on vaccine misinformation and the termination of the accounts of several prominent anti-vaccine influencers, including Joseph Mercola and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., citing “the need to remove egregious harmful content.”
The new policy was crafted as the company began to see false claims about Covid-19 vaccines “spill over into misinformation about vaccines in general,” according to a company blog post.
“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 company wrote.
YouTube already had a policy against Covid vaccine misinformation, but the new ban against broader vaccine misinformation includes content that falsely claims approved vaccines are dangerous or ineffective, including the false belief that vaccines cause autism or cancer.
YouTube’s move follows a similar ban in February from Facebook. Facebook’s uneven enforcement against prominent anti-vaccine activists and its failure to rein in vaccine misinformation since then highlights the challenges ahead for YouTube as it moves to enforce rules against the anti-vaccine community, known for its adeptness at circumventing content moderation.
Anti-vaccine creators have flourished on YouTube for over a decade, moving to the Google-owned platform after traditional media stopped promoting their messaging. Anti-vaccine content was so ubiquitous that vaccine advocacy organizations were forced off the platform years ago.
“It has been incredibly frustrating to try and share good, science-based information about vaccines on YouTube, only to have the algorithms then suggest anti-vaccine content to our viewers,” said Erica DeWald, communications director of Vaccinate Your Family, the nation’s largest nonprofit group dedicated to advocating for vaccines. “We’re hopeful this is a positive step toward ensuring people have access to real information about vaccines and will signal other social media companies to follow suit.”
Since early 2020, longtime anti-vaccine activists have been telegraphing their plans to weaponize fears about Covid and uncertainty about treatments and vaccines as a way to grow their own movement.
“Anti-vaccine activists have been very vocal about the fact that they saw Covid as an opportunity to undermine confidence in the childhood vaccine schedule,” said Renée DiResta, who leads research on anti-vaccine disinformation at the Stanford Internet Observatory. “Seeing YouTube take this action is reflective of the fact that it seems to be aware that that tactic and dynamic was beginning to take shape.”
“Now we’re on a precipice,” she said, noting that the approval for Covid vaccines for younger children — expected in the next few weeks — would unleash a fresh round of anti-vaccine videos and false claims about harms to children. “It is going to be an absolute nightmare. The plan from day one has always been to use those stories to undermine confidence in vaccines more generally.”
A YouTube spokesperson confirmed the new policy included the termination of the accounts of anti-vaccine influencers. Some smaller anti-vaccine channels were still live as of Wednesday morning.