YouTube bans vaccine misinformation videos: COVID-19 rules expand

YouTube is cracking down on vaccine misinformation, with new guidelines that ban videos misleading on vaccination safety beyond just COVID-19. The changes build on YouTube's existing coronavirus misinformation policies, broadening it to any content which "falsely alleges that approved vaccines are dangerous and cause chronic health effects," among other issues.

For example, videos that allege that vaccines will not reduce transmission or contraction of disease, or which contain misinformation around the substances contained in vaccines, will be removed, YouTube says. That includes incorrect claims that approved vaccines cause autism, cancer, or infertility.

It also covers more outlandish conspiracy theories. That includes unfounded allegations that vaccines are being used to track people, through substances added by pharmaceutical companies, governments, or other agencies. Both general statements about vaccinations, and specific false claims against particular immunizations such as those for measles or Hepatitis B, will be included in the new guidelines.

The decision by YouTube is likely to be met with significant pushback from some quarters, something the video site seems to recognize from the outset.

"Crafting policy around medical misinformation comes charged with inherent challenges and tradeoffs," YouTube said today in a statement. "Scientific understanding evolves as new research emerges, and firsthand, personal experience regularly plays a powerful role in online discourse. Vaccines in particular have been a source of fierce debate over the years, despite consistent guidance from health authorities about their effectiveness."

Social networks and online video proved to be a boiling pot for vaccine conspiracy theories and misinformation, exacerbated by the development of the COVID-19 vaccines by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, J&J, and others. YouTube rolled out new policies which clamped down on medical falsehoods around the coronavirus response last year. Today, the company says, it has removed more than 130,000 videos which fell foul of those policies.

YouTube worked with international and local health organizations and experts to develop the expanded rules. They go into effect today, though there may be some lag as they're fully enforced. Even when the process is up to speed, however, not every video you might think would be included under these new rules will necessarily be removed.

"Given the importance of public discussion and debate to the scientific process, we will continue to allow content about vaccine policies, new vaccine trials, and historical vaccine successes or failures on YouTube," the company explains. "Personal testimonials relating to vaccines will also be allowed, so long as the video doesn't violate other Community Guidelines, or the channel doesn't show a pattern of promoting vaccine hesitancy."

Those whose videos are found to violate the policy will first see their content removed, and get an email notifying them what happened and why. The first warning won't include a penalty to the YouTube channel, but repeat offenders may get a strike. After 3 strikes within 90 days, the channel is terminated.

However, YouTube also reserves the right to terminate a channel or account "after a single case of severe abuse, or when the channel is dedicated to a policy violation."