YouTube Is Making the COVID Vaccine-Hesitancy Problem Way Worse

One America News Network, talk-radio host Dennis Prager, and QAnon booster Simon Parkes are some of the worst offenders.
May 11, 2021, 3:08pm
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 In this April 7, 2021, file photo, Wilbert Marshall, 71, left, pretends to be scared of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine from a nurse at the Aaron E. Henry Community Health Service Center in Clarksdale, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
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Unraveling viral disinformation and explaining where it came from, the harm it's causing, and what we should do about it.

A few weeks ago, YouTube announced a glitzy new ad campaign designed to tackle the issue of vaccine hesitancy head on—maybe because the company is such a big part of the problem.

With up to 25% of the U.S. adult population saying they would not get a COVID-19 vaccine, the tech giant lined up a roster of well-known medical experts like Anthony Fauci, as well comedians, musicians, and YouTube’s own stars, for a new campaign to fight misinformation about the life-saving vaccines.

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“Hearing inaccurate information can breed doubt in someone’s mind,” Dr. Garth Graham, director and global head of Healthcare and Public Partnerships at YouTube, wrote in a blog post.

But it turns out one of the main places people are hearing vaccine hesitancy conversations is on YouTube.

Between January 2020 and this month, at least 3,634 videos have been uploaded to YouTube in which individuals express vaccine hesitancy and discuss COVID-19, according to a new report published Monday by researchers at Pendulum, which uses machine-learning technology to track misinformation on YouTube. In total those videos clocked over 72 million views.

The researchers also broke down the top 50 most-subscribed YouTube creators who have expressed vaccine hesitancy. The list includes PragerU, a channel curated by the conservative talk-radio host Dennis Prager; the right-wing One America News Network; and well-known QAnon booster Simon Parkes.

The research revealed that, based on political tags from the Transparency Tube dataset, 18 of the top 50 vaccine-hesitant creators are “Partisan Right” while only two are “Partisan Left.”

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While all major mainstream social networks have put in place rules to try and deal with COVID-19 disinformation—not very successfully, in many cases`—none of the platforms has yet addressed the issue of creators speaking about vaccine hesitancy. In October YouTube pledged to rid its platform of misleading COVID-19 vaccine videos. Five months later, the company revealed it had deleted 30,000 anti-vaxxer videos in just five months.

“Despite being harmful, the majority of these cases would not be appropriate to remove from the platform given their current guidelines. Nevertheless, we believe it’s important to measure the scale of this content as the narrative progresses. We believe this data will be beneficial to those working on campaigns targeting vaccine hesitancy, as well as ongoing vaccine mindset research,” the reports’ author wrote.

The videos encompassed a broad spectrum of reasons for vaccine hesitancy, but several prominent narratives cropped up repeatedly across the channels.

Among them was the claims that the vaccine was developed too quickly and approved at a faster rate than other vaccines. 

“I’m not taking this one. Something that is created this fast? Having the virus in it? I'm happy with hydroxychloroquine and zinc,” Prager said in a video posted in September 2020 that has been viewed over 630,000 times.

Lots of others claimed their immune system was strong enough to deal with anything the COVID-19 virus would do. And along with a general opposition to vaccines, some spread conspiracy theories about the vaccine changing your DNA.

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Elena Hernandez, a YouTube spokesperson, told VICE News that the company “has clear policies around COVID-19 vaccine misinformation. We remove content that includes harmful claims like the vaccine alters a person’s genetic makeup or the vaccine doesn’t reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19.

Some of the videos referenced in Pendulum’s report have been removed from the platform.

The platform’s campaign comes as the Biden administration aims to break down vaxx misinformation, last month rolling out an ambitious ad campaign featuring celebrities and athletes designed to target communities worst affected, including Black people, Latinos, Republicans, and white evangelicals. And as YouTube’s own campaign shows, social networks have a major role in the battle.

Last month, the Washington Post reported on a large-scale research effort underway at Facebook attempting to understand the spread of ideas that contribute to vaccine hesitancy. The research has already found that a small group appears to play an outside role in pushing vaccine skepticism.