Despite a new policy supposedly cracking down on anti-vaccine misinformation, YouTube has allowed at least 50 videos featuring newly banned anti-vax influencers to remain up on its platform, with at least 4.9 million views combined, and even profited from ads on their content. Multiple videos have also been recently uploaded to YouTube that clearly aim to erode faith in the importance of the vaccine and seem to directly violate the new policy.
On September 29, YouTube announced an expansion of its medical misinformation policies. It now prohibits “content that falsely alleges that approved vaccines are dangerous and cause chronic health effects,” “claims that vaccines do not reduce transmission or contraction of disease,” and claims that contain “misinformation on the substances contained in vaccines.” It continues to “allow content about vaccine policies, new vaccine trials, and historical vaccine successes or failures.” The policy applies to both “specific routine immunizations like for measles or Hepatitis B” as well as to “general statements about vaccines.” Additionally, as part of the policy change, YouTube banned multiple anti-vaccine influencers, including Joseph Mercola, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and Sherri Tenpenny.
However, a review by Media Matters found content featuring those figures -- each of whom are members of the “Disinformation Dozen” identified in a report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate as the originators of an estimated 65% of vaccine misinformation spread on Facebook and Twitter -- remains on YouTube, giving them a continued presence on the platform.
For example, an April video remaining up features Mercola -- one of the most prominent members of the Disinformation Dozen -- falsely telling host Mikhaila Peterson that she is “definitely” right to worry that vaccines cause infertility and that vaccines have killed thousands of people. The video, which comes from a verified account and has more than 775,000 views, also has ads, meaning YouTube made money off of it. Media Matters found at least 15 videos of Mercola still up on the platform, with more than 960,000 total views.
Another video, this one from July 2020, features Kennedy pushing the debunked claim that vaccines cause autism. The video has more than 1.9 million views and has ads. Media Matters found at least seven videos of Kennedy still up on YouTube, with more than 3.5 million total views.
A video from October 2020 features Tenpenny falsely claiming that “vaccines are not safe, they've never been tested adequately for safety, they are not effective, meaning they do not keep you from getting sick.” The video has nearly 40,000 views. Media Matters found at least 29 videos of Tenpenny still up on the platform, with more than half a million total views.
The review by Media Matters also found a viral video that was uploaded just hours before YouTube’s policy was announced that seems to blatantly violate the new policy. The video features an Australian politician invoking a known vaccine misinformer, Tess Lawrie, to falsely claim that there is “enough evidence to declare that the COVID vaccines are unsafe for use in humans” and that thousands of people have possibly died from the vaccine. The video has more than 2.4 million views.
Other videos uploaded since the policy change have also claimed harm from the vaccines. In an Epoch Times interview, former Trump administration adviser Dr. Scott Atlas claimed, “It seems to be there’s a lot of deaths from the vaccine that are reported.” Another titled “THEY MADE ME TAKE THE VACCINE!” features a man saying, “Either way they’re trying to kill me -- if I don’t take it, they’re trying to kill me, if I do take it, you never know what’s going to happen. There should be something inside of that that could just, you know, my body rejects it and it does something to me.” (The latter video has ads.)
Additionally, multiple videos with hundreds of thousands of combined views that have been uploaded since the policy announcement featured the claim that natural immunity from previous infection offers better protection than vaccines. Multiple medical experts have cast skepticism on this claim and it may go against the part of YouTube’s new policy prohibiting “claims that vaccines do not reduce transmission or contraction of disease,” as this content seems intended to downplay or dismiss the effectiveness of vaccines as part of a larger medical misinformation ecosystem. For example, a video uploaded the same day the policy was announced highlighted an NBA player’s claim that he has immunity from being previously infected, describing his statement as “I've already been infected previously, I have natural immunity, I have stronger protection than the players who have been vaccinated.” That video has more than 190,000 views and has ads.
Also, on October 4, the right-wing group Project Veritas released another installment in its series of anti-vaccine videos. This one -- the first in the series to come out since YouTube’s policy announcement -- pushes the natural immunity claim. The video has already earned more than 750,000 views.