YouTube’s misinformation problem is so well-known it could be called notorious. A gullible loved one casually mentioning they saw something on the platform has been known to strike fear into many hearts. Fortunately, the falsities that circulate there typically don’t have life-or-death consequences. COVID-19 vaccine disinformation is a grave exception—and it’s just a few clicks away on the world’s largest video hosting platform.
To its credit, YouTube recognized the problem before a vaccine was even available. In October, it banned misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine. Nevertheless, two months later, false and misleading videos about it persist. The Daily Dot found videos with hundreds of thousands of views that have been live for months.
“Warning – Do not take the COVID [email protected] [sic]” is one of many examples. The video opens with doomsday music and a man with a snow-white combover standing before a pulpit. Ominously, he intones, “Bill Gates and [Dr. Anthony] Fauci pushed Moderna’s Frankstein jab to the front of the line.” Cadence and volume rising, he continues, “Scientists and ethicists are sounding alarms.”
After a lesson on DNA and RNA, he introduces a clip of a viral video in which osteopathic physician Carrie Madej asserted—falsely—that the COVID-19 vaccine will change our DNA. Horrifying images of a severely deformed piglet followed by extremely grainy footage of an infant with anencephaly flash across the screen.
“And she’s talking about genetically modified humans,” he repeats over and over these images as if it’s a mantra.
Pivoting abruptly, he explains the controversial lawsuit in which a court ruled that Monsanto owned seeds in a neighboring farmer’s field because they’d cross-pollinated with its genetically-modified produce.
“Once DNA vaccines are used on humans, and it has never been done before, humans could possibly be owned,” he warns.
Later in the video, a clip of conspiracy theorist and fellow osteopathic physician Rashid Buttar reiterates the debunked point about the vaccine altering humans’ DNA.
“It will rewrite our human code, our genetic code. This is basically taking the human system and making it into something else,” he says, as colorful graphics of DNA double helixes drift across the screen, “This is going to generationally be so catastrophic because we have no idea what the implications are.”
“We are talking about rewriting the human genome.”
YouTube did not immediately respond to request for comment about the content on its site.
If all this sounds utterly divorced from reality, that’s because it is. The vaccine doesn’t alter DNA; people who receive it won’t be owned; and Dr. Fauci and Gates didn’t push Moderna’s vaccine, one of dozens, to the front of the line.
In spite (or perhaps because) of its science fiction-meets-religion style and whacky claims, “Warning – Do not take the COVID [email protected]” isn’t buried in obscurity. It’s got nearly 200,000 views. It’s not new, either. The video was posted in July. The channel that posted it, TruTeeVee, has 50,000 subscribers. This is among its most popular videos.
Although the fact that he was compelled to write a book whining about YouTube taking down his COVID-19 misinformation indicates otherwise, Dr. Buttar’s verified channel and its half-million subscribers remain live on the site. There he continues making false claims about coronavirus, such as his recent claim that vaccinating people is “an exercise in futility.” In a July 2 video with nearly 700,000 views, he lies, “Hardly anybody has died of COVID-19.” By then, there had been more than 500,000 casualties of the virus. The day Dr. Buttar posted the video, nearly 5,000 succumbed to it.
Videos like these readily make the rounds among conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers, who are primed to believe them. Members of a Facebook group for QAnon believers routinely post videos like a recent one by British QAnon promoter Charlie Ward in which he lies that all 100 study subjects who took the “Gates vaccine” died with a week. On Facebook, which certainly has its own problems with misinformation, the post includes a disclaimer that it contains false information and a link to the Reuters article debunking the video. You’ll find no such claim on his COVID-19 misinformation on YouTube.
Ward, a strange amalgamation of conspiracy theorist and silver bullion salesman, has 30,000 YouTube subscribers. In one video on his channel, he falsely claims that hospitals are lying about the numbers of patients in intensive care to keep people in lockdown and entice them to take the vaccine. He leaves it to the viewer to decide what purpose such a mass conspiracy would have.
Though these videos are full of inaccurate claims about the vaccine and the virus that’s killed more than 1.5 million people worldwide to date, including a quarter-million Americans, some—particularly those posting them—might argue that they don’t break YouTube’s rules. The company’s COVID-19 Medical Misinformation Policy prohibits a broad range of content, including false claims that the virus is caused by 5G, the COVID-19 test, or eating Chinese food; that certain races are immune; that the vaccine will contain fetal tissue, or serve as a means of population control; and much more.
YouTube doesn’t specifically prohibit false claims that the vaccine will alter DNA and cause humans to be owned by its manufacturer, is a mass conspiracy to keep people in lockdown, or that vaccinating for it is futile. Its policy does, however, contain this catch-all: “YouTube doesn’t allow content that spreads medical misinformation that contradicts local health authorities’ or the World Health Organization’s (WHO) medical information about COVID-19.” Clearly, fictions about mutant humans and mass conspiracies that explicitly warn people not to take the lifesaving vaccine are well within this category; both the WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend vaccinations.
YouTube claims that it errs on the side of caution to determine whether a video violates its coronavirus rules. When it announced an expansion to the policy in October, the company told Reuters that it would also ban “borderline content,” though it declined to provide examples.
Nevertheless, many videos with coronavirus and vaccine misinformation have thousands of views and have been on the platform for months. In fact, the second suggested result in a recent search for “COVID vaccine” was “COVID vaccine mutant side effects.”
It is undeniable that YouTube faces a herculean task policing content, as more than 500 hours of content were uploaded to the site every minute even before the pandemic caused people to spend more time online. This task is further complicated by YouTubers’ efforts to evade detection for policy violations, such as intentionally misspelling words or not including words associated with COVID-19 or vaccines in video titles.
Vaccine disinformation is nothing new on YouTube. Nearly two years ago, the Daily Dot reported that its algorithm actually promoted it. Coronavirus misinformation is so irresistible that YouTubers have been known to use it simply to increase their views. So it’s not as if the company hasn’t been warned.
But if YouTube doesn’t take notice when hundreds of thousands watch a video that prompts more than 1,000 comments to the tune of, “These demons know you will no longer be made in the ‘image of God’ when they do this. BETTER TO DIE THAN TAKE IT!” what exactly does it notice?
Near the end of “Warning – Do not take the COVID [email protected],” a clip plays of far-right conspiracy theorist (and banned YouTuber) Alex Jones claiming, “What’s really going on with these vaccines is never what they tell you.” Some evidence indicates that the same is true of YouTube’s policy enforcement.
The video closes, perhaps predictably, with a photoshopped image of Bill Gates with horns and glowing red eyes.