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Misinformation about COVID-19 at public forums vexes local boards, big tech

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Posted at 5:38 AM, Aug 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-16 07:51:59-04

Public forums before local school boards and city councils are the latest sources of misinformation about COVID-19.

Videos of people criticizing masks or vaccines as ineffective have been seen by millions of people and are creating new challenges for local governments and tech companies looking to weigh free speech against the harm of misleading medical claims.

YouTube had removed videos of several local government meetings.

Among the videos removed was that of a St. Louis City Council meeting, which featured many misleading statements about masks, vaccines and the virus itself. The video racked up tens of millions of views before the streaming giant stepped in.

YouTube had also removed videos of local government hearings from North Carolina, Missouri, Kansas and Washington state.

The false claims in the videos were made during the portion of the meeting devoted to public comment. Local officials have no control over what is said at these forums, and say that’s part of the point.

But the deleting the videos has sparked a debate about government transparency. YouTube recently reversed its decision and restored many of the videos back on the site.

“While we have clear policies to remove harmful COVID-19 misinformation, we also recognize the importance of organizations like school districts and city councils using YouTube to share recordings of open public forums, even when comments at those forums may violate our policies,” company spokeswoman Elena Hernandez said.

The company says it may still remove content that uses remarks from public forums in an attempt to mislead.

Public comment sessions preceding local government meetings have long been known for sometimes colorful remarks from local residents. But before the internet, if someone were to drone on about fluoride in the drinking water, for instance, their comments weren’t likely to become national news.

Now, thanks to the internet and social media, the misleading musings of a local doctor speaking before a school board can compete for attention with the recommendations of the CDC.

Communications experts say it was only a matter of time before misleading comments at these local public forums went viral.