YouTube since its creation in 2005 has been rising in popularity not just in the U.S. but on an international level as well. With the general use of social media also on a steep increase since the early 2000’s they have become a host for a wide range of ethical debates surrounding topics such as privacy, ownership, usage, governmental control and many others. This case focuses specifically on the ethicality of conspiracy theorists using the massive platform during the global pandemic to promote radical misinformation surrounding Coronavirus. Censorship and the First Amendment are terms often used together during debates such as this. The topic of what is and what is not covered by free speech in the United States has been part of heated debates and has been seen in various court cases. YouTube, a privately owned company, was deemed “not a public forum with guaranteed free speech” as of February of this year in a case ruled by San Francisco's Ninth Circuit appeals court (BBC). The court case was initiated by PragerU, a right-winged YouTube channel after YouTube censored its content. This leads into the concerning issue of the rapid widespread misinformation surrounding the coronavirus perpetuated by conspiracy theorists such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a notorious proponent of the anti-vaccination movement.
After an interview between Patrick Bet-David, a popular financial YouTuber and Robert F. Kenedy, went viral on YouTube and in only two days gained over half a million views. Not only was the video monetized (limited ads) it also featured a catchy title promoting the “exclusive” interview and a link to his merchandise easily accessible in the description. The interview consisted of three separate videos, one of which was later removed by YouTube for violating its medical misinformation policies but not before over a million people had viewed it. Despite attempts from YouTube to censor and prevent the spread of misinformation, many health experts are concerned that this type of misinformation could still yield intensly dangerous outcomes even if content has been removed.
The Coronavirus outbreak was first declared a national emergency by President Trump March 13, 2020 and almost immediately conspiracy theories began to flood the internet and spread across social media platforms. Thus, as 2020 began so did the birth of coronavirus conspiracy theories. These original conspiracies claimed that billionaire Bill Gates created the virus, patented it, and would use vaccines to control people. These began floating around the internet when one went viral as soon as March 19, 2020 when a website called Biohackinfo.com falsely stated that Gates was intending to use a vaccine as a way to monitor people via microchip (Nature). Two days after a YouTube video surrounding this gained nearly two million views before being removed. This was the first warning sign that in addition to worrying about the Coronavirus itself, we may also have to fear the dangerous nature of this information. The reason it is such a concern not only for the platforms like YouTube but for researchers and health experts as well is because of the influence this medical misinformation has on people's actions and beliefs combined with the fact controlling and preventing the spread of misinformation is increasingly difficult. Within minutes a video can gain millions of views and according to a study from researchers at King’s College London those who get their news primarily from social media are much more likely to believe in these outlandish theories and additionally, break the rules of lockdown. It also showed that YouTube viewers are more likely to buy into COVID-19 conspiracies than people who get their news through other social media platforms. The research focused on potential public health risks posed by online conspiracy theories surrounding the pandemic. The research surveyed 2,254 people who live in the UK ages 16-70 in May of this year. They asked participants if they believed in several different conspiracy theories. Some of the conspiracy theories include: that there is no hard evidence of a coronavirus and coronavirus is linked to 5G. YouTube was found to be the most associated with these conspiracy beliefs (Business Insider).
Since February, YouTube has reported that they have removed over 200,000 videos on the topic of dangerous and misleading information about coronavirus (Reuters). With the rise of misinformation spreading across social media these large companies have been more too quick to get involved to stop this. Labels, warnings, and links to quality news sources and public health organizers have been added to content throughout platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Google, Twitter and Instagram. Lucky for the most part, ridiculous conspiracy theories have been managed and limited in popularity. In February of this year a number of these outrageous theories spread on YouTube, but more recently a hit video entitled “Plandemic” became popular which alleges that a cabal of elites is using the pandemic as a cover to profiteer and entrench their power. The video was quickly adopted and believed by groups like anti-vaccinators and the QAnon conspiracy group. The video features discredited scientist Dr. Judy Mikovis who became the star of coronavirus misinformation. Uploads of the “Plandemic” have over 8 million views across varying social media platforms. YouTube alone is the source of 7.1 million of those views before it was removed. Erin Gallagher, a social media researcher explains that, “The video spread from YouTube to Facebook thanks to highly active QAnon and conspiracy-related Facebook groups with tens of thousands of members which caused a massive cascade” (Verge).
According to a BBC article the study published in the journal of Psychology Medicine found that, “There was a strong positive relationship between use of social media platforms as sources of knowledge about Covid-19 and holding one or more conspiracy beliefs," the study finds. "YouTube had the strongest association with conspiracy beliefs, followed by Facebook.” Interestingly, the research also found that those who left their homes with possible symptoms of COVID-19 were more than twice to three times as likely than those who did not rely on Facebook and/or Youtube for news updates regarding the virus. A point emphasized from the study was that they held the opinion that social media companies like Facebook and Youtube need to do more to control this spread of false information. A spokesperson from Facebook said, “We have removed hundreds of thousands of Covid-19-related misinformation that could lead to imminent harm including posts…” (BBC). The opportunity for individuals to reach the masses with just a few clicks of a button is being abused by conspiracy theorists and are taking advantage of vulnerable audiences.
With such a dense and complex case there are a variety of key stakeholders and decision makers at play. Stakeholders are those who may be affected or can affect company decisions. Firstly, the founders of the platform Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim, former PayPal employees. Google and it’s management are also important to mention as YouTube was bought by Google in 2006, just one year after it’s creation. YouTube has since operated as one of Google’s subsidiaries. This generally includes employees of Youtube (LLC) which is made up of managers, administrators, and other employees.
Next, and arguably most important is the platform and internet users and creators. Copyright owners are also involved in this category in either the form of owners of copyrighted videos or music. Society and the platform audience are also part of those who may affect or be affected by YouTube decisions.
Although YouTube is privately owned, the government is another thing to mention when discussing the topic. As mentioned previously, governmental and policy intervention is always at play or at least a topic of debate. This being said, other social media platforms and their owners and stakeholders can also be linked to those of YouTube not only because of how policies may impact YouTube as well, but the competitive aspect of business as well.
Individualism argues that the sole goal of business is centered around profit, thus meaning that the concern of business people is to maximize profits for the owner(s) and/or stockholders. When looking at the case from this perspective we would look at the way in which the conspiracy theorists are in a way stealing potential profit from YouTube. This is seen through the damage of the platform's reputation, combined with the need to spend more money on resources to control content coupled with any marketing and public statements from the company. Milton Friedman, renowned Economist argues that the only social responsibility of business is to increase profits, “so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition, without deception or fraud” (DesJardins 54). Friedman also views business should operate considering their desires which as a general desire is to make money and as much of it as possible.
Applying this concept to the case we can see where an ethical argument arises, especially surrounding the principle that although business should maximize profits, it must do so in accordance with the law and free of deception. The key conspiracy theorists involved in the case are clearly motivated by the desire of profit but in attempting to achieve this they use YouTube to spread deception. YouTube thus has the obligation to take this into consideration as they are going against the set terms and conditions of the site. Could YouTube ignore the problem based on a desire to maximize profits, of course, however when an ethical line is crossed it is their responsibility to consider this in alliance with individualism. While individualism is centered around personal and business profit it also clarifies that business must operate within the law. As seen with Tibor Machan’s individualism, business people can have other goals and they can be prioritized over the primary goal which is profit-maximizing. It is also important to consider that in the long run YouTube may actually zacheince the goal of maximizing profits through an indirect goal of creating a safe and reliable community of creators.
When considering this case from a utilitarianism perspective it is inherently unethical because the goal is to maximize happiness in yourself and others. The spread of dangerous information to millions of vulnerable people throughout the world goes directly against this ideology. When looking at how YouTube addressed the situation it gets more complicated. There is a difficult balance between what is and what is not considered free speech and what type of content opposes the terms and conditions of the platform. YouTube in this case for the most part does align ethically with this perspective in the way that they are trying to ensure maximum happiness free of negative and dangerous content.
According to John Stuart Mill on this ethical perspective happiness and pleasure are the only things of intrinsic value and in terms of morally there is no difference between individual happiness and that of others. Another important component of utilitarianism is that, “...we can determine the ethical significance of any action by looking at the consequences of that act...with the policy of “maximizing the overall good” or, in a slightly different version, of producing “the greatest good for the greatest number” (DesJardins 29). This is largely where the utilitarian perspective really aligns with the case because this is exactly how YouTube is reacting to the situation. The greatest good for the greatest number is exactly what is happening, as YouTube seems to prioritize how the negative content is impacting a large amount of people rather than focusing on how it may be affecting the few who are generating the content.
A katianism perspective of this case would see YouTube as acting in line with the kantian ethical principles, especially based on its emphasis on acting rationally. With the spike in Coronavirus cases and the connection between YouTube conspiracy viewers and those breaking quarantine restrictions, there is truly only one rational action which is to control and prevent the misinformation from being spread.
More importantly YouTube, unlike many other big corporations, do not consider themselves exempt from rules. Infact, they actually hold themselves accountable in this case. It is not as if the government or other forces are instructing the company to remove the misinformation. Rather, YouTube has taken preventative measures such as adding warning labels to all coronavirus related content. These measures are in addition to their previous efforts to regulate, control, monitor, and remove content that goes against the terms of posting information. Another major principal of kantianism is to help individuals make rational decisions as well. So, not only is YouTube themselves acting both rational and consistent, they are attempting to help others do so as well. This is being done through the use of warnings and additionally providing reliable links to verified information. By engaging in these actions they are encouraging the platform audiences to be aware of potential misinformation and guiding them to factually accurate information on the virus and vaccines.
The various different ways YouTube is attempting to control the content also aligns with respecting individual needs and differences. Because of the fact that a vast majority of the population with varying backgrounds and education levels has access to this free and easy to access information they are using not just one method of counteracting misformation.
The major concern embedded within virtue theory is how businesses are acting in the situation and not necessarily how it turns out. Whereas individualism focuses on the end goal of profit making there is less of an emphasis on final results and more so on character and actions. Virtue ethics, which is based on Aristotle's ethics looks at character traits and virtue that constitute a good and full human life (DesJardins 41). In this regard, looking at the case considering the ethical perspective of the virtue theory it seems that again YouTube does align ethically here for the most part. Just like with kantianism, rationality is a contributing aspect of the theory which states that people exercise rationality in order to function well and as a result live good lives. Once again we can see how YouTube complies with this in how they responded by deeming most of this harmful content against the rules of the platform.
Virtue ethics is also based on the principle that those who function well and as a result live good lives will also lead happy lives. If these are all in line then one who lives a good life also functions well and is therefore happy. YouTube in this case demonstrates a skill in functioning both efficiently and functionally. Thus, according to virtue ethics the rest must also be true. YouTube since February has successfully removed over 200,000 of these videos which is an indicator of functioning well. Monitoring content on the abyss of the internet is not an easy task but they seem to be using their resources to engage in both rational and funcional means of removal. As explained with the Doctrine of the Mean there needs to be a balance between extremes. If we apply this to the case YouTube does try and find a balance between allowing creators to continue to make content even if it is questionable while also removing those videos they deem to cross the line.
Justified Ethics Evaluation:
Although I am a firm believer in freedom of speech and the importance of having a platform where one is able to voice their opinions and share content, I also think YouTube is doing the correct things by censoring this type of misinformation. Coronavirus is a very serious problem and far too many people are being influenced by these conspiracy theories. As the study showed, especially those influenced by content found on YouTube they are more likely to violate the rules of lockdown. In the current age of mass media it is a near impossible task to monitor the content that spreads and once it's put on the internet it's there for good even if it has been removed by YouTube.
I believe that the government should also take a more active role in counteracting the spread of this information. The more people that buy into this fake news, the worse off this country as a whole is. While I do believe that having a platform to be creative is important this is more so an issue of safety than freedom of speech
I am overall impressed with the action taken on behalf of YouTube to combat the spread of this type of information. As previously discussed the conspiracy theorist and other creators who are hosting the content have sneaky, clever, and catchy ways of disguising the conspiracies as fact. With the existing YouTube algorithm and team which monitors the content they were able to successfully identify and remove many of the videos. The problem of the viral and lasting nature of the internet continues to exist and is making the job of YouTube and similar social media sites even harder especially at a time where doing so is much more vital.
Although YouTube has taken several steps to address the issues plaguing the platform, they are still lacking in several areas. The company successfully and most importantly has acknowledged and addressed the problem through various interviews and press statements. They have also additionally taken steps to remove and prevent misinformation. Since the increase in both coronavirus cases and the conspiracies that follow YouTube has announced its plans to further restrict and monitor the content. So, while these are good primary steps YouTube needs to not only give broad ways they are planning to change, but rather give specific steps and perhaps even alter their current business model. YouTube is known for its wide range of content and is often praised for the creation of a space that allows people to be creative and express their beliefs, opinions and passions. However, what is up for debate here is what the line needs to be drawn.
Youtube's current mission statement is as follows, “Our mission is to give everyone a voice and show them the world. We believe that everyone deserves to have a voice, and that the world is a better place when we listen, share and build community through our stories.” (YouTube). They also cite four freedoms that define who they are: freedom of expression, freedom of information, freedom of opportunity, and freedom to belong. While these are great business ethics and principles it does somewhat contradict the inherent nature of this case. One could argue that the conspiracy videos are in fact complying with YouTube’s business model.
YouTube is a very profitable business however this type of negative news surrounding the company may be hurting them by deterring audience members while simultaneously encouraging groups with malicious intent to swarm the platform. In order for them to not only remain profitable but increase profits and favorable public opinions centered around good ethics they should adhere to some of the following guidelines.
Redefine their values and change how they address the problem:
Define freedom - while this is a primary principle of YouTube, it seems as though a few too many people have pushed the limits of what this means. We see the discussion of freedom of speech a frequent topic of debate and this is just that. There will always be people who wish to do harm but if YouTube wants to extinguish that they need to be more clear in who they are and what they believe in.
Creativity and media - this is one area that seems to be missing in the case despite YouTube being a major part of that. As an extremely influential media company they should use this to their advantage and engage in creative problem solving with their own platform. Yes, they are removing videos and adding warning labels, but they have not addressed the issue in their own creative platform. If their audience are those who use social media, specifically YouTube then perhaps that is the most effective way to get their attention.
Audience - in business understanding one’s audience and consumer market is an essential component to profit making. It seems that in this case YouTube needs to focus on not the huge and diverse audience base but on the ones who are most likely to believe, watch, engage, and create the misinformation. This may also aid in a more financially efficient plan.
In order to restore the company to better public opinion, ethics and profits it is important to have a strong action plan. As an active user of both YouTube and similar social media platforms I have noticed the warning labels on content related to COVID-19. I think another thing they may need to do is make stricter policies on misinformation. As we saw with the interview featuring David-Bet, only one of the three videos were removed because it did not technically violate their policies. At least temporarily conspiracies about coronavirus should be banned if they are being disguised as the truth. With this type of content, including fake news in general it is often believed because it looks believable and it is posted on reliable (or seemingly reliable) websites. Many of us depend on YouTube as a source of learning and with misinformation sprinkled in this is problematic.
Youtube itself should post its own content that is creatively marketed to inform people of correct information about the virus and deter people from falling into the trap of believing conspiracies. While it's true that these videos can get a lot of views and generate both money and traffic towards YouTube in the long run they will be more financially benefited by building a source and audience base centered around the truth.
The actions taken thus far by YouTube are great first steps, but with the expanding problem it is clear that more needs to be done. Nowadays image and reputation can make or break a company and a controversy like this definitely impacts public opinion. With some more focus on the problem YouTube should have no problem restoring both its reputation and financial.
As depicted and explained throughout the case YouTube has taken extra precautions in monitoring the content that conflicts with their community guidelines.
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