Friday, December 2, 2022

YouTube: Misinformation Controversy (2020-2022)


YouTube is a form of social media that consists of video sharing and production. Users can post videos as well as interact with items already on the site. YouTube, along with other popular social media sites faced pressure to censor the content being posted by their users. The controversy surrounding the presidential election traveled quickly nationwide through sites like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. These companies were forced to make quick decisions to protect their users as well as the name of their brands. To determine if the decisions YouTube made in this situation were ethical, we will compare the four main ethical theories. Individualism, Utilitarianism, Kantianism, and the Virtue Theory are packed with standards that YouTube needed to meet in order to be considered ethical in the choices they made regarding their censoring of information.

Ethics Case Controversy

            The 2020 United States Presidential election was consumed with controversy and accusations. Using social media sites, misinformation about the election and election results spread across the country. Sites like YouTube, Google, and Facebook were the largest platforms that were being used to spread false information. The Presidential election was a serious matter in the United States and many social media platforms released statements on how they planned to limit and control information on their pages. YouTube did not make an official statement until the “safe harbor” deadline after the election. The “safe harbor” deadline is the last day that Congress has the legal ability to intervene in the election. All states will have their final and official vote counts by this day and Congress does not have any authority for change once the deadline is reached. In YouTube’s statement, they addressed that they will not tolerate any content that speaks on misleading information. Referring to the safe harbor deadline, YouTube says, “Given that, we will start removing any piece of content uploaded today (or any time after) that misleads people by alleging that widespread fraud or errors changed the outcome of the 2020 U.S. Presidential election, in line with our approach towards historical U.S. Presidential elections” (YouTube). The company stated that any content referring to the election being ruined by counting errors or software glitches will be immediately removed. 

An example of some of the misinformation
posted on numerous social media pages

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is a law that was created in 1996, with the intent of regulating online pornography. This law protects media sites like YouTube by stating that if their users are to post illegal things, they are not considered liable (CBS News). Those opposed to this claim that companies are using it to hide and not address their issues upfront. This also allows for defamation lawsuits for organizations who are displeased with their reviews on certain sites. There is controversy from both sides of the political atmosphere. Joe Biden and other democrats feel that this law allows for companies to take a backseat and not take the action they should be to censor their websites. Donald Trump and other republicans feel that their opinions are being censored and this law allows for a “shield” to protect them (CFR). The basis of this misinformation scandal with YouTube is based on the election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden in 2020. Donald Trump and his supporters claimed that the election was stolen, and that Joe Biden won based on miscalculation as well as voter fraud. Videos of these claims were plastered all over YouTube, forcing the company to release the censorship statements that they did.

YouTube’s current statement on their website states that they do not allow any content that could be misleading or incorrect. YouTube states on their site, “With billions of people visiting us every day - whether they’re looking to be informed, to catch up on the latest news, or to learn more about the topics they care about, we have a responsibility to connect people to high-quality content. So, the most important thing we can do is increase the good and decrease the bad. That’s why we address misinformation on our platform based on our ‘4 Rs’ principles: we remove content that violates our policies, reduce recommendations of borderline content, raise up authoritative sources for news and information, and reward trusted creators.”

Examples of some election content that
YouTube allowed to be posted

On January 6, 2021, YouTube content creators livestreamed the attack on the Capitol. Two specific creators, Ford Fischer and news outlet Status Coup had their videos removed by YouTube. YouTube released a statement to both channels saying, ‘” Content that advances false claims that widespread fraud, errors, or glitches changed the outcome of the U.S. 2020 presidential election is not allowed on YouTube.”’ (Forbes). These creators argued that YouTube was interfering with the posting of raw footage that was historically significant. Forbes also highlights that YouTube had not removed footage from news outlets like NBC News and the Telegraph, both of which posted speeches from the riot. YouTube was yet again late to the party as they took nearly a week to place a suspension on Donald Trump. Twitter and Facebook banned him indefinitely right after the event.


CEO of YouTube Susan Wojcicki
Stakeholders are individuals that are involved in the operations of a business. The Stakeholder Theory is the theory that holds business managers responsible for balancing the interest of stakeholders in relation to the business. The stakeholders involved in YouTube are content creators, viewers, users, subscribers, advertisers, and employees of the company. These groups share common interest in the services YouTube offers, hence their involvement with the company. Susan Wojcicki is the Chief Executive Officer of YouTube, and according to Business Insider she oversees nearly 5,700 employees. In the year 2020, during the presidential election, it was forecasted that there were 2,132,010,000 users YouTube users worldwide. It was then forecasted that there would be 2,436,910,000 users in the year 2022 (Statista). In relation to the misinformation controversy with YouTube and the 2020 Presidential election, many stakeholders were controlled heavily by YouTube executives. On December 9, 2020, YouTube released a statement stating that they banned nearly 8,000 channels (YouTube). Many users and content creators were upset with the choices made my YouTube and felt their rights were violated. According to the Stakeholder Theory, YouTube needs to find a balance between the interests of their stakeholders and what is best for their business. Ideally, YouTube pleases all their users with no issues, and it does not impact the organization in a negative way. Once users begin promoting false information, it forces YouTube to step in to protect the integrity of their business. YouTube received backlash from non-stakeholders because of their lack of action regarding the misinformation scandals. Once the company did step in, they upset those associated with their business.


Individualism in business ethics is making a decision based on personal benefit. Milton Friedman’s individualism theory states that the only goal of a business is to profit. Business individuals only need to focus on maximizing their profit for business owners or stockholders (Salazar). Tibor Machan believes that individualism also believes that the direct goal is to maximize profits, but only by first completing indirect goals that are not related to profits (Salazar). This theory suggests that if everyone makes decisions that are the best for themselves, it will benefit the group. Those following an individualistic model feel that personal benefit is the most important factor when making a decision. This theory is arguable incredibly selfish and harmful in a group atmosphere. In the instance of YouTube, they originally chose to not release a statement addressing the misinformation across the platform. Perhaps they were looking to protect their brand, or they did not want to anger their users. I do not think YouTube was concerned about their profits but more about their image to the public. Removing and censoring videos ultimately hurt the company as they lost customers. YouTube was looking to defend their organization because of the pressure they were experiencing. An individualist would agree with YouTube’s decision to remove these videos. It seems that YouTube was looking to benefit their company in the only way they could in this situation.


            Utilitarianism is a theory that focuses on actions that promote happiness and oppose actions that may not encourage happiness or cause harm. Utilitarianism seeks to please and satisfy every individual involved. The goal of Utilitarianism is to maximize happiness and pleasure in yourself and others. Within this theory there is the belief that if something is promoting positive behavior but is misleading information, then it is acceptable. However, if the information is incorrect and is misleading, it is not acceptable. A utilitarian would view YouTube’s approach to this situation as the most ethical decision. They were making attempts to limit harmful information from being presented to their viewers. As stated earlier, utilitarianism demotes actions that may cause harm or not encourage happiness. YouTube has an obligation to protect their users from harmful content which is what prompted them to create new guidelines. There were no true consequences or harmful results that came from the decisions that YouTube made. Utilitarians, “avoid short-sighted thinking that often boost profits momentarily but leads to a quick demise” (Salazar). This applies to YouTube because it did not boost their profits or lead to a demise. At first there was backlash from the public, but it quickly blew over. Now, there is only a small group that still holds a grudge against YouTube for this issue. YouTube was not looking to profit over these decisions, they were only looking to protect their page as well as their other users from viewing misinformation.


            Kantianism is believing that people should act rationally and do the right thing, because it is the right thing to do. It is the belief that people should act rationally as well as help others make rational decisions. Immanuel Kant proposed this system and felt that people’s wills should be based on moral rules. Referring to Kantianism, “It claims that we all have duties toward one another that depend on our relationships with one another, the most basic and all-pervasive relationship between persons being that of a fellow member of humanity” (Salazar). We must all act in a way that benefits ourselves while following similar values.  Kantian examines the morals of the people behind the action, in contrast to Utilitarianism which focuses on consequences. Immanuel Kant said, “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.” This statement by Kant is referred to as the formula of humanity and motivation and is the basis of Kantianism. YouTube felt that they had the obligation to create some regulations on their site. Prior to implanting these regulations, YouTube had trust in their users to post content with correct information and not mislead viewers. They did not treat anyone in a way that a Kantian would consider unethical. YouTube released their guidelines and acted as they promised if they were violated.

Virtue Theory

Virtues are the characteristics that allow things to function properly are called ‘good-making features’ or “virtues’ (Salazar). The virtue theory focuses on the idea that we should not necessarily follow rules but follow what we feel will better an organization. This means focusing on how we want to represent our company through the employees we hire and what kind of behaviors we expect. The Virtue Theory focuses on four characteristics. These characteristics are courage, honesty, temperance, and justice. YouTube initially lacked in the courage category when they refused to step up and make a statement regarding the misinformation. Based on the Virtue Theory, the characteristic of courage requires one to stand up for what is right and be confident enough to take a stand. YouTube did not present this characteristic immediately. As far as the honesty characteristic, YouTube aligned with this. The honesty characteristic is about being truthful and transparent when completing business related tasks. The company was upfront with the public about what their action plan was as soon as they had announced it. The temperance virtue is all about setting reasonable expectations for an organization. YouTube had the responsibility to do what was best for their company, as well as their customers. They had expectations of locating every video containing misinformation when that is impossible to achieve. The final virtue is justice which deals with fair practicing within an organization. YouTube had the responsibility to remove videos in a fair and reasonable way. They did not go about this situation in a fair way as it is evident that they typically removed videos coming from right-sided users. There is also evidence of YouTube removing some videos they did not want up but leaving some of similar nature. YouTube should have removed and restricted all videos to remain fair and ethical. By leaving some up and not full restricting some accounts, there is a level of bias involved which discredits YouTube’s authority in this situation. Based on the examination of ethics through the Virtue Theory, YouTube was ethical in their decision. They did not follow every virtue; however, they nailed two out of four.

Justified Ethics Theory Evaluation

            In my opinion, YouTube’s actions were ethical. The decision they made aligns with the four ethical theories mentioned above. There are however parts of this controversy that are not ethical. YouTube at one point seemed to be picking and choosing which videos they wanted to remove. YouTube should have treated all accounts and users the same way but that was not the case. There were many similar videos that were left on the site and not censored. Specifically, republicans felt that they were being targeted in the removal of videos. There is not outstanding evidence that would indicate this is true. They also argued that this is a violation of their First Amendment Rights. YouTube was successful in following honesty and temperance. The company was honest about their feelings towards the situation and about what would trigger them to remove a video. YouTube was also temperament as they were doing wheat was best for the organization. They set clear expectations and made those visible to the public. YouTube released proper statements and information regarding what their expectations were. They warned their users about what would prompt their videos to be removed. I feel that this justifies YouTube’s decisions and proves them to be ethical. Their decisions were not flawless; however, they were doing what they felt was the best for everyone involved.


            Many social media platforms are facing similar issues regarding what they can and cannot control as far as content. Users want the ability to post and view whatever they want. Platforms want to be able to control and monitor what is posted on their sites. Either way, one group does not get what they want. I feel that YouTube has the ultimate power in this situation as it is their decision on how they regulate posts. This opened the eyes of many users who were furious about the idea of being restricted. This is not the last time that YouTube will face this challenge. The hope is that they have learned how the handle this situation better and the regulations they have already, will help prevent any major damage down the line.


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