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Vaccine Claims Lead to St. Louis, YouTube Disagreement

St. Louis County, Mo., said they will no longer use YouTube to host video recordings of public meetings after YouTube again temporarily blocked video of a meeting with false or unproven claims about COVID-19.

vaccine being drawn from a vial
Shutterstock/Numstocker
(TNS) — St. Louis County officials said Wednesday they will no longer use YouTube to host video recordings of public meetings after the streaming giant again temporarily blocked video of a County Council meeting that featured people making false or unproven claims about COVID-19 vaccines.

For hours Wednesday, the link to Tuesday night’s council meeting was replaced with a message noting the recording had been removed for “violating YouTube’s community guidelines.” The guidelines cover COVID-19 misinformation, among other violations, barring content “that contradicts local health authorities’ or the World Health Organization’s medical information about COVID-19.”

It was the fourth council meeting since late July that YouTube had temporarily censored, St. Louis County Information Technology Director Charles Henderson confirmed.

Each of the meetings featured comments from dozens of angry members of the public who spoke out against vaccines or mask requirements. Some speakers have denied the existence of the coronavirus; others have alleged the vaccines are part of a government conspiracy.

On Tuesday, several people speaking to the council made similar comments, alleging the vaccines were part of a conspiracy by “Big Pharma” and calling the vaccine a “DNA-altering experimental pilot” and a “bioweapon activated by 5G” wireless technology.

The World Health Organization, federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, and St. Louis County public health officials all emphasize that vaccines are safe and effective.

YouTube restored Tuesday’s meeting after St. Louis County appealed the removal. In a statement, the company said a second review determined the meeting video, while including content that violated the company’s COVID-19 misinformation policies, also met another set of guidelines allowing such content in certain contexts, like an open public forum.

“We have policies in place to allow content that might otherwise violate our COVID-19 misinformation policies as long as it includes educational, documentary, scientific or artistic (EDSA) context,” spokeswoman Elena Hernandez said. The video “is available again on YouTube,” she said.

The company previously restored three other council meeting recordings it had removed after the county appealed the decision, Henderson said.

But the repeated takedowns have the county looking for another video host that won’t monitor content of public meetings, Henderson said.

The county began looking for a new video broadcast service after YouTube briefly suspended the county’s account and removed recordings of the council meetings on July 27, Aug. 3 and Aug. 10, he said.

“We started researching options in early August, when I came to the conclusion that the August 3rd video removal was going to become an ongoing challenge with YouTube and not an isolated incident,” he said in an email. The county expects to start using the streaming service BoxCast after finalizing a contract “in the next few days,” Henderson said.

At the July 27 meeting, the council voted 5-2 to rescind a countywide mask order after hearing from dozens of protesters who had packed the chamber. Protesters have continued to pack the room each week to speak out against masking and vaccination proposals. At Tuesday’s meeting, the County Council approved a bill that requires county employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or to wear masks and get tested regularly.

In response to criticism that they were allowing COVID-19 misinformation, YouTube and other big U.S. tech companies have in recent months taken a harder stance against statements that allege, for example, that COVID-19 vaccines are killing people or that the coronavirus isn’t real.

But that has resulted in the complete removal of video records of public governmental meetings during which public speakers have made the false claims. The situation has prompted a debate about how to draw the line between private businesses’ ability to censor content on their platforms and the need for free speech and public access to government meetings.

Councilman Tim Fitch, R-3rd District, called for the county to stop using YouTube to host its meetings.

“We need to move away from a private company and find our own streaming service that does not take away the people’s right to speak,” Fitch said. “People get up and say things that I don’t agree with, and probably most people don’t agree with, but that’s their First Amendment right.”

He continued, “That’s what public forum is about: giving people their First Amendment right to speak. It’s not sanctioning any of their comments, and we don’t get to censor that.”

Councilwoman Rita Heard Days, who as chair of the council has allowed extended public comment at recent meetings, said, “It is disappointing that we have to go through this when we have public comments.”

Kelli Dunaway, D-2nd District, said YouTube had “a commitment to avoid amplifying misinformation that’s dangerous to our recovery from this pandemic.”

“That YouTube has removed our council meeting for the second time in a few weeks is a direct reflection of the fringe nature of the comments we are hearing in council chambers comments,” she said.

In Missouri, more than 3.2 million people have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to DHSS. More than 11,000 Missourians have died of complications related to COVID-19.

© 2021 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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