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January 12, 2022

Over 80 fact-checking organizations operating across more than 60 countries signed an open letter to YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki Wednesday, calling on the company to take stronger measures to fight misinformation on the platform.

“YouTube is allowing its platform to be weaponized by unscrupulous actors to manipulate and exploit others, and to organize and fundraise themselves,” the letter reads. “Current measures are proving insufficient. That is why we urge you to take effective action against disinformation and misinformation, and to elaborate a roadmap of policy and product interventions to improve the information ecosystem — and to do so with the world’s independent, nonpartisan fact-checking organizations.”

The spread of falsehoods on YouTube is a global problem, according to the letter, which includes examples of misinformation promoted in Germany, Spain, Brazil, the Philippines, Taiwan and more. They range from videos encouraging unproven methods of treating COVID-19 to false allegations of electoral fraud.

“Those things that were once considered to be some of the darker corners of the internet are now becoming more and more mainstream, and we see hundreds of thousands — or even millions — of views being gathered on such video clips on YouTube,” said Tijana Cvjetićanin, the co-creator of fact-checking platforms Istinomjer and Raskrinkavanje, both of which are signatories.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cvjetićanin has seen videos promoting hate speech, anti-vaccine misinformation, warmongering and conspiracy theories about ethnic groups. What makes YouTube unique as a platform is its audience, which she described as “pretty universal.” People visit the website for news and entertainment and can inadvertently get led down a rabbit hole of misinformation if a keyword search triggers an algorithm that offers problematic content.

Carlos Hernández-Echevarría, the public policy and institutional development coordinator at fact-checking organization Maldita.es in Spain, said fact-checking YouTube is especially difficult given that it involves reviewing video footage.

“It’s hard to dedicate your resources to follow two hours of a livestream on a given night. And some of these conspiracy theories will be live every day for a few hours, espousing nonsense about all kinds of issues,” he said.

Organized groups who spread misinformation on YouTube take advantage of the platform’s popularity, Hernández-Echevarría said. They can monetize their content and later move their followers to other platforms. Several fact-checkers noted that they have seen misinformation start on YouTube and then spread to other sites like Facebook and TikTok.

In their letter, the fact-checkers outline four solutions to help reduce the spread of misinformation.

One of them is to promote fact-checked information and provide context and debunks alongside videos. YouTube, according to the letter, has framed the issue of misinformation as a “false dichotomy of deleting or not deleting content.” But that framing ignores other measures the company can take, said Phoebe Arnold, partnerships manager of British fact-checking organization Full Fact.

“Providing context has been proven by a variety of academic evidence to be effective,” Arnold said. “We really strongly believe, based on that sort of research as well as our own principles of promoting freedom of expression, that it’s better to provide context than it is to just remove stuff from the internet.”

The fact-checkers are also calling on YouTube to disclose its moderation policy regarding disinformation and misinformation, prevent its algorithms from promoting content creators who repeatedly produce false information and strengthen its efforts to fight misinformation in languages other than English.

“We are constantly seeing in general with tech companies that you don’t have the same standards applied in every language,” Cvjetićanin said. “There’s a lot less good quality communication from the gatekeepers of the internet to their audience, to their users if you’re a speaker of one of those smaller languages.”

YouTube spokesperson Elena Hernandez wrote in an emailed statement that the company has already “invested heavily” in policies to combat misinformation. YouTube has launched fact check panels in six countries and invested $1 million through the Google News Initiative to the International Fact-Checking Network, which is owned by Poynter and helped coordinate the letter.

“Fact checking is a crucial tool to help viewers make their own informed decisions, but it’s one piece of a much larger puzzle to address the spread of misinformation. Over the years, we’ve invested heavily in policies and products in all countries we operate to connect people to authoritative content, reduce the spread of borderline misinformation, and remove violative videos,” she wrote. “We’ve seen important progress, with keeping consumption of recommended borderline misinformation significantly below 1% of all views on YouTube, and only about 0.21% of all views are of violative content that we later remove.”

IFCN director Baybars Örsek called the letter a “collective effort of the fact-checking community” and said he hopes it will spur the company to work with fact-checkers.

“Hopefully this new year will bring that much needed momentum to turn this letter into a constructive conversation between the platform and the fact-checking community, which hopefully can turn into a sustainable model where fact-checkers can help YouTube to tackle this problem.”

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Angela Fu is a reporter for Poynter. She can be reached at afu@poynter.org or on Twitter @angelanfu.
Angela Fu

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