YouTube tries to counter Covid-19 misinformation with new videos

YouTube hopes to make its health videos popular by pairing a health expert with an entertainer.
YouTube hopes to make its health videos popular by pairing a health expert with an entertainer.PHOTO: REUTERS

SAN BRUNO, CALIFORNIA (BLOOMBERG) - YouTube will partner with health organisations to create more accurate medical videos for its platform, trying to counter a scourge of online misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic.

The world's largest online video service has assembled a health partnerships team, led by Dr Garth Graham, a former CVS Health Corp executive, to build the relationships. The American Public Health Association, The Forum at the Harvard School of Public Health, Cleveland Clinic and Mayo Clinic are among participating organisations, the company said on Wednesday (Jan 13).

YouTube, owned by Alphabet Inc's Google, will help some partners fund these videos by, for example, paying for Harvard's production staff to film and edit the clips through a grant.

This is a relatively rare departure for the video service, which prefers to be an ad-supported platform that only hosts - and is not responsible for - content. YouTube has occasionally paid creators directly, including a US$100 million (S$133 million) pledge last year for original kids programming. But it has been more hands-off than rival TikTok, which has a US$1 billion fund to help US creators build careers.

The laissez-faire approach has backfired on YouTube in recent years, with a series of scandals and ad boycotts over toxic, inappropriate and inaccurate videos. That has included anti-vaccination conspiracy theories and, last year, an infodemic of misinformation about Covid-19.

In October, YouTube began taking down videos about Covid-19 vaccines that contradict "expert consensus" from local health authorities and the World Health Organisation. Wednesday's announcement, along with a new US$3 million fund from the Google News Initiative to combat misinformation on coronavirus vaccines, are a tacit admission that the Internet giant must actively create and promote accurate content, not just try to suppress the bad stuff.

"I like to think of my role as kind of flowering the garden," said Dr Graham, YouTube's director and global head of healthcare and public health partnerships.

"YouTube, it's a big garden. People spend a lot of time removing the weeds out of the garden. My role is how do you flower the garden so you get more roses, apricots, all of the things that can produce good outcomes by bringing more evidence-based organisations to the platform."

Harvard will create minute-long videos for YouTube on topics such as vaccines and making schools safe during the pandemic, as well as provide experts for videos with entertainers.

Dr Robert Blendon, professor of public health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has been concerned that YouTube is a home for health misinformation, and some false videos on the site have made him "crazy".

But the platform's wide reach made it essential for his school to participate.

"I don't know where to go that's absolutely pure that reaches a billion people," he said.

"That's a dilemma, but I know that the information we're trying to get out there is not reaching people whose lives can be saved."

The coronavirus continues to spread unchecked in the United States, with more than 22 million cases as at Tuesday. Around the world, there are more than 91 million cases.

That harrowing backdrop prompted Dr Graham, a cardiologist who served in two presidential administrations, to join YouTube recently.

"What really intrigued me then - and I think has grown - is this concept of how creators, influencers, just a platform in general, can influence behavioral change," he said.

YouTube's software will treat these videos as trusted information - on a par with sources such as the WHO - so the company expects the content to perform well when users search for information related to Covid-19.

The company also hopes to make its health videos popular by pairing a health expert with an entertainer, following a model it began in 2020 with videos such as the rapper Fat Joe interviewing Dr Anthony Fauci about the coronavirus pandemic in October. More than half a million people watched it.

"We did that because we know that Fauci has the knowledge and Fat Joe has the engagement," Dr Graham said.