In response to videos relating to COVID-19, Youtube, Twitter and Facebook have removed videos containing information they deemed “false” or “misleading.” For example, a Breitbart video of doctors speaking outside of the Supreme Court was pulled from these sites after gaining millions of views. According to a Facebook spokesperson, the video was pulled “for sharing false information about cures and treatments for COVID-19.” As private entities, they are free to remove content.
However, in a recent report, Youtube announced that it resorted to an automated service to flag and remove videos deemed inappropriate or against platform guidelines. Shockingly, between April and June, 11.4 million videos were removed from the site, with 10.85 million removed by the automation service. This is more than double the amount of videos removed between January and March.
Moreover, while Youtube has a way for viewers and organizations to flag inappropriate content for removal, only 382,000 videos were flagged by users. Due to COVID-19, Youtube said they had less manpower to watch and remove all videos, removing humans from the decision making process.
In a recent statement, the Youtube team said, “When reckoning with greatly reduced human review capacity due to COVID-19, we were forced to make a choice between potential under-enforcement or potential over-enforcement.” It’s clear they chose the latter. Youtube does allow posters to appeal the removal of a video, and, indeed, has reinstated 50 percent of the videos that were called to its attention in recent months.
These platforms are private companies and are not bound by the First Amendment, as was seen in Prager University v. Google, so the decision to pull a video is valid. Not allowing businesses to do so could lead to government control over free speech—an ending no one wants.
However, using automation to make the judgement call on a video’s content is where things become murky. American’s should be wary of the automated censorship and removal of videos—removing human decision from the process becomes a game of Russian roulette of what stays and what goes.