Misinformation at public forums vexes local boards, big tech

Aug 14, 2021, 5:21 PM | Updated: Aug 16, 2021, 4:26 pm
Members of the County Council joining over video chat participate in the Pledge of Allegiance at th...

Members of the County Council joining over video chat participate in the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of a council meeting at the St. Louis County Council Chambers in Clayton, Mo., Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021. Public forums before local school boards and city councils are the latest source of misinformation about COVID-19. (Colter Peterson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)

(Colter Peterson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch via AP)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — There are plenty of places to turn for accurate information about COVID-19. Your physician. Local health departments. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

But not, perhaps, your local government’s public comment session.

During a meeting of the St. Louis County Council earlier this month, opponents of a possible mask mandate made so many misleading comments about masks, vaccines and COVID-19 that YouTube removed the video for violating its policies against false claims about the virus.

“I hope no one is making any medical decisions based on what they hear at our public forums,” said County Councilwoman Lisa Clancy, who supports mask wearing and said she believes most of her constituents do too. The video was restored, but Clancy’s worries about the impact of that misinformation remain.

Videos of local government meetings have emerged as the latest vector of COVID-19 misinformation, broadcasting misleading claims about masks and vaccines to millions and creating new challenges for internet platforms trying to balance the potential harm against the need for government openness.

The latest video to go viral features a local physician who made several misleading claims about COVID-19 while addressing the Mount Vernon Community School Corporation in Fortville, Indiana, on Aug. 6. In his 6-minute remarks, Dr. Dan Stock tells the board that masks don’t work, vaccines don’t prevent infection, and state and federal health officials don’t follow the science.

The video has amassed tens of millions of online views, and prompted the Indiana State Department of Health to push back. Stock did not return multiple messages seeking comment.

“Here comes a doctor in suspenders who goes in front of the school board and basically says what some people are thinking: the masks are B.S., vaccines don’t work and the CDC is lying — it can be very compelling to laypeople,” said Dr. Zubin Damania, a California physician who received so many messages about the Indiana clip that he created his own video debunking Stock’s claims.

Damania hosts a popular online medical show under the name ZDoggMD. His video debunking Stock’s comments has been viewed more than 400,000 times so far. He said that while there are legitimate questions about the effectiveness of mask requirements for children, Stock’s broad criticism of masks and vaccines went too far.

YouTube removed several similar videos of local government meetings in North Carolina, Missouri, Kansas and Washington state. In Bellingham, Washington, officials responded by temporarily suspending public comment sessions.

The false claims in those videos were made during the portion of the meeting devoted to public comment. Local officials have no control over what is said at these forums, and say that’s part of the point.

In Kansas, YouTube pulled video of the May school board meeting in the 27,000-student Shawnee Mission district in which parents and a state lawmaker called for the district to remove its mask mandate, citing “medical misinformation.”

The district, where a mask mandate remains in effect, responded by ending livestreaming of the public comment period. District spokesman David Smith acknowledged that it has been challenging to balance making the board meetings accessible and not spreading fallacies.

“It was hard for me to hear things in the board meeting that weren’t true and to know that those were going out without contradiction,” Smith said. “I am all about free speech, but when that free speech endangers people’s lives, it is hard to sit through that.”

After hearing from local officials, YouTube reversed its decision and put the videos back up. Earlier this month the company, which is owned by Google, announced a change to its COVID misinformation policy to allow exceptions for local government meetings — though YouTube may still remove content that uses remarks from public forums in an attempt to mislead.

“While we have clear policies to remove harmful COVID-19 misinformation, we also recognize the importance of organizations like school districts and city councils using YouTube to share recordings of open public forums, even when comments at those forums may violate our policies,” company spokeswoman Elena Hernandez said.

The deluge of false claims about the virus has challenged other platforms too. Twitter and Facebook each have their own policies on COVID-19 misinformation, and say that like YouTube they attach labels to misleading content and remove the worst of it.

Public comment sessions preceding local government meetings have long been known for sometimes colorful remarks from local residents. But before the internet, if someone were to drone on about fluoride in the drinking water, for instance, their comments weren’t likely to become national news.

Now, thanks to the internet and social media, the misleading musings of a local doctor speaking before a school board can compete for attention with the recommendations of the CDC.

It was only a matter of time before misleading comments at these local public forums went viral, according to Jennifer Grygiel, a communications professor at Syracuse University who studies social media platforms.

Grygiel suggested a few possible ways to minimize the impact of misinformation without muzzling local governments. Grygiel said clear labels on government broadcasts would help viewers understand what they’re watching. Keeping the video on the government’s website, instead of making it shareable on YouTube, could allow local residents to watch without enabling the spread of videos more widely.

“Anytime there is a public arena – a city council hearing, a school board meeting, a public park – the public has the opportunity to potentially spread misinformation,” Grygiel said. “What’s changed is it used to stay local.”

____

Klepper reported from Providence, Rhode Island.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

Russia's President Vladimir Putin, right, and Kazakhstan's President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev pose for...
Associated Press

Kazakh leader meets Putin in first post-election trip abroad

MOSCOW (AP) — Kazakhstan’s leader met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday, a week after winning a new seven-year term by a landslide in a snap election. Kazakhstan is a significant Russian ally, sharing a 7,600-kilometer (4,750-mile) border. But President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has kept his distance from Moscow amid the conflict in Ukraine, notably […]
1 day ago
FILE- Russia's Sudzha gas pumping station is seen, Sunday, Jan. 11, 2009. Russian energy giant Gazp...
Associated Press

Russian energy giant says no further gas cuts to Moldova

BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Russian energy giant Gazprom announced Monday that it will not further reduce natural gas to Moldova as it had threatened to do after claiming that bills went unpaid and that flows crossing through Ukraine were not making it to Moldova. Gazprom tweeted that Moldovagaz has “eliminated the violation of payment” for […]
1 day ago
Mauna Loa is seen from the Gilbert Kahele Recreation Area off Saddle Road on the Big Island of Hawa...
Associated Press

Hawaii’s Mauna Loa starts to erupt, sending ash nearby

HONOLULU (AP) — Hawaii’s Mauna Loa, the world’s largest active volcano, has started to erupt, prompting volcanic ash and debris to fall nearby, authorities said Monday. The eruption began late Sunday night in the summit caldera of the volcano on the Big Island, the U.S. Geological Survey said. Early Monday, it said lava flows were […]
1 day ago
FILE - This image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) sho...
Associated Press

WHO renames monkeypox as mpox, citing racism concerns

LONDON (AP) — The World Health Organization has renamed monkeypox as mpox, citing concerns the original name of the decades-old animal disease could be construed as discriminatory and racist. The U.N. health agency said in a statement Monday that mpox was its new preferred name for monkeypox, saying that both monkeypox and mpox would be […]
1 day ago
Associated Press

Kimberly Palmer: Holiday survival tips from 5 financial pros

For Ryan Decker, surviving the holiday shopping season is all about planning ahead. In fact, if he sees a gift for one of his two young sons in March, he’ll go ahead and buy it, instead of rushing through his shopping list in December. “It very much eases the burden,” he says, making his December […]
1 day ago
Elderly residents are evacuated by a local organization from the southern city of Kherson, Ukraine,...
Associated Press

Ukraine on edge for more attacks, West eyes humanitarian aid

KYIV (AP) — Ukraine prepared for more Russian strikes on Monday and warned of the possibility for a new round of evacuations from the capital during a relative lull from the airstrikes on energy facilities and other key infrastructure in recent weeks. In the West, meanwhile, preparations were stepped up to boost humanitarian aid to […]
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

SHIBA WA...

Medicare open enrollment is here and SHIBA can help!

The SHIBA program – part of the Office of the Insurance Commissioner – is ready to help with your Medicare open enrollment decisions.
Lake Washington Windows...

Choosing Best Windows for Your Home

Lake Washington Windows and Doors is a local window dealer offering the exclusive Leak Armor installation.
Anacortes Christmas Tree...

Come one, come all! Food, Drink, and Coastal Christmas – Anacortes has it all!

Come celebrate Anacortes’ 11th annual Bier on the Pier! Bier on the Pier takes place on October 7th and 8th and features local ciders, food trucks and live music - not to mention the beautiful views of the Guemes Channel and backdrop of downtown Anacortes.
Swedish Cyberknife Treatment...

The revolutionary treatment of Swedish CyberKnife provides better quality of life for majority of patients

There are a wide variety of treatments options available for men with prostate cancer. One of the most technologically advanced treatment options in the Pacific Northwest is Stereotactic Body Radiation Therapy using the CyberKnife platform at Swedish Medical Center.
Work at Zum Services...

Seattle Public Schools announces three-year contract with Zum

Seattle Public Schools just announced a three-year contract with a brand-new company to the Pacific Northwest to assist with their student transportation: Zum.
Swedish Cyberknife 900x506...

June is Men’s Health Month: Here’s Why It’s Important To Speak About Your Health

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, men in the United States, on average, die five years earlier than women.
Misinformation at public forums vexes local boards, big tech