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Science & Medicine

YouTube Flags Content Of Public Meetings Hosted By Local Governments

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

During the pandemic, many school boards and local governments pivoted to using social media to broadcast their meetings. If the public wanted to watch, they could tune in on YouTube or Facebook. But as Abigail Censky of the Kansas News Service reports, some local governments are running into problems with those platforms for violating guidelines during their meetings.

ABIGAIL CENSKY, BYLINE: Last month, inside a fluorescent-lit room with spaced-apart chairs, members of the public had three minutes to make a statement before the Shawnee Mission School Board. Like many public meetings, most attending were there to air their grievances. For several of them, it was over the district's face mask policy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The next speaker in tonight's agenda is Miss...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Take your mask off (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...Debbie Dittmar. Is Miss Debbie Dittmar here?

CENSKY: State Senator Mike Thompson walks up to the microphone with coiffed hair, a lapel pin and no mask. He opposes students in the Kansas City suburb wearing masks. But what he says next just isn't true.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE THOMPSON: But think of it this way. I'm about six feet tall. Saying that this mask is going to block the virus is like saying, I can't walk through a doorway 6,000 feet tall and 2,000 feet wide.

CENSKY: That meeting and the false claims Thompson made about masks was broadcast by YouTube on the district's page. Two days later, the video of the entire school board meeting was taken down for spreading medical misinformation and violating YouTube's community guidelines. School board president Heather Ousley says having the broadcast taken down was a surprise.

HEATHER OUSLEY: I'm not sure I anticipated any of the last year and a half. But I sure didn't anticipate this one.

CENSKY: The school board's account got a warning notice. If it happens again, they'd get a strike, which would mean they wouldn't be able to upload, post or livestream for one week. If they got three strikes, the channel could be terminated.

Katie Paul heads the Tech Transparency Project. She says the issue isn't the disinformation policy itself. It's with how big tech, like Google and YouTube, moderate content. Paul thinks they're overly reliant on artificial intelligence.

KATIE PAUL: It's effective in some cases but takes down incorrect content. And human expertise is really the only thing that can identify the proper context.

CENSKY: YouTube did not respond to questions about the role of AI in flagging the school's video. The school board is now considering taking the public comment time before the board meeting out of its broadcast entirely or moving off YouTube. Board member Jamie Borgman is against that idea. She says it's how teachers voiced concerns during contract negotiations.

Borgman advocates that the district move its videos to a third-party platform. But that could mean no free place to archive 10 years' worth of videos, no automatic closed captioning, and moving off a ubiquitous social media channel. Shawnee Mission Chief Communications Officer David Smith says the threat of more anti-maskers coming to public comment and spreading medical misinformation is real but likes using YouTube.

DAVID SMITH: We absolutely have to be concerned because we don't want to lose the ability to use that platform.

CENSKY: This school board isn't alone. Government accounts in Iowa and Florida have been flagged for spreading medical misinformation as well. They can appeal or add disclaimers at the beginning of the video with health guidelines, but it's no guarantee that they will end up strike free.

For NPR News, I'm Abigail Censky in Topeka, Kan.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.