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Science

Seller of Vaccine Disinformation Has YouTube Channel Removed

A major online seller of disinformation about COVID-19 and its vaccines has had one of its channels removed from YouTube, days after an Associated Press investigation detailed how they work with other spreaders of false information to make money.

The Truth About Vaccines YouTube channel was taken down this week, Ty and Charlene Bollinger said in a post Tuesday on the messaging app Telegram. The Bollingers' channel had about 75,000 subscribers but some of its videos had a much broader reach, including one that had over 1.5 million views and featured Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a prominent voice in the anti-vaccine movement.

A message that greets visitors to the channel says the account was "terminated for violating YouTube's Community Guidelines." YouTube said it terminated the account because it violated its policies barring "COVID-19 medical misinformation," and had three strikes in a 90-day period. YouTube started banning anti-vaccine misinformation in October. 

Still, the Bollingers operate The Truth About Cancer, another YouTube channel with more than 166,000 subscribers. Anyone who goes to that channel and searches "vaccines" will find videos that sow distrust and fear about vaccines or push disinformation about COVID-19. At least one includes debunked falsehoods about the presidential election.

"While that continues, YouTube can't be said to have taken effective action," said Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which monitors online disinformation.

"They've taken some action, but they need to act in a comprehensive way against those people they know abuse that platform to spread misinformation that might lead to people not taking cancer medication, not taking crucial vaccines that protect them against disease." he said. "This is life and death stuff."

The group earlier this year named the Tennessee couple among its "The Disinformation Dozen," which it said were responsible for nearly two-thirds of the anti-vaccine content online. Ahmed said Wednesday that the move would disrupt the couple's business, which relies heavily on free videos to generate sales leads.

But he said YouTube parent Google has known for months about the Bollingers pushing misinformation, and that the removal had taken far too long.

Asked why YouTube allowed the Bollingers' The Truth About Cancer channel to remain up while taking down their vaccines channel, YouTube spokesperson Elena Hernandez said on Wednesday the company was reviewing it. 

Later Wednesday, after the AP's inquiries, the company said in a written statement that it had taken down videos from the channel that violated its COVID-19 misinformation policies. However, AP found at least one video still up on the channel that pushed anti-vaccine videos, and which questioned the safety and necessity of masks and COVID-19 vaccines.

The company says it has removed over 900,000 videos since February 2020 for violating medical misinformation policies, and more than 30,000 videos since October for violating COVID-19 ruoles on vaccine misinformation.

The Bollingers are also operating accounts on other social media platforms that remain up, including a Facebook page that has more than 1.1 million followers. 

The couple did not immediately return an email seeking comment, but complained about YouTube's decision in a Tuesday post on Telegram, writing that "I think they are desperate and are losing." It was unclear who they were referring to.

An AP investigation published last week showed how the Bollingers had worked with others in the anti-vaccine movement to make money by selling disinformation, an enterprise that the Bollingers have said generated millions of dollars for themselves and their affiliates. The story also detailed how the Bollingers used connections from their anti-vaccine business, including Kennedy, to raise money for a Super PAC.

Platforms including YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have for years allowed anti-vaccination propaganda to spread and been slow to crack down on misinformation about COVID-19, removing just a fraction of the false content.

Ahmed said that there has now been a series of actions by social media platforms against the people his group identified as the worst anti-vaccine disinformation offenders.

"But it's all too piecemeal," he said. "If they're given any means by which to survive, these bad actors will try to adapt and try to focus on the channels they have available to them."

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