Youtube canceled a Kansas school board meeting for containing COVID-19 lies – a warning to school boards, state governments and city councils that use the site to meet transparency standards.
MICHEL MARTIN, ANIMATOR:
During the pandemic, many school boards and local governments turned to using social media to broadcast their meetings. If the audience wanted to watch, they could log on to YouTube or Facebook. But as Abigail Censky of the Kansas News Service reports, some local governments are having trouble with these platforms for violating guidelines during their meetings.
ABIGAIL CENSKY, BYLINE: Last month, inside a fluorescent-lit room with chairs spaced apart, members of the public had three minutes to make a statement to the Shawnee Mission School Board. Like many public meetings, most attendees were there to voice their grievances. For several of them, it was the district’s face mask policy.
(EXTRACT FROM THE ARCHIVED RECORD)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON # 1: The next speaker on tonight’s agenda is Miss …
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON # 2: Take off your mask (unintelligible).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON # 1: … Debbie Dittmar. Is Miss Debbie Dittmar here?
CENSKY: State Senator Mike Thompson walks up to the microphone with combed hair, a pin and no mask. He opposes students in the Kansas City suburbs wearing masks. But what he says next is simply not true.
(EXTRACT FROM THE ARCHIVED RECORD)
MIKE THOMPSON: But think of it this way. I’m about six feet tall. Saying that this mask will block the virus is like saying, I can’t go through a door 6,000 feet high and 2,000 feet wide.
CENSKY: This meeting and Thompson’s false mask claims were broadcast via YouTube on the district page. Two days later, the video of the entire school board meeting was taken down for spreading misinformed medical information and violating YouTube community guidelines. School board president Heather Ousley said the show’s withdrawal was a surprise.
HEATHER OUSLEY: I’m not sure I anticipated anything in the past year and a half. But I certainly hadn’t planned this one.
CENSKY: The school board account received a warning. If that happened again, they would receive a warning, which would mean that they would not be able to download, publish or live stream for a week. If they got three warnings, the chain could be shut down.
Katie Paul heads the Tech Transparency Project. She says the problem isn’t the disinformation policy itself. It’s with how big tech, like Google and YouTube, moderates content. Paul thinks they are too dependent on artificial intelligence.
KATIE PAUL: It’s effective in some cases, but removes incorrect content. And human expertise is really the only thing that can identify the right context.
CENSKY: YouTube did not respond to questions about AI’s role in reporting the school video. The school board is now considering either removing public comment from the broadcast before the board meeting entirely or exiting YouTube. Board member Jamie Borgman is against this idea. She says this is how teachers expressed their 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 of videos, no automatic captions, and stepping away from a ubiquitous social media channel. Shawnee Mission’s communications director David Smith said the threat of more anti-maskers commenting to the public and spreading fake medical information is real, but likes to use YouTube.
DAVID SMITH: We absolutely have to worry because we don’t want to lose the ability to use this platform.
CENSKY: This school board is not alone. The Iowa and Florida government accounts have also been flagged for spreading misleading medical information. They can appeal or add disclaimers at the start of the video with health guidelines, but there’s no guarantee they’ll end up without a strike.
For NPR News, I’m Abigail Censky in Topeka, Kan.
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