YouTube Corrects Its Misdiagnosis of Doc's Coronavirus Video

Liz Neporent

May 21, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

British oncologist and Medscape contributor Professor Karol Sikora, MD, recently sat for an interview with unherd.com to share his views on the coronavirus. In the wide-ranging discussion with journalist Freddy Sayers, Sikora speculated that the virus may be getting tired and that pockets of immunity might explain a global downturn in the pandemic.

The 30-minute video was posted to YouTube on Tuesday — and promptly removed for "violating guidelines." 

While not everyone agrees with Sikora's optimistic opinions about where the pandemic is headed, they aren't considered fringe. The 71-year-old former chief of the World Health Organization's cancer program also stressed the need for a vaccine as well as his concern for the disruption to cancer care caused by the medical response to the virus.

Sikora took to Twitter to express his dismay over the decision to take down the video.

"Disappointed to hear that Youtube has removed my interview with @unherd (no reasons given). I thought it was a measured discussion. We need to have a balance, that involves listening to differing opinions and not banning them. This censorship is a worrying development," Sikora tweeted.

https://twitter.com/ProfKarolSikora/status/1263431671426232320

Thousands of Twitter users shared Sikora's objection to the video's removal. 

"Not worrying, it's totally wrong! Discussion cannot happen when one side gets removed," one representative tweet said.

https://twitter.com/kingy1959/status/1263432412622716929

Unherd's appeal to have the video reinstated was initially rejected but when Medscape Medical News inquired with Google, YouTube's parent company, a spokesperson said they had reconsidered and would now allow the video to post.

What happened with the Sikora interview perfectly illustrates the dilemma social media platforms face when trying to manage the onslaught of coronavirus information, K. "Vish" Viswanath, PhD, director of the Center for Translational Health Communication Science at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, told Medscape Medical News

"Here we have a doctor who has legitimate disagreements with some standard positions, as opposed to someone who tries to seem legitimate but spouts falsehoods. How do you make the distinction?" Viswanath asked.  

Social media companies do need to take responsibility for putting systems in place that prevent erroneous and sometimes dangerous information about the coronavirus from reaching users, Viswanath said, but they also have to find ways to allow a healthy scientific discourse to continue. It's a tough line to walk, he admits.

YouTube — along with Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter — has taken steps to block or demote deceptive COVID-19 information while elevating scientifically sound sources like the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The social media platforms rely on sophisticated algorithms to find and delete nefarious posts, Viswanath explained. But algorithms are blunt instruments that aren't capable of discerning nuance. Users with malicious intent become experts at slipping their posts past these censors while acceptable content like the Sikora interview is sometimes suppressed.   

Some companies have tried to improve their policing of coronavirus posts by adding a human element to their process. Sikora for one is not impressed.

"They've been told to police their stuff better so they have an army of 20-year-old kids looking at every single video on corona. It's simply bizarre! I feel a little sorry for YouTube," he told Medscape Medical News

Up until a month or so ago, Sikora wasn't even on social media. He joined Twitter in April to share his views on the importance of maintaining cancer care during the coronavirus pandemic.

Now "Medical Twitter" seems to hang on his every word. He quickly gained more than 230,000 followers and his tweets consistently attract thousands of likes, retweets, and comments. Recently, Twitter placed a blue verification checkmark next to his name to symbolize his status as a legitimate health authority.

And although his thoughts on coronavirus are considered scientifically acceptable if at times unconventional, he has courted controversy in his career for his views on alternative medicine and his criticism of Britain's National Health Service. 

For his part, Viswanath said he is actually heartened by YouTube's ultimate handling of the Sikora interview. 

"What you want is some kind of an override and remedies for action when they get it wrong — and that's what happened in this case," he said. "When called on, they chose to correct the mistake and put the video back up. That's important." 

Liz Neporent is Medscape's executive editor of social media and community. She has previously worked at ABC News National as well as other major news outlets. She's based in New York City and can be reached at lneporent@medscape.net or @lizzyfit on Twitter.

For more news, follow Medscape on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.

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