Natural Stings: selling distrust about vaccines on Brazilian YouTube

October 26, 2020

Despite YouTube's statements of commitment to deal with harmful misinformation, misinformation about vaccines continues to be disseminated through videos in Portuguese, generating profit for content producers and the platform itself. Even when channels are identified as creators of harmful misinformation, their videos remain available to the public. For instance, five channels from our sample — nutrição Alimentos & Cia (nutrition Food & Co.), O Melhor Para Você ("The Best For You"), U Mió Que Tá Teno ("Da Best of Watsup"), Dr. Lair Ribeiro Oficial (Official) and Ana Paula Palagar — were previously identified in a report from Avaaz.

We analyzed 52 videos containing misinformation about vaccines. The predominant misinformation we found coincided with the most popular videos among communities opposed to vaccines: claims that vaccines contain dangerous ingredients, defense of self-direction (freedom of choice, independent research), promotion of alternative health services, accusations that vaccines cause diseases and severe side effects, and conspiracy theories. 

We also identified advertisements of 39 brands running on 13 of the analyzed videos. These include global brands such as Mobil, Kia, Fiat, Philips, Spotify, Eucerin (Beiersdorf) and Buscopan (Boehringer Ingelheim), as well as ads from the governments of India and Japan. Despite the YouTube Partner Program — the service that allows monetization of content — being an important source of income, the sample channels use different economic strategies, such as the promotion of alternative health services and the maintenance of profiles on fundraising platforms.

We identified a collaboration between the channels that promote alternative health services. Of the 20 channels that were identified spreading misinformation about vaccines, 11 mentioned Lair Ribeiro (Dr. Lair Ribeiro Oficial), a cardiologist and nutrologist who promotes alternative therapies, diets and pseudoscience in his videos and lectures. Collaboration occurs through the reproduction of videos from “associated” channels or through “support” to content creators who are part of the network. The study indicates that these channels spread distrust about traditional institutions — public health organizations, physicians, scientists, mainstream media — to promote themselves as reliable sources and profit with alternative health services.

We used a case study approach to understand how misinformation about vaccines circulates on YouTube in Portuguese, and to identify the channels creating and disseminating this kind of content. To collect videos and data about them, we used a tool called YouTube Data Tools. We analyzed the videos manually, and to identify the types of misinformation about different vaccines, we developed a classification protocol based on the literature in the area related to this topic. 

Much of the research trying to understand the dynamics of misinformation focuses only on content in English, so that the repercussions of these researches and the social pressure directed at companies end up concentrating only on that niche audience. We hope that the study will alert the public to the lack of attention on content moderation and compliance with platform policies in relation to languages ​​other than English. 

Research that investigates the scenario of misinformation in the Brazilian context may contribute to changes in the policies for the use of platforms and to changes such as the expansion of the content moderation infrastructure in other countries. We also hope that our results will strengthen discussions on the market for alternative health therapies in Brazil. The association between the creation of material that misinforms about vaccines and the promotion of alternative health products and therapies had already been established.

We identified that YouTube is a relevant platform in the dissemination of misinformation about vaccines in Portuguese. We also found out that while YouTube’s recommendation system deserves attention and accountability for the spread of misinformation, other factors — such as the availability of harmful content even after demonetization — also poses risks, since the material continues to circulate. 

We also describe a collaborative network between alternative health channels that behaves similarly to Alternative Influence Networks. Also, while YouTube’s partnership program is an important source of income for channels that produce misinformation, the channels adopt tactics that allow them to continue to profit, even if they disregard changes in the user policies.

Natural stings: alternative health services selling distrust about vaccines on YouTube
October 26, 2020   |   Frontiers in Communication
Dayane Fumiyo Tokojima Machado, Alexandre Fioravante de Siqueira, Leda Gitahy

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