Dangerous science, Massive Tech at coronary heart of Kan. college board assembly drama

The mid-May meeting of the Shawnee Mission school board was pulled off of the school district's YouTube channel for spreading medical misinformation.
The mid-May meeting of the Shawnee Mission school board was pulled off of the school district’s YouTube channel for spreading medical misinformation.

By ABIGAIL CENSKY
Kansas News Service

OVERLAND PARK — At the mid-May Shawnee Mission School Board meeting, state Sen. Mike Thompson, a former Kansas City meteorologist, showed up mask-less to protest the district’s mask policy.

Thompson said masks exposed children to potential carcinogens.

“Think
of it this way,” said Thompson. “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.”

His claims about masks weren’t true.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says wearing face masks does prevent the spread of COVID-19.

YouTube
— which the school board uses to stream its meetings — deemed
statements from Thompson and other speakers so dangerous that the tech
giant pulled the entire meeting off its platform for spreading medical
misinformation.

That leaves the district in a quandary. Does it
strip out the public comment portion of its streamed meetings to avoid a
YouTube ban? Or would that effectively censor any criticism of the
school board. It’s tough because Shawnee Mission has grown dependent on
YouTube.

“It’s accessible. It’s easy to use. So, it’s a great platform,” said Shawnee Mission spokesperson
David Smith, “But we absolutely have to be concerned because we don’t
want to lose the ability to use that platform.”

In the age of
COVID-19 and social media, streaming public meetings offers a convenient
way to let residents track critical debates on decisions about their
taxes, their children, their communities.

At the same time, Big
Tech is grappling with how to choke-out viral misinformation. But
conversations at the meetings of city councils, school boards and other
parts of local government can be riddled with conspiracies and
half-truths without fact checkers to keep the record straight.

Shawnee Mission school district sign outside of the Center for Academic Excellence. Abigail Censky
Shawnee Mission school district sign outside of the Center for Academic Excellence. Abigail Censky

Shortly after last month’s meeting, a warning popped up on the
Shawnee Mission School District’s webpage that more violations of
YouTube’s policies aimed at fighting disinformation might take meetings
offline.

The district wouldn’t be able to upload, post, or live stream for one week. YouTube community guidelines state after three strikes in a 90-day period, an account can be terminated.

That
could mean a lot of trouble for the district. It has 10 years of videos
archived on the platform, and it uses benefits like live streaming and
automatic closed captioning for free. The cost of moving to another
platform would start at $20,000, Smith said.

In a statement,
YouTube spokesperson Elena Hernandez said, “We apply our policies
equally, regardless of the speaker or setting of the video.”

YouTube
says that in some cases videos with medical misinformation are allowed
to stay on the platform if they have an audio or visual disclaimer
refuting the false claims or sharing CDC guidelines about the
effectiveness of masks to prevent COVID-19. If an account holder
disagrees with YouTube’s decision, they can appeal.

Katie Paul,
director of the industry watchdog Tech Transparency Project, said the
misinformation policy is fine. But her group is critical more broadly of
how Big Tech moderates content.

“That is to rely on the cheapest
option, which is (artificial intelligence),” said Paul. “But AI is not
perfect, and it’s effective in some cases, but takes down incorrect
content.”

She argued that companies like YouTube need to rely less
on their algorithms to sort out content, and spend more heavily on
workers who can pick up on the subtleties that computer programs can’t
catch.

YouTube did not respond to questions about the role of artificial intelligence in flagging the Shawnee Mission video.

Shawnee Mission isn’t alone. Accounts in Iowa and Florida streaming public or government meetings have also been flagged for spreading medical misinformation. In early March, Axios reported YouTube removed 30,000 videos for spreading medical misinformation in a six-month period.

But
Paul said the application of the policy has been uneven at best, and is
“ultimately not removing the content that’s most egregious and at the
same time removing content that should remain on the platform.”

Now
the Johnson County school board is looking for a way forward. At a
mid-June meeting, some board members made the case for extracting public
comment from the streamed meeting entirely. People could still show up
and speak before the board, but it wouldn’t be uploaded to YouTube.

Board member Jamie Borgman argued public comment was how teachers made their voices heard during fraught union contract negotiations, and how Shawnee Tribe Chief Ben Barnes spoke about the district’s previous mascot.

“We’re
putting all of our eggs in this YouTube basket,” said Borgman. “We want
to ditch public comment because we’re afraid our meetings are going to
get pulled from YouTube, but I think we need to look bigger.”

She’s
advocating that the district move to a third party platform to stream
its meetings. But that would come with a price and could mean losing the
space to archive 10 years of district videos, and leaving the
ubiquitous social media channel.

At the June meeting, board
members were split on whether to stay with YouTube or leave. They’ll
likely broach the issue again twice before making a final decision.

“I
do not want to see us let a small group of people with some medical
misinformation deprive our entire community of seeing what kind of
comments are coming before this board,” said board member Jessica
Hembree. “That’s important.”

Abigail Censky is the political reporter for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @AbigailCensky or email her at [email protected]

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