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Almost 30% of YouTube’s popular coronavirus videos are misleading, Canadian study finds

FILE - In this April 24, 2020 file photo protesters gather for a rally against Gov. Tony Evers' extended stay-at-home order due to COVID-19, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. The Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Gov. Evers' coronavirus stay-at-home order Wednesday, May 13, 2020 ruling that his administration overstepped its authority when it extended the mandate for another month without consulting legislators. (Amber Arnold/Wisconsin State Journal via AP, file).
FILE - In this April 24, 2020 file photo protesters gather for a rally against Gov. Tony Evers' extended stay-at-home order due to COVID-19, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. The Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down Gov. Evers' coronavirus stay-at-home order Wednesday, May 13, 2020 ruling that his administration overstepped its authority when it extended the mandate for another month without consulting legislators. (Amber Arnold/Wisconsin State Journal via AP, file).

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include a response from YouTube. 

A new study from Canadian researchers has found over 25 per cent of the most popular YouTube coronavirus videos contain misinformation.

The study, published Wednesday in BMJ Global Health journal, looked at the top 75 COVID-19-related videos playing on March 21.

The authors found 27.5 percent contained false information, and these problematic videos had over 60-million total views.

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Misinformation ranged from racist statements to falsehoods about how the disease spreads to bad health recommendations and outright conspiracy theories. One dangerous theory, for example, claims the coronavirus is a planned method of population control. Another asserts that drug companies have a cure for the coronavirus but the remedy is not being sold to the public.

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READ MORE: Coronavirus conspiracies pushed by Russia, amplified by Chinese officials: experts

“As the current COVID-19 pandemic worsens, public health agencies must better use YouTube to deliver timely and accurate information and to minimize the spread of misinformation,” the study authors from the University of Ottawa and Carleton University concluded. “This may play a significant role in successfully managing the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The authors said the sheer audience reach of videos spreading coronavirus falsehoods could have serious health and social consequences. There were over 250 million views for the most popular videos screened, including 62 million views for videos containing misinformation.

“While the power of social media lies in the sheer volume and diversity of information being generated and spread, it has significant potential for harm,” the study said. “The proliferation and spread of misinformation can exacerbate racism and fear and result in unconstructive and dangerous behaviour, such as toilet paper hoarding and mask stealing behaviours seen so far in the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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Josh Greenberg, professor of communication and media studies at Carleton University, said the study offers useful empirical data on various kinds of disinformation, and also sheds light on emerging research on the connection between health outcomes and information exposure.

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“This resonates because we are dealing with what the World Health Organization have referred to as a global infodemic related to the coronavirus,” Greenberg said. “The speed with which information can circulate is a real concern.”

Greenberg said the study also raises interesting questions about the challenges researchers face in classifying COVID-19 disinformation.

Some of the most harmful disinformation about the coronavirus will always be false, Greenberg said. But with certain topics still being contested by scientists and experts, there naturally will be an evolving analysis of settled facts. For example, he said, debates around the effectiveness of face masks have changed as the known facts about the spread of coronavirus evolve.

“It makes it challenging to code for disinformation because the scientific analyses of the disease is changing rapidly,” Greenberg said.

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In a response to the study, a Youtube spokesperson provided this statement.

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“We are always interested to see research and exploring ways to partner with researchers even more closely. However it’s hard to draw broad conclusions from research that uses very small sample sizes and the study itself recognizes the limitations of the sample. We’re committed to providing timely and helpful information at this critical time. To date we’ve removed thousands and thousands of videos for violating our COVID-19 policies and directed tens of billions of impressions to global and local health organizations from our home page and information panels.”