YouTube will partner with health organizations to create more accurate medical videos for its platform, trying to counter a scourge of online misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic.
The world’s largest online video service has assembled a health partnerships team, led by Garth Graham, a former CVS Health Corp. executive, to build the relationships. The American Public Health Association, The Forum at the Harvard School of Public Health, Cleveland Clinic and Mayo Clinic are among participating organizations, the company said Wednesday.
YouTube, owned by Alphabet Inc.’s Google, will help some partners fund these videos by, for example, paying for Harvard’s production staff to film and edit the clips through a grant.
This is a relatively rare departure for the video service, which prefers to be an ad-supported platform that only hosts — and is not responsible for — content.
YouTube has occasionally paid creators directly, including a $100 million pledge last year for original kids programming. But it’s been more hands-off than rival TikTok, which has a $1 billion fund to help U.S. creators build careers.
The laissez-faire approach has backfired on YouTube in recent years, with a series of scandals and ad boycotts over toxic, inappropriate and inaccurate videos.
That has included anti-vaccination conspiracy theories and, last year, an infodemic of misinformation about Covid-19.
In October, YouTube began taking down videos about Covid-19 vaccines that contradict “expert consensus” from local health authorities and the World Health Organization.
Wednesday’s announcement, along with a new $3 million fund from the Google News Initiative to combat misinformation on coronavirus vaccines, are a tacit admission that the internet giant must actively create and promote accurate content, not just try to suppress the bad stuff.
“I like to think of my role as kind of flowering the garden,” said Graham, YouTube’s director and global head of health care and public health partnerships.
“YouTube, it’s a big garden. People spend a lot of time removing the weeds out of the garden. My role is how do you flower the garden so you get more roses, apricots, all of the things that can produce good outcomes by bringing more evidence-based organizations to the platform.”
Harvard will create minute-long videos for YouTube on topics such as vaccines and making schools safe during the pandemic, as well as provide experts for videos with entertainers.
Robert Blendon, professor of public health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, has been concerned that YouTube is a home for health misinformation, and some false videos on the site have made him “crazy.” But the platform’s wide reach made it essential for his school to participate.
“I don’t know where to go that’s absolutely pure that reaches a billion people,” he said. “That’s a dilemma, but I know that the information we’re trying to get out there is not reaching people whose lives can be saved.”
The coronavirus continues to spread unchecked in the U.S., with more than 22 million cases as of Tuesday, as well as more than 91 million cases around the world.
That harrowing backdrop prompted Graham, a cardiologist who served in two presidential administrations, to join YouTube recently.
“What really intrigued me then — and I think has grown — is this concept of how creators, influencers, just a platform in general, can influence behavioral change,” Graham said.
YouTube’s software will treat these videos as trusted information — on a par with sources such as the WHO — so the company expects the content to perform well when users search for information related to Covid-19.
The company also hopes to make its health videos popular by pairing a health expert with an entertainer, following a model it began in 2020 with videos such as the rapper Fat Joe interviewing Anthony Fauci about the coronavirus pandemic in October. More than half a million people watched it.
“We did that because we know that Fauci has the knowledge and Fat Joe has the engagement,” Graham said.