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WHEN YOU TYPE the search word “koronarokote” (coronavirus vaccine in Finnish) into YouTube, whose videos do you expect to see?
Are you anticipating content from hospitals and medical researchers explaining how the vaccine works? Perhaps you’re expecting to see public service bulletins regarding the vaccination order in your hometown?
These are things the world's biggest video site, YouTube, hasn’t offered in Finnish this year. Yle’s investigation found that the social media giant has instead shown Finnish audiences conspiracy theories and Covid content from the platform’s religious channels.
The video giant has vowed to raise the visibility of Covid videos from experts and public health agencies and delete misleading claims about coronavirus vaccines. But Yle’s study found that the company has not followed through on its promises on the Finnish side of the platform.
Instead of medical science, religious content and misinformation dominate search results on Finnish YouTube.
This spring, using the search term ”koronarokote" (Covid vaccine in Finnish) on YouTube delivered contemplations on whether the coronavirus vaccine was a "mark of the beast".
"It’s frightening to think that they’ve used some foetal cells and what not to culture animal DNA. The whole idea of what’s in it is really nauseating, but there’s no mark of the beast, that much I can tell you from scripture," a video published last autumn said.
YouTube removed the video when Yle asked why it was propelled to the top of search results.
The platform has also prominently featured anti-vaxxer videos.
Ranking near the top is also a long conspiracy video about “population control”.
"Maybe this vaccine is what will most effectively reduce the global population over a long time."
AMERICAN SEARCH GIANT Google owns YouTube. The company acknowledged YouTube’s Finnish-language problem after seeing the results of Yle’s investigation.
“We were made aware that our system may not have parsed the compound word (koronarokote) correctly as “Covid-related” [...] This issue has now been corrected,” Google Finland’s communications manager, Andrea Lewis Åkerman, told Yle.
This means that YouTube’s misinformation filter has not been active when users type in the Finnish compound word for coronavirus vaccine,“koronarokote,” into the search field or the Finnish words for coronavirus vaccine and side effects,“koronarokote ja sivuvaikutukset.”
As a result, users were more likely to be funnelled to the video at the beginning of this story comparing vaccines to gas chambers than to information published by legitimate health authorities.
It’s impossible to determine the extent to which this oversight has impacted Finnish YouTube searches. This spring “koronarokote” (coronavirus vaccine in Finnish) has been one of the most popular pandemic-related Finnish search terms on Google Trends, which shows how frequently a given search term is entered into Google's search engine.
"Covid vaccine" in English has globally been the second-most popular pandemic-related search.
Yle analysed what Finnish YouTube users looking for information about coronavirus vaccines found. This meant dissecting and tracing 477 YouTube channels and more than 8,000 videos.
Results showed that the site’s Finnish-language vaccine reality is worlds apart from YouTube's English-language universe.
The Finnish word for coronavirus vaccine “koronarokote” mostly resulted in religious channels and videos from private individuals, anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists.
Performing the same search in English turns up mainstream media news videos, official messaging from health authorities and medical content.
This is how a Finnish-speaking YouTube user’s search ranks.
YOUNG PEOPLE —WHO spend more time on YouTube than older adults— are next in line for vaccination. When it comes to young adults, the video platform is more than entertainment, it’s also an important news and information source.
“They type search words into YouTube before Google,” says Johanna Vehkoo, a journalist and author specialising in disinformation and fake news.
With YouTube’s popularity soaring among young people, the stakes couldn’t be higher when it comes to its vaccine content.
In the next few months there will come a point in Finland when everyone who has wanted to get inoculated against coronavirus will have received a vaccine. After this the extent of vaccine hesitancy will determine the vaccination pace, potentially complicating the campaign to reach herd immunity in Finland.
Experts interviewed by Yle said it was time to raise the alarm about how big platforms like YouTube work in small language communities.
“Right now it looks like some communities are more easily exposed to harmful content than others. This can have long-term consequences in language regions where content monitoring has been forgotten. Local public health initiatives can suffer,” assistant professor Ben Horne says.
Horne’s research focuses on YouTube and other video platforms at the University of Tennessee.
Johanna Vehkoo says she is also concerned about how social media giants treat minority languages.
“YouTube also uses algorithms to recommend Finnish-language content, but it doesn’t do the same pruning it does in bigger languages. YouTube doesn’t even tell us if it has Finnish-speaking moderators. This is the fate of many marginal languages.”
Google did not respond when Yle asked whether YouTube has Finnish-language moderators.
Finnish searches using the word “koronarokote” (coronavirus vaccine) looked like this:
YouTube appears to value protecting its English-languge users from disinformation.
An entirely different set of results appeared when Yle typed “covid vaccine” in English into YouTube’s search field.
Here you can see the Finnish and English results of searches for "koronarokote" and "covid vaccine."
Turquoise represents mainstream media videos appearing in English-language searches. The religious content popping up in Finnish searches is purple.
American news network NBC’s appraisal of President Joe Biden’s coronavirus strategy ranked near the top of English search results, which also included NHS campaign videos of UK celebrities urging people to get inoculated
More than 70 percent of videos ranking near the top were news clips and discussion programmes by mainstream media. Many of these videos raised critical questions regarding vaccines.
A news channel video talks about the continued spread of coronavirus, despite the growing number of vaccinated individuals. A video from The Economist explains the rise of vaccine hesitancy, while CNBC explores the implications of a mandatory vaccine.
English-language results turn up little faith-based content. Not a single anti-vaxxer video cropped up among the first 100 hits.
“Had I guessed, I would have bet religious videos would have come up first in the United States, but not in Finland,” information sciences assistant professor Ben Horne says.
THIS ISN'T THE SOCIAL media giant’s first language-related oversight. YouTube has also overlooked languages much larger than Finnish.
Last year, a Brazilian research group suggested that YouTube's moderation missed many anti-vaccination videos in Portuguese. Searches for vaccines + autism resulted in vaccine misinformation. The researchers said lacking moderation in Portuguese was the problem.
“This tells me that with their correction measures, YouTube didn’t take a global approach, it focused on places where they get the most political pressure,” Ben Horne, an Assistant Professor studying alternative video platforms at the University of Tennessee, says.
He points out that political pressure also played a role in Yle’s study: YouTube changed its ranking approach as soon as it learned the results of Yle’s investigation.
Videos from health agency THL and research institutes now top Finnish search results.
IN ENGLISH, THE SEARCH words "covid vaccine" result in hospital YouTube videos explaining what to expect when arriving for the jab.
The same search in Finnish for “koronarokote” only brought up one top-ranked video from a doctor discussing Covid vaccines from a medical standpoint. Pekka Reinikainen answers viewers’ vaccine-related questions on YouTube video called “Doctor Way of the Cross.”
The channel shares programmes from Christian TV7 and features a number of religious speakers and preachers.
He has had a long career in medicine. But he is also one of Finland's leading creationists, saying in his blog that fossils millions of years old are a hoax.
In the videos Reinikainen praises the Covid vaccine brands now available in Finland. He describes the vaccines as safe and encourages people to get their shots.
YouTube has given religious channels a lot of visibility, and the platform has propelled Reinikainen to the top.
As a doctor, he is familiar with the subject area, but it is still peculiar that no other medical content rose to the top of search results.
A search for “koronarokote” (Covid vaccine) gave users 56 videos from hospitals, researchers and YouTubers talking about medical science and more than three times as many, 187, anti-vaccine videos.
Here you can see the difference in YouTube Covid vaccine content in Finnish and English.
WHY HAS FINNISH YOUTUBE linked religious content to vaccine information?
Experts interviewed by Yle were not able to explain why this was happening.
Perhaps people looking for vaccine videos also viewed religious and anti-vaxxer content. This would intertwine these two topics, causing them to boost one another. But as YouTube closely guards its recommendation algorithm, the inner workings of how it positions videos is mostly guesswork.
YouTube’s faith-based vaccine content is nothing if not diverse.
Some say Christians should not get vaccinated. Others want to help people cope during the pandemic. A third group combines Covid conspiracy theories, “marks of the beast” and gospel.
Niko Pyrhönen, a Helsinki University researcher studying conspiracy theories and anti-vaccine sentiment, draws a line between religious vaccine content and New Age vaccine videos, which also surfaced in Yle’s study.
New Age videos contemplate inner strength, love and overcoming fear—and tell viewers not to get their shots.
Pyrhönen says New Age rhetoric is a form of gospel.
“Many don’t even consider these [anti-vaccine videos] as having a religious dimension. But they’re the apostles of their own belief systems, and they want to recruit others to help spread their message,” Pyrhönen says.
Anti-vaccine sentiment in Finland isn’t new—it has been around for decades. The Covid pandemic has, however, drawn new actors to the movement. They consider mainstream media a big lie and resist the “system,” according to Pyrhönen.
“Many of them are not that bothered about Covid vaccines, but they have noticed vaccines are a good way to gain followers,” Pyrhönen says.
The video above is a top search result in English. It features two former scientists, current social media celebrities on a channel called AsapSCIENCE. Their “What The COVID Vaccine Does To Your Body” video uses cartoons to explain how the Pfizer vaccine works.
Their explainer video has already drawn seven million views.
Finland doesn’t have any popular science content similar to this video.
Public health institute THL’s videos are far from fan favourites. This may be because their videos, like the sample THL clip featured at the beginning of this article, are often ad-like.
YOUTUBE HAS DELETED more than a million "dangerous or misleading" videos related to the pandemic, according to Google Finland communications manager Andrea Lewis Åkerman.
But Yle’s probe still found these videos topping search results.
Hardly anyone would like to see YouTube evolve into an official information channel. But when it comes to matters of health, the world’s biggest social media giants should ensure that research findings don’t drown in a sea of misinformation.
With its two billion users, YouTube is under scrutiny to show it protects its users. But it’s important not to forget that Facebook and Instagram are also teeming with disinformation.
In recent years YouTube has drawn severe criticism for spreading and amplifying conspiracy theories. In the UK, specialists have blamed the platform for lowering vaccine uptake rates before the pandemic.
"YouTube is an incredibly large and significant platform, which is why any flaws are magnified and become far more dangerous compared to smaller platforms," says doctoral researcher Niko Pyrhönen.
In October 2020, the video giant said it was banning misinformation about Covid vaccinations. Later It said it would block all videos claiming that the vaccine kills people, causes infertility, or contains microchips. It then promised to feature coronavirus content from researchers and health officials.
Yle’s study shows this is easier said than done.
IF YOUTUBE'S SEARCH ALGORITHM doesn’t understand the possibly most important Finnish word related to coronavirus, then how can it draw more complex lines between permitted and prohibited content?
On 19 May, Yle asked YouTube why Finnish health agency videos were falling behind other Covid vaccine content on its platform.
Search results dramatically changed just two days after Yle sent this query. On 25 May, YouTube said it had corrected the search term "koronarokote” (coronavirus vaccine in Finnish) to correspond to the Covid pandemic.
Youtube also removed vaccine disinformation videos flagged by Yle to indicate what was topping Finnish search results.
Boosting the amount of Finnish-language scientific content on YouTube would help shift some responsibility away from algorithms.
“These findings show that there’s a huge need for more health authority and medical science videos,” says Johanna Vehkoo.
Niko Pyrhönen suggests that just like Finland has police tasked with monitoring social media, there could also be doctors whose job it is to moderate this space.
Vehkoo is onboard with this idea, noting that a handful of Finnish doctors and medical experts are already busting myths on other social media outlets.
“Doctor Anni (Lääkäri-Anni in Finnish) does great work on Instagram, but we don’t see these kinds of actors on YouTube,” Vehkoo explains.
She also says she would like to see government agencies lower their threshold for making YouTube videos.
“They don’t need to be massive productions. A one-minute social media video of an expert talking to the camera explaining things will do just fine.”
But before any of this happens, Finland and other small linguistic communities need to demand better service from YouTube.
The original article in Finnish
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