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Meet The Censored: Ivermectin Critic David Fuller
If Internet algorithms can't tell the difference between criticism and advocacy, what's safe to report? Why one filmmaker believes "YouTube is unfit for the purpose for hosting journalism."
They fixed the problem, twice. That’s the good news. The first time filmmaker, former BBC and Channel 4 journalist, and Rebel Wisdom co-founder David Fuller put together a video criticizing ivermectin advocates was on August 4th. Called “Ivermectin For and Against,” it was taken down by YouTube, on the grounds that it constituted medical misinformation.
Fuller appealed the decision for a variety of reasons – more on those later – and won. He continued investigating the subject, and taking on the claims of ivermectin advocates, hoping to conclude with a video called “Vaccines and DarkHorse: A Final Word.” This last piece included footage of well-known ivermectin advocates Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, whose DarkHorse podcast was previously featured on this site after YouTube banned some of their material.
Of course, Fuller was including the DarkHorse clip – not one of the banned ones, incidentally – to criticize it, not endorse it. But the Google/YouTube algorithm appeared confused, and Fuller’s work was not only taken down, he was also given a strike under YouTube’s “Three Strikes and You’re Out” program. He appealed again, but this time lost, leaving only one option: the media.
It’s an unfortunate fact, but the human beings at the Google/YouTube press team have repeatedly proven to be the last, best option for fixing errors in some of the more bizarre content moderation cases. In this instance, when I reached out to YouTube to ask if they’d made a mistake, and perhaps confused Fuller with the people he was criticizing, the company quickly fixed the glitch, unstruck the strike, and restored his video, with the statement:
Upon further review, we determined that videos posted by Rebel Wisdom and Peak Prosperity were incorrectly removed. The videos are not violative of our policies and as such they’ve been reinstated.
Problem solved, right?
Not exactly. Not only was Fuller’s case just one in a recent series of deletions and strikes doled out to makers of reports about Covid-19-related issues, but the episode showed how dicey even discussing any of these issues has become for independent media figures. Fuller has done plenty of work for mainstream outlets and could have done so with this topic, but intentionally went the alternative route to take on ivermectin.
“I deliberately chose to tell the story on Rebel Wisdom rather than pitching it to a legacy media outfit,” he says. “I didn’t want to give Bret’s fans the chance to paint it as an ‘MSM smear.’”
In other words, Fuller was making a conscious effort to use an independent editorial approach, as a means of side-stepping the credibility concerns that some audiences have with mainstream outlets.
The problem is, in its zeal to clamp down on “misinformation” about everything from vaccines to perhaps-potential alternative treatments like ivermectin, YouTube and other platforms have had to rely upon algorithmic tools that can’t distinguish between critique and advocacy. The end result is a media landscape where whole subjects may now be off-limits to outlets like Rebel Wisdom, who will continue to be in the dark about where YouTube considers the line between informing and “misinforming” to be, especially with complex subjects like Covid-19.
The ironies of Fuller’s situation in particular are myriad. First, he counts himself as a friend of both Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying. Despite this, he’s taken strong exception to some of their claims about ivermectin, as well as some of the language they’ve employed with regard to criticisms of the safety and efficacy of mRNA Covid-19 vaccines.
Fuller, however, is also a critic of the mainstream approach of dealing with such issues, which often involves simply deploying ad hominem insults at anyone with interest in ivermectin or concerns about vaccines. “The assumption that anyone who questions the vaccines is stupid is clearly wrong,” he wrote, in a recent Medium piece.
He adds now that “these topics, especially ivermectin, have become swallowed whole as culture war signifiers.” As a result, “we’re now in a world where the mainstream won’t ‘platform’ alternative claims for fear of ‘false equivalence’ and are trying to keep alive a broken system of gatekeeping.” Fuller believes this is counter-productive, and his idea is to meet issues head on, including as much relevant information as he can, even if he ultimately comes down strongly against ivermectin and in favor of vaccines.
“This is how this is supposed to work, back and forth, ideas tested in the marketplace,” he says. “If they’re not tested, then it’s not a marketplace.”
In videos like “Ivermectin For and Against,” he set up a debate of sorts between a proponent of ivermectin in Dr. Tess Lawrie and people taking the opposite position, like Australian researcher Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz and emergency room doctor Graham Walker. These were, as he describes it, “medical figures who disagreed with [Lawrie’s] read of the evidence.” Rather than just insult people, he used an approach that he calls “balanced and journalistic.”
Nonetheless, that “balanced” approach earned a YouTube ban, which puzzled Fuller. “When I read through their guidance, there was no exception for journalistic treatment of a subject,” he says. “Even though I quizzed the interviewee pretty hard and pushed back, the rules were written in such a way that it didn't matter what the interviewer did. That's pretty screwed, in my view, [that] they're unable to distinguish between a puff piece and a grilling.”
Fuller notes that the guidance does have a section that reads:
We may allow content that violates the misinformation policies noted on this page if that content includes additional context in the video, audio, title, or description. This is not a free pass to promote misinformation.
But that guidance isn’t terribly specific, and given that he himself received a strike despite adding plenty of “additional context,” it’s not clear if YouTube’s algorithm is capable of enforcing its own terms.
Fuller is the third straight journalist on whose behalf TK has (seemingly successfully) intervened with YouTube/Google, whose press team is courteous and responsive. The first involved Canadian broadcaster Paul Jay, while the second was a bizarre story we ended up not running (I’ll leave the convoluted explanation on that one for another day) involving a well-known investigative site that was not-so-humorously misidentified as adult content. The principals of all three of these outlets are glad their problems were fixed, but they’re also all decidedly unsure if corrective action by Google/YouTube’s press department leaves things better, or worse.
In Fuller’s case, he notes, “the appeal process was done. They only reviewed it because the press team got involved. Most people wouldn’t have levers they can pull in this situation.”
As another reporter caught up in one of these controversies put it, “This is the issue with monopoly companies. If we’re going to let them have monopoly market share, they should be forced to invest in real customer service, so fixing this kind of thing doesn’t depend on knowing someone in the media.”
Though Fuller and I disagree about whether or not things like demonetization of DarkHorse count as censorship, and whether such suppression works or is warranted, both his and Weinstein’s episodes are identical in showing for umpteenth time that algorithms simply cannot be depended upon to sort out the subtleties of public discussion about complex topics.
Moreover, once companies like YouTube get into the business of litigating what is and is not dangerous in a public health debate, they will inevitably make the mistake of deleting true information about drugs like ivermectin or facts about potential dangers (no matter how remote) of vaccines, either out of fear of the aforementioned “false equivalence” or concern that admitting certain truths will seem too much like affirmative advocacy.
Once companies take that step, it tends to have the impact of further convincing people that they’re being lied to by mainstream news and partners in Silicon Valley, which in turn might lead to urging people in the opposite direction of the content moderators’ intent. This Internet version of the Streisand effect is one of the reasons I’ve been against censoring proponents of drugs like ivermectin, but the much bigger reason is that any strategy based on bans inevitably leads to oversimplifications and groupthink that are easily seen through by audiences.
Fuller takes on issues like ivermectin by not succumbing to silly caricatures, and focusing on challenging specific assertions, like that ivermectin is “something like 100% effective as a prophylactic.” Fuller takes serious issue with such claims, but his solution is to try to confront proponents with more information, and show audiences the results of such exchanges.
This, however, is harder to do, when such an approach might earn an outlet like Rebel Wisdom a strike from YouTube. I asked Fuller his thoughts on the episode:
TK: After your first ban, when you looked at YouTube’s rules, you say you found there was “no exception in their guidance for journalistic treatment.” What did you understand that to mean? Did you think it meant you can't criticize people like Weinstein?
Fuller: No, this [latest] film being taken down came totally out of the blue. It was the previous “Ivermectin For and Against” film that was taken down (I assume algorithmically flagged) and put up on appeal that made sense.
Bret had his film with Pierre Kory taken down, and lots of people framed it as that you couldn't ‘discuss’ ivermectin on YouTube. However, I thought that he was blurring the line between discussion, and advocacy of particular treatments, in particular claiming that IVM was “100% effective” as a prophylactic, based on one study from Argentina (Carvallo), which would clearly suggest people should take it in lieu of vaccines. (Incidentally that study has now been shown to be at the very least fundamentally flawed, and may not even have taken place).
So I made a film that showed both sides and challenged the Ivermectin advocate Tess Lawrie. It also featured two medical figures making the counter argument. It was still taken down, and when I checked the YouTube guidance, it was clear there was no exceptions for challenging questions/journalistic pushback/balanced pieces… From the way the guidance is written, the fact that I challenged her points seemingly doesn't factor in. So they were within their rights to take it down, but they ended up restoring it on appeal, again with no information as to why.
If this current film was taken down because it had the clips from Bret’s film with Steve Kirsch in it, then this would also demonstrate that it's dangerous to feature controversial content/figures even if you are critiquing them. However, I guess we don't know if that was the reason.
TK: They reinstated you on appeal once, and now have done it again after a press query. Does that restore your confidence in this system?
Fuller: Absolutely not. There is no transparency in the system at all. I still don't know why either of these films was taken down, or reinstated. I’m lucky that I have a level of profile and experience as a journalist that I have more weight when I appeal, or that this gets taken up by other journalists, but as a content creator trying to tackle some of the biggest and most important topics there are, and topics I would argue the mainstream is failing at right now, then you are constantly walking a line that seems to move randomly.
I would argue that I have put together the most detailed investigation into both ivermectin and the vaccine claims that exists at the moment. With ivermectin the mainstream is still dismissively talking about “horse dewormer” and assuming that anyone taking ivermectin is stupid, and has failed to tackle the vaccine claims in any depth.
I also put out one of the most important news-making interviews on the topic, where former member of Pierre Kory's FLCCC, Eric Osgood MD, spoke out for the first time about his concerns that the case for IVM had been hijacked by anti-vaccine activists.
I deliberately published my work privately through Rebel Wisdom as I wanted to avoid any suggestions that this was an “MSM smear” and reach as many “vaccine hesitant” people as possible. I could have pitched more widely, I have bylines in BBC/Economist/Guardian and more. But YouTube have made it extremely difficult to do genuine journalism on their platform.
TK: Why is it important to show source material? As a filmmaker, what's the difference between showing something and summarizing something?
Fuller: The viewer needs to see the source material to understand how something was said, and the context. Clips tell the story in a way that summarizing would never do.
TK: What lessons do you take away from this experience?
Fuller: That YouTube is unfit for the purpose for hosting journalism, and that their moderation system is secretive, random and very disrespectful to creators who have made large amounts of money for the company. I still have no idea why any of these films was taken down or why.