“Misinformation policy violated: Content that advances false claims that widespread fraud, errors, or glitches changed the outcome of the U.S. 2020 presidential election is not allowed on YouTube.”
That was the message I received from YouTube after they removed the video of a recent interview I conducted with Peter Wood, an anthropologist and academic who believes — like tens of millions of Americans — that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump.
During the podcast, which YouTube ultimately decided to restore after an appeal and further review, Wood also claimed that the Jan. 6 riots were incited by liberal activists working in collusion with the FBI, a theory trumpeted by Trump and commentators within the conservative media.
I have not counted the 2020 votes myself, nor was I at the Capitol on Jan. 6. However, based on sources of information I trust, I am highly confident that Joe Biden was the legitimate winner of the election and that the vast majority of the Jan. 6 rioters were Trump supporters intent on disrupting the peaceful transfer of power.
But millions of my fellow citizens are equally confident in the theories embraced by Wood and other conservative influencers.
Most Americans trust the narratives they believe to be true in good faith, regardless of their factuality. They believe their side is protecting democracy, while the other side is working deliberately to undermine it. Misinformation thrives in an environment of low trust. And bridging this widening “trust gulf” is critical to rescuing America from a cycle of extreme polarization and political violence.
I am sympathetic to the tech platforms’ efforts to restrict content that pushes dangerous, false information. ... But completely excluding from the conversation Americans who have fallen prey to false narratives will simply erode trust further and allow misinformation to morph and spread.
I am sympathetic to the tech platforms’ efforts to restrict content that pushes dangerous, false information related to the 2020 election, the Capitol riot and the COVID-19 vaccines —especially when it’s being created and amplified by cynical, bad-faith actors who know they are spreading disinformation. The desire to deplatform perspectives deemed false or damaging to public health and democracy does not generally arise from a mean-spirited authoritarianism; it comes from an earnest concern for justice, truth and the lives of our neighbors. But completely excluding from the conversation Americans who have fallen prey to false narratives will simply erode trust further and allow misinformation to morph and spread. And indeed, limiting conversation to protect people from the consequences of false ideas also prevents people from being exposed to the truth.
YouTube’s decision to reinstate my podcast based on its Educational, Documentary, Scientific or Artistic guidelines, which take into account a video’s context as well as its content, was a sound one. While the platform lacks the capacity to discern the nuances of content that triggers a violation in real time — reinstating the video took more than a week — it’s clear that YouTube is trying to develop policies that weigh nuance, context and intent. The other tech platforms would be wise to do the same. In an environment of low trust among users, it’s crucial to spell out policies, explain guidelines and communicate transparently when a decision has been overturned.
Whether on YouTube or at the kitchen table, it is essential that we talk with — rather than simply about — our fellow Americans and political opponents, including those who have placed their trust in false narratives. Establishing lines of communication and fountains of trust across the partisan and epistemological divide will improve our collective ability to ultimately build fact-based consensus and reduce the power of misinformation.
With the right approach, we can choose engagement over exclusion, dialogue over deplatforming, and empathy over contempt. We can invite one another into the shared pursuit of truth upon which our vital experiment in ordered liberty, however fragile and flawed, depends. And perhaps, despite our differing views of what is fact and what is fiction, we can together find transcendent truth in one another’s values, experiences and identities.
Ciaran O’Connor is a leader at Braver Angels, a national nonprofit working to depolarize America.