SAN FRANCISCO — YouTube, like other social media platforms, spent years expanding its efforts to tackle misinformation after the 2016 election. It hired policy experts and content moderators and invested in more technology to limit the reach of false narratives. Not anymore.
Last month, the company, owned by Google, quietly reduced its small team of policy experts in charge of handling misinformation, according to three people with knowledge of the decision. The cuts, part of the reduction of 12,000 employees by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, left only one person in charge of misinformation policy worldwide, one of the people said.
The cuts reflect a trend across the industry that threatens to undo many of the safeguards that social media platforms put in place in recent years to ban or tamp down on disinformation — like false claims about the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russian war in Ukraine, or the integrity of elections around the world. Twitter, under its new owner, Elon Musk, has slashed its staff, while Meta, which owns Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, has shifted its focus and resources to the immersive world of the metaverse.
Faced with economic headwinds and political and legal pressure, the social media giants have shown signs that fighting false information online is no longer as high a priority, raising fears among experts who track the issue that it will further erode trust online.
“I wouldn’t say the war is over, but I think we’ve lost key battles,” said Angelo Carusone, the president of the liberal media watchdog Media Matters for America. After years of efforts, he described a mounting sense of fatigue in the struggle. “I do think we, as a society, have lost the appetite to keep battling. And that means we will lose the war.”
The companies maintain they remain diligent, but the efforts to combat false and misleading information online — which arguably peaked during the COVID pandemic and the 2020 presidential election — have waned at a time when the problem of misinformation remains as pernicious as ever with a proliferation of alternative sites competing for users.
Meta restored the accounts of former President Donald Trump on Facebook and Instagram on Thursday, barely two years after suspending him for inciting violence ahead of the storming of the Capitol. It did so even though his posts on his own platform, Truth Social, are rife with extremist content, like the conspiracy theories spread by the QAnon movement that Facebook has previously declared unacceptable. (Trump has not yet posted there.)
Musk has also invited Trump back to Twitter, one of the many steps he has taken to dismantle many of the platform’s previous policies, boasting that he wanted to undo censorious decisions made by its previous owners. The team that oversaw trust and safety issues — including misinformation — was among those eliminated under Musk’s leadership.
YouTube’s staff reductions in January were not as drastic but were significant for the small teams assigned to set and refine the platform’s policies. YouTube fired two of its five misinformation experts, including the team’s manager, leaving behind one person for political misinformation and two for medical misinformation, one of the people with knowledge of the decision said.
It also shed two of its five policy experts, called leads, who work on hate speech and harassment issues, the person said. These experts have played critical roles in determining where YouTube’s line between acceptable and unacceptable content should be and advised executives on difficult content decisions.
YouTube also made small reductions among teams that enforce its policies and its rapid response team, which is involved in addressing problematic content on the platform. Outside of YouTube, Google’s trust and safety department shed a team of program managers who assisted policy experts, according to a message about the decision reviewed by The New York Times.
Policy experts working on other issues like extremism, child safety, and policies for new products were unaffected by the layoffs.
YouTube said that overall, the layoffs were consistent with the 6 percent job cuts across Alphabet.
“Responsibility remains our top priority,” Elena Hernandez, a YouTube spokesperson, said in a statement. “We’ll continue to support the teams, machine learning and policies that protect the YouTube community, and pursue this work with the same focus and rigor moving forward.”
Still, critics are concerned that social media companies have put the bottom line above the public good.
“Basically, trust and safety was the first thing to go,” said Joel Finkelstein co-founder of the Network Contagion Research Institute, which tracks hate and extremism on social media. “The veneer of civility is expensive.”
None of the companies say they are abandoning the fight against misinformation. Nick Clegg, the president of global affairs at Meta, wrote after Trump’s reinstatement on Facebook that it would continue to intervene “where there is a clear risk of real-world harm.”
“The public should be able to hear what their politicians are saying — the good, the bad and the ugly — so that they can make informed choices at the ballot box,” he wrote in a statement. “But that does not mean that there are no limits to what people can say on our platform.”