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Some state lawmakers spread virus misinformation

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Many Republican lawmakers have criticized governors’ emergency restrictions since the start of the coronavirus outbreak. Now that most legislatures are back in session, a new type of pushback is taking root: misinformation.

In their own comments or by inviting skeptics to testify at legislative hearings, some GOP state lawmakers are using their platform to promote false information about the virus, the steps needed to limit its spread and the vaccines that will pull the nation out of the pandemic.

In some cases, the misstatements have faced swift backlash, even getting censored online. That’s raised tough questions about how aggressively to combat potentially dangerous misinformation from elected officials or during legislative hearings while protecting free speech and people’s access to government.

Last week, YouTube pulled down a video of committee testimony in the Ohio House after a witness inaccurately claimed COVID-19 wasn’t killing children. The platform said the video violated its community standards against the spread of misinformation.

Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology project, said YouTube went too far.

“When we’re talking about testimony that occurred at a public hearing, the far better response would be counterspeech, maybe in the form of fact-checking or labeling, rather than this attempt to flush it down the memory hole,” Wizner said.

But opposing voices aren’t always allowed in committee hearings.

In Michigan, for example, the House Oversight Committee didn’t include state health officials or other virus experts in a discussion about an extended pause on youth contact sports ordered by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

It did feature Jayme McElvany, a virus skeptic who also has posted about the QAnon conspiracy and former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims of election fraud. Founder of a group called Let Them Play, McElvany questioned mask mandates and the science behind state COVID-19 data during a legislative hearing that didn’t feature any witnesses from the other side.

Wizner said such imbalances need to be highlighted, not suppressed.

“People need to know this is what passes for local government,” he said. When the hearings are posted online, YouTube owner Google has plenty of tools for flagging questionable information and directing people to facts, Wizner said.

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