CONCORD, N.H. — In early March, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. made news when he told a room full of New Hampshire politicos that he was “thinking about” running for president. But when a local TV station tried to upload his full remarks to YouTube, the video was rejected.
Kennedy had claimed during the speech that officials are lying about COVID-19 vaccine safety. YouTube cited its COVID-19 medical misinformation policy and nixed the video in its entirety.
The move, which drew howls from some and ambivalence from others, was an example of how political discourse ahead of the 2024 election is being shaped by loose-with-the-truth rhetoric from presidential candidates and the content moderation choices of major online platforms.
Kennedy, a Democrat whose crusade against vaccines has been denounced by medical professionals and fellow members of the political dynasty to which he belongs, vowed to sue over the video’s removal. The incident was mentioned very briefly in a lawsuit he and his Children’s Health Defense nonprofit filed in late March. The suit claims federal officials have induced social media companies to violate free speech rights.
“Beyond the legal issues, we believe it is dangerous and undemocratic for the largest social media platforms to censor the speech of political candidates,” Kennedy campaign spokesperson Stefanie Spear told the Globe.
The fact that Kennedy declared his longshot candidacy last month for the Democratic presidential nomination won’t change his status under YouTube’s policies. The platform’s guidelines apply equally to everyone, with no exceptions for public figures or newsworthiness, a YouTube spokesperson said.
So when he’s back in the Granite State this week for another political speech, Kennedy might find himself at odds again with YouTube’s moderators. Like other 2024 candidates, he was invited to address the New Hampshire Senate. His speech is set to be livestreamed at about 10 a.m. on Thursday on the same YouTube channel the Senate uses to broadcast all of its sessions.
YouTube spokesperson Nicole Bell told the Globe that livestreams are subject to the same standards as videos and other content on the site. Once content is flagged either by users or automated systems, the company takes action, Bell said. The company takes an all-or-nothing approach.
“We don’t remove sections of videos or livestreams that violate our policies — the uploader has ownership rights on that content,” Bell said, noting that creators are responsible for ensuring that what they stream complies with YouTube’s rules and local laws.
That means, if YouTube takes action in response to something Kennedy says on Thursday, then the company could take down the entire livestream video, not just Kennedy’s remarks. Session days in the Senate often last several hours, with a single livestream that helps stakeholders keep track of government business asynchronously and from afar, without having to linger in the gallery, where there are fewer than 50 seats.
A spokesperson for Senate leadership did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment about whether the chamber would take any special steps, such as breaking Thursday’s livestream up into multiple videos, in light of YouTube’s past reaction to Kennedy’s comments.
YouTube allows an exception for news reports and other material that adequately contextualizes otherwise-impermissible content. But it’s not clear whether the Senate livestream could qualify. YouTube suggests emphasizing opposing views or highlighting authoritative sources to discredit false claims as ways to provide adequate context.
Spear, the campaign spokesperson, said Kennedy won’t speak about vaccines during his Senate address on Thursday. Rather, he’ll speak on New Hampshire’s special character, its first-in-the-nation-primary, and the relationship between the state’s character and his campaign’s themes. (For what it’s worth, Kennedy’s speech in March at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College was advertised as being about the primary and political polarization, not vaccines.)
Senate President Jeb Bradley, a Republican from Wolfeboro, has said presidential candidates are being invited to sessions as part of New Hampshire’s long history of vetting presidential candidates.
“Whether it’s a house party, diner, or the Senate chamber, we ask candidates the tough questions instead of relying on glossy campaign ads,” he said in March. “We will continue this process regardless of the Democratic National Committee’s attempt to hijack our primary.”
Kennedy has signaled plans to focus his campaign on New Hampshire, where state leaders have vowed to hold onto their prime spot in the 2024 nominating calendar, even as the DNC tries shifting that honor to South Carolina and threatens to sanction states that disobey.
The reshuffled calendar, which the DNC pursued at President Biden’s urging, could open up an arena for Democratic candidates like Kennedy and author Marianne Williamson to compete while the incumbent stays away. Williamson addressed the Senate in March, followed by Republican candidates Vivek Ramaswamy in April and Perry Johnson in May.
A spokesperson said Democrats in the Senate were busy handling budget bills Tuesday. None responded Tuesday to a request for comment about Kennedy’s visit.
National polls in May have consistently shown Kennedy trailing Biden by 40 percentage points or more.