YouTube is all over the map when it comes to offensive content

Facebook executives must be breathing a huge sigh of relief. The giant social network has been in the news for weeks, facing a legion of critics for its inaction on misinformation and harassment. This week, the spotlight has been trained on YouTube, instead. The Google-owned video-sharing site started the week off on the wrong foot because of its ongoing failure to take action against YouTube creator Steven Crowder for his repeated homophobic slurs aimed at Vox journalist Carlos Maza, something Maza says has been going on for months. The platform’s do-nothing approach was further compounded when YouTube said Crowder’s videos didn’t breach its rules, and therefore would not be removed. “While we found language that was clearly hurtful, the videos as posted don’t violate our policies,” YouTube said on Twitter.

After this decision unleashed a torrent of criticism, the company seemed to relent, and announced on Wednesday that it would “demonetize” Crowder’s channel, meaning he won’t be able to share in the revenue generated by the ads YouTube displays next to his videos. This failed to assuage most of the company’s critics, however (including Maza), because he apparently makes most of his revenue from selling branded merchandise, including T-shirts that say “Socialism is for F*gs.” Subsequent tweets from the official YouTube account on Twitter at first suggested that Crowder would be able to re-monetize his channel through ad-revenue sharing provided he stopped selling T-shirts, and then tried to clarify that he would remain demonetized until he made unspecified changes to his channel (including no longer selling the T-shirts).

While all of this was going on, YouTube also made a simultaneous announcement that it was cracking down on videos promoting neo-Nazi and white supremacist views, as well as conspiracy theory videos questioning historical events like the Sandy Hook shooting. Whether the timing was intentional—that is, whether YouTube thought the move might be an antidote to the storm of criticism over Crowder—is unknown, but the announcement was clearly designed to show that YouTube is on the ball when it comes to dealing with problematic content, despite a profusion of evidence to the contrary. In fact, in some ways the neo-Nazi and conspiracy-theory announcement made the company’s approach to offensive content seem even more haphazard when combined with the backtracking and scrambling over the Maza affair. Neo-Nazi content is clearly offside, but gay-bashing isn’t, until it is, but then it will just be demonetized, but stating offensive opinions is still bad, in certain cases. Huh?

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If nothing else, the past 48 hours for YouTube have reinforced just how at sea the company is when it comes to its treatment of offensive content, something that long-time YouTube-watchers know all too well. Google loves to claim (during heated questioning at Congressional hearings, for example) that it doesn’t suffer from the same kinds of issues that Facebook and Twitter do because it’s not a social network. But while Facebook may have been used by Russian troll farms as a distribution platform for disinformation aimed at rigging the US election in 2016, YouTube has a recommendation algorithm that not only pushes people towards inflammatory and fake content—to the point where some extremists give the network credit for radicalizing them—but also aggregates child porn.

Much like Twitter, YouTube has clung to its history as a bastion of free speech and anything-goes content, and that has made both companies reluctant to crack down on even the most obvious purveyors of hate speech and other offensive content. Both are also hyper-sensitive (as Facebook is) about being perceived as having an anti-conservative bias, a perception that is clearly trotted out in an attempt to “work the refs,” but seems to have paralyzed all three companies. It’s no coincidence that Crowder is a right-wing commentator, and that he has been using YouTube’s actions against him as evidence that he is somehow being persecuted for his beliefs. Until YouTube can find a way to come up with a coherent statement of principles and stick to it, those kinds of bad-faith arguments are going to continue to have an effect.

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Here’s more on YouTube and how it’s dealing with offensive content:

  • Dumpster fire: In a piece about the repeated harassment he has faced from Crowder and the lack of action by YouTube, Maza tells CJR’s Justin Ray the video-sharing network’s participation in events like Pride Month makes its inaction even more indefensible. “YouTube is making money off of pretending to give a shit about this, because they don’t,” says Maza. “They care about looking like they give a shit so corporate brands don’t realize what a dumpster fire YouTube really is.”
  • Uber-like: Guardian technology writer Julia Carrie Wong argues that while YouTube is often compared to Facebook and Twitter, it is actually a lot more like Uber. YouTube creators or “stars” like Crowder aren’t just users who post things randomly on the platform, she says—in a very real sense they are employed by YouTube, which partners with them to host their content in return for ad revenue and other benefits. And yet YouTube doesn’t take any responsibility for the content that it hosts.
  • A PR gambit: Rebecca Lewis, a PhD student at Stanford and a former researcher at Data & Society who has written about the problem of extremist content on YouTube, said on Twitter she is skeptical about whether the company will actually follow through on its new commitment to crack down on hate speech. “It is extremely difficult not to see the new YouTube policies in part as a way to change a negative PR narrative after refusing to address the harassment faced by [Maza],” she said. “The platforms have become very good at issuing PR statements about proposed changes that don’t ultimately have much effect.”
  • Caught in the net: Within minutes of YouTube’s announcement about a crackdown on extremist content, independent journalist Ford Fischer said that his YouTube channel—which documents extremism and activism—was demonetized. Fischer, who says his work has appeared in dozens of documentaries, said he got an email notice from YouTube that said “a significant portion” of his channel was not in line with its partner policies and therefore he was being was cut off from ad-revenue sharing.

Other notable stories:

  • Craigslist founder Craig Newmark announced that his charitable foundation is giving Consumer Reports magazine $6 million to create a research lab that will focus on consumers’ rights in the digital era (Newmark is on CJR’s board of overseers and has given Columbia Journalism School $10 million for a new ethics center). The magazine says its new lab will “shine a light on the data privacy and security issues that consumers increasingly face, as well as examining the broader topics of fair market competition, transparency and consumer choice.”
  • Daniel Dale, a reporter who gained a reputation for challenging (and counting) the numerous lies told by Donald Trump for The Toronto Star, is joining CNN as a reporter in the network’s Washington bureau, where he says he will be “on the truth beat full-time starting June 17, dissecting dishonesty from Trump, Democratic candidates, and others.” Dale says he started fact-checking the president in September 2016 “because I was frustrated that much of the campaign coverage didn’t seem very interested in talking about what was true and not true.”
  • The LA Times writes about how a number of former family-owned newspapers in California are being snapped up by a little-known Canadian company called Alberta Newspaper Group. The firm is run by David Radler, a man who was the second-in-command to former media baron Conrad Black before becoming a star witness for the prosecution in the fraud case against his former boss (Black was recently pardoned by Donald Trump, about whom Black wrote a book).
  • More Americans say they believe fake news is a problem than say climate change is, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center. Fake news was rated as a serious problem by 50 percent of those who answered the survey, compared with 46 percent who said climate change was a problem. Republicans expressed far greater concern than Democrats did about the issue, and also placed far more blame on journalists for creating the problem than Democrats did.
  • Naomi O’Leary, a reporter with Politico Europe, pointed out in a Twitter thread that a number of mainstream media outlets spread a false story about a Dutch teenager who was allegedly euthanized as part of that country’s legal euthanasia program. O’Leary said she was able to determine with just 10 minutes of fact-checking with a local reporter that the teen sought legal euthanasia and was refused, and later died at her home after refusing food and water for weeks.
  • Matthew Kassel writes for CJR about journalists who have returned to work in their home towns after building a career elsewhere, including Caitlin Dewey — who returned to work for The Buffalo News after writing about digital culture and food policy at The Washington Post — and Christopher Rickett, who is now a government and politics editor at his hometown paper, The Indianapolis Star, after years working for publications in Baltimore, Chicago, and Denver.
  • Herb Sandler, a former mortgage broker and philanthropist who provided the first investment in ProPublica, has died at the age of 88. Paul Steiger, who co-founded the company, talked about how in 2006, when he was managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, he got a phone call from Sandler, who had just sold his company Golden West Financial to Wachovia for $25 billion. The financier said he wanted to fund a new journalism venture, and was prepared to spend $10 million a year, and Steiger put together the proposal that eventually became ProPublica.
  • The Electronic Frontier Foundation has published a new report that shows over-zealous content moderation techniques used by social platforms like Facebook are removing pages, accounts and posts that are not extremist in nature but involve contentious political issues, including speech advocating for Chechen and Kurdish self-determination; satirical speech about a key Hezbollah figure; and documentation of the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Ukraine.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.