Late last night, YouTube ended its days-long silence over allegations of homophobic abuse on its platform. The claims were straightforward and corroborated via multiple video clips: A journalist at Vox named Carlos Maza was subject multiple times to harassment from right-wing YouTube personality Steven Crowder. YouTube ultimately decided the videos, though “offensive,” were A-okay. In a statement, the company wrote:
Our teams spent the last few days conducting an in-depth review of the videos flagged to us, and while we found language that was clearly hurtful, the videos as posted don’t violate our policies. As an open platform, it’s crucial for us to allow everyone–from creators to journalists to late-night TV hosts–to express their opinions within the scope of our policies. Opinions can be deeply offensive, but if they don’t violate our policies, they’ll remain on our site.
And as a result of this backlash to the backlash, YouTube did an about-face just a few hours later. The company now says it actually has decided to de-monetize Crowder’s channel (at least temporarily), meaning he can no longer sell ads via his videos.
Update on our continued review–we have suspended this channel’s monetization. We came to this decision because a pattern of egregious actions has harmed the broader community and is against our YouTube Partner Program policies. More here: https://t.co/VmOce5nbGy
— TeamYouTube (@TeamYouTube) June 5, 2019
You could spend hours pulling out your hair trying to get YouTube–and, by extension, Google–to adhere to cohesive logic, but that elides the overarching theory guiding every single decision YouTube makes. For many people, YouTube feels like a community. Entire networks of niche personalities have grown into full-blown influencers with lucrative careers. To the company, this is the perfect public image. When convenient, it’s an open and accepting place where people can just be themselves.
But that’s not what YouTube is: It’s an ad platform with the sole mission of garnering any and all engagement to generate ad revenue. When given the decision to enforce harassment policies or let a wildly successful account continue unchecked, it airs on the side of virality–until the backlash is just a bit too loud.
It should be noted that this issue isn’t simply about letting Crowder say what he has to say: It’s about YouTube amplifying his words and selling advertisements atop them. That Crowder’s videos were still promoted via YouTube’s own algorithms until dozens of news articles called YouTube out clearly shows what the site prioritizes. This was never an issue of YouTube deciding to hinder someone’s freedom of speech. It was about the company giving a megaphone to someone’s hateful words because, well, a lot of people listen to him.
What this entire ordeal makes clear is that YouTube will not consistently enforce its own cyberbullying policies when engagement and ad revenue are on the line, regardless of what its own terms of service say. This is similar to how YouTube dragged its feet when fake news and conspiracy theories continually popped up on its search results after tragedies like mass shootings. For example, after months of refusing to make a decision about Alex Jones’s conspiracy theorist content, YouTube eventually acted in tandem with other tech giants and banned the reactionary provocateur.
Which is to say: It was only when there was no chance of others gaining a competitive edge that YouTube made what it considered to be a hard-line controversial decision (which it was not!).
This should send a shiver down the spines of every YouTube creator who happens to be part of marginalized group–as well as employees at YouTube. Whether it admits it or not, Google makes endless calculations about what it deems important–and it picks clicks over community more often than not.