June 5, 2019
Internet platforms have become proxies in a culture war between corporate-backed commentators and independent ones.
The latest round in this battle has been fought on YouTube, specifically between a journalist who works for Vox called Carlos Maza and a YouTuber called Stephen Crowder. In a series of recent tweets Maza accused Crowder of harassment and called on YouTube to punish his channel for violating its own rules on such things.
YouTube eventually responded via Twitter by saying that, while it can see why Maza would feel hurt by some of Crowder’s comments, they didn’t violate its policies and thus would not be punished. It stressed that, as an open platform, it can’t punish everything that may be considered offensive and that refusing to take down a video was in no way a corporate endorsement of its content.
The reason this is a big deal is that it touches on a lot of the cultural divisions currently being played out over, and probably exacerbated by, social media. Not only do the two protagonists seem to be on opposite sides of the political divide, they’re also apparently culturally and personally opposed to each other too. On top of that Vox Media has raised hundreds of millions of dollars in funding and has US giant Comcast as a significant minority shareholder, while Crowder claims to be entirely funded by subscriptions and merchandise sales.
So in many ways these two people are viewed as proxies in the broader culture war and whichever way YouTube went on this would be claimed as a victory for one team or the other. This dispute, and others like it, also serves a a test case for internet censorship in general – specifically what sort of content should be censored.
Maza argues that, by frequently referring to his sexual orientation, Crowder is being homophobic and that a failure to act against such speech is, in itself, essentially homophobic. Crowder, in the video below, says that’s ‘friendly ribbing’ and says he figured referring to his sexual orientation wouldn’t be an issue since Maza’s own Twitter handle is ‘@gaywonk’.
Crowder goes on to use comedy as a defense, which really cuts to the heart of the censorship debate. A core component of much comedy is pushing boundaries and saying the unsayable. Social platforms and national laws have a wide range of attitudes towards comedy and definitions of speech that shouldn’t be allowed. There’s no clear consensus, which is one of the reasons there continues to be so much public lobbying in both directions.
On the whole speech produced by establishment sources such as large media organisations can sometimes seem to benefit from greater protections than that of independent creators. An example of this is the prosecution of Scottish YouTuber Count Dankula for publishing edgy comedy about Nazis, while comedy shows such as Fawlty Towers and Father Ted continue to be celebrated for similar satire.
YouTube seems to be more concerned about upsetting its big advertisers than policing speech, which is why it usually opts to demonetize contentious content rather than ban it outright. For this reason many independent YouTubers, such as Tim Pool (see video at the end of the piece), are upset at Maza because they think he’s trying to provoke YouTube into demonetizing the kind of content they produce, as opposed to his own.
Maza himself doesn’t seem to have made a video addressing this issue yet, although he has made his displeasure at YouTube’s decision abundantly clear on Twitter. But he has had plenty to say on the culture war being fought over social media in the past, of which the following video is a good example.
Maza makes a good point about how the algorithms that determine the recommendations we receive on social media sites inevitably lead to polarisation. He concludes, however, with an apparent call for censorship of what he describes as ‘bad apples’. Here we have the essential problem with such calls – deciding who should be censored. You can probably identify who Maza thinks should be censored from the video and his editorial angle, but how confident can he be that he won’t, one day, be identified as a bad apple too, despite his publication’s considerable corporate backing?
As with so many others, the internet censorship debate comes down to where on the freedom-safety continuum you lie. As journalists we are instinctively in favour of as much freedom of speech as possible, while acknowledging there have to be some legal limits to it. It’s therefore surprising to see other media actively calling for increased censorship and we urge them to be careful what they wish for.
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