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June 6, 2019
Having initially taken a position in favour of freedom of speech, YouTube has now lurched towards censorship following public pressure.
Yesterday we told you about the matter of Vox journalist Carlos Maza versus YouTuber Steven Crowder. Crowder had frequently made mocking reference to Maza’s sexual orientation in videos he made to rebut Maza’s own videos. Maza felt this was homophobic harassment and called on YouTube to censor Crowder’s channel on the platform.
YouTube initially responded by saying that, while it didn’t endorse Crowder’s actions, they didn’t violate any of its policies and so he wouldn’t be punished. Maza was unhappy about this and made his feelings clear on Twitter. The decision quickly turned into a PR nightmare for YouTube, with most mainstream media reporting the decision as YouTube ‘tolerating’ homophobic content.
This precipitated a major rethink by YouTube, which published a couple of blog posts apparently designed to appease the many critics of its initial decision. The first was headlined ‘Our ongoing work to tackle hate’, which addressed the difficulties of policing so-called ‘hate speech’ on the platform.
“Today, we’re taking another step in our hate speech policy by specifically prohibiting videos alleging that a group is superior in order to justify discrimination, segregation or exclusion based on qualities like age, gender, race, caste, religion, sexual orientation or veteran status,” announced the post. It also said YouTube is stepping up its efforts to limit the availability of stuff that doesn’t violate its policies, but is still deemed dodgy by its own arbitrary judgment.
While that post didn’t specifically address the Maza/Crowder situation, YouTube’s second one, Taking a harder look at harassment, did and tried to tackle the free speech dilemma at hand. “If we were to take all potentially offensive content down, we’d be losing valuable speech — speech that allows people everywhere to raise their voices, tell their stories, question those in power, and participate in the critical cultural and political conversations of our day,” said the post.
Inevitably, however, YouTube found itself in the position of effectively saying ‘we’re totally in favour of free speech but…’ as all exponents of selective censorship eventually do. “Even if a creator’s content doesn’t violate our community guidelines, we will take a look at the broader context and impact, and if their behavior is egregious and harms the broader community, we may take action,” the post continued.
“In the case of Crowder’s channel, a thorough review over the weekend found that individually, the flagged videos did not violate our Community Guidelines. However, in the subsequent days, we saw the widespread harm to the YouTube community resulting from the ongoing pattern of egregious behavior, took a deeper look, and made the decision to suspend monetization. In order to be considered for reinstatement, all relevant issues with the channel need to be addressed, including any videos that violate our policies, as well as things like offensive merchandise.”
That last paragraph appears to be a clear attempt to appease its critics, but for those hoping to see Crowder kicked off YouTube, as has happened to many other ‘egregious’ content producers, merely demonetizing the channel was not enough. Maza once more took to Twitter to make his dissatisfaction clear in no uncertain terms. Crowder, meanwhile, invited Vox to subscribe to his channel.
From those two blog posts it does seem like YouTube is genuinely trying to find the optimal point of censorship that will satisfy both Maza and Crowder but this is, of course, impossible. Censorship, by definition, involves the imposition of a set of rules and values on other people who may not agree with them. When you also find yourself in the middle of a culture war it’s probably impossible to please anyone, let alone everyone.
One of the challenges of using nebulous neologisms like ‘hate speech’ is that they’re very difficult to define. YouTube attempted to do so in its first post by talking about discrimination against people on the basis of a number of characteristics. Unstated, but always implicit, in such policies is that enforcement is usually one directional – i.e. not all characteristics are subject to protection from ‘hate speech’ – which often leads to claims of bias against those not protected.
More broadly, as soon as a censor acts against a type of speech it then comes under pressure to apply that sanction to each and every other instance of that type under its jurisdiction even-handedly. If it doesn’t then it’s reasonable to conclude there is some bias built into the process, which will displease those who consider themselves adversely affected by it.
Another major issue social media censorship raises is the status of services like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. They are currently legally positioned at ‘platforms’ which means they’re not responsible for the content they host. As they increasingly act in an editorial capacity, however, there is a good argument that they should be reclassified as publishers, which would fundamentally undermine their whole model.
As we wrote yesterday, those calling for censorship should be careful what they wish for since it could one day be applied to them. Maza wants Crowder to be censored for harassing him, but himself recently called for the harassment of people whose politics he disapproves of. Under these new rules should he not be punished too?
We will leave you, appropriately enough, with a couple of YouTube clips. The first features Crowder discussing the matter with independent journalist Tim Pool, who is sympathetic to him but is more interested in exploring some of the broader issues this case highlights. The second is an excerpt from a recent podcast published by Joe Rogan, in which he and leftist commentator David Pakman wrestle with the complexities of the matter. Both illustrate the impossible position YouTube has put itself in by acting as a censor.
As the Editorial Director of Telecoms.com, Scott oversees all editorial activity on the site and also manages the Telecoms.com Intelligence arm, which focuses on analysis and bespoke content.
Scott has been covering the mobile phone and broader technology industries for over ten years. Prior to Telecoms.com Scott was the primary smartphone specialist at industry analyst Strategy Analytics’. Before that Scott was a technology journalist, covering the PC and telecoms sectors from a business perspective.
Follow him @scottbicheno
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