YouTube can blame only itself for finding itself in a muddy ditch, flipped over, wheels spinning.
As Bloomberg’s Mark Bergen tells us in his tidy history of Google’s video-sharing site, YouTube executives decided in 2012 that the way to maximize ad revenue was by maximizing views—and so they instructed their programmers to rewrite its recommendation engine to reach the goal of 1 billion hours viewed a day. As video creators realized that the new algorithms rewarded the most outrageous videos, they proceeded to stoke YouTube with extreme content of all varieties.
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Fiddling with its algorithms and constantly rejigging its video content rules, YouTube has sought ever since to curb the videos it found most appalling—beheadings, terrorist recruitment, anti-Semitism, tasteless depictions of death, porn, promotion of drugs, and other “controversial or sensitive subjects.” But like chastised children given explicit rules of conduct by their parents, YouTube video creators have always found a way to observe the new demarcation line and still post transgressive content. This continual redrawing of YouTube’s rules was on view again this week as it promulgated new guidelines to evict white supremacists, neo-Nazis, espousers of racist and sexist theories, and creators of conspiracy videos denying historical events like the Newtown school shootings. YouTube has also moved to “demonetize“ users who violate the spirit of its rules. Steven Crowder‘s popular channel has been demonetized for ridiculing a writer at Vox for being gay, meaning the channel can no longer accept ads. On another front, the New York Times looked at how the site’s algorithm itself creates extreme content, by repackaging innocent videos of children in ways that make them seem sexually suggestive.
Right-wingers are angry that YouTube is taking their content down. Liberals are in a moral panic over whether the site exists at all. YouTube really is a cesspit, and Google’s efforts to rein it in are often ham-handed. But it’s also a colossally important public square and an underappreciated miracle of the internet. There’s good reason to keep its freewheeling spirit alive, as unpleasant as that may feel this week.
Why does YouTube draw Nazis like an invitation to a goose-stepping contest, while traditional video providers such as HBO, ESPN, CBS, WGN and the rest do not? Volume. As Bergen notes, YouTube committed itself early on to hosting astronomically huge numbers of videos against which it could sell lots of ads. Anybody can post a video to YouTube for free, and it seems like almost everybody has! Users upload 500 hours of video each minute. There are nowhere near enough human screeners at YouTube to monitor this deluge nor any AI powerful enough to judge it all. The site depends heavily on offended viewers to file complaints that make it easier to police the transgressors.
Traditional video providers don’t have this problem because they pride themselves on being gatekeepers. YouTube leaves the gate open. Traditional video providers air relatively tiny amounts of content that they commission, and they also have the luxury of time to vet it all for naughtiness before airing (or erect sturdy safeguards like a seven-second delay if the content is live). If racism, porn, or drug advocacy leaks through to a traditional video provider’s screens, it’s by design, not accident.
YouTube’s periodic purges of “offensive” content reflect less of a desire to censor reprobates than to placate the advertisers who have made it a $16 billion a year business. Advertisers don’t want their ads associated in any way with child pornography, or claims that Sandy Hook was a hoax, or that the Holocaust never happened, and to keep those ad dollars flowing YouTube must make a steady show of vigilance. “Recently, we had a number of cases where brands’ ads appeared on content that was not aligned with their values,” Phillip Schindler, Google’s chief business officer blogged in March 2017 during an advertiser dust-up. “For this, we deeply apologize. We know that this is unacceptable to the advertisers and agencies who put their trust in us.”
Clever white supremacists and other offenders will always find a way to navigate around YouTube’s ever-changing rules, making its efforts look a lot like the security theater that TSA subjects us to at the airport. So what should the company do? Any discussion of YouTube that neglects to note that in addition to offending people, the site has also been a boon to mankind is incomplete. The site abounds in free and advertiser-supported entertainment, cultural treasures, stirring lectures, classic films, and how-to videos for everything from how to make a Bluetooth connection with your 2012 Acura to how to fix a toilet. “Bad” content on YouTube is so overwhelmingly outweighed by the beneficial content that I sometimes wonder why we so fixate on the bad. The fact that I can go to Amazon and order a copy of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (or other damnable books like the works of David Irving) with one click has prompted nobody to demand that Amazon take down the page or that its publisher be “demonetized” or that the printer of the book be ostracized.
One reason deplatforming Nazis at bookstores strikes us differently than deplatforming them at YouTube is that we’ve been taught from a young age that bookstores and libraries are sacrosanct places where evil ideas must be tolerated along with the good because, as John Stuart Mill had it, silencing opinion harms humanity more than it does the silenced speaker. It denies us the chance of debate in which we have a chance of “exchanging error for truth.” Booksellers, ever-wary of a slippery slope, consider the long-term consequences of banning works from their premises.
Some would argue for the suppression of YouTube Nazi videos because the scale of YouTube can efficiently place Der Führer’s ideas in every pocket and easily “radicalize“ the dull-thinking masses. This argument, which I understand, says that video is more effective in swaying people than books. This argument sidesteps the fact that Hitler successfully “radicalized” Germany without the help of a free online video service. That would suggest that we should ban pro-Hitler books now because they once helped a genocidal dictator achieve power.
One thing that separates Amazon and your local bookstore from YouTube is that Amazon and many bookstores deliberately stock wrong-thinking books out of their faith in the power of good ideas to triumph. YouTube, on the other hand, acquired its Nazi and hateful videos passively, the way a forest floor acquires a bed of leaves in autumn, with no philosophical introspection. Activists sense that YouTube has no real stake in the promulgation of ideas—it is in it only for the ad revenue, and will fold if pressed about “objectionable” content. At the rate we’re going, YouTube will be persuaded to remove or demonetize videos that are opposed to gay marriage, or drag queen story hour, because activists and advertisers will it so.
Maybe you think I’m exaggerating, but YouTube purges have a way of spinning out of control. Its newest rules have resulted in the deletion of videos on Nazi history, including Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda masterpiece Triumph of the Will. Under YouTube’s latest standards, studying Nazism is now akin to practicing it. Another example: Video journalist Ford Fischer found his exposes of political extremism demonetized by YouTube this week for promoting “harmful or hateful content.”
Is there a way out of the YouTube morass? If the site continues to placate the offended it will ultimately become a no-controversy emporium that serves only porridge topped with skim milk. If that’s what it wants, that’s OK with me. It’s YouTube’s house. But YouTube’s purges won’t end the expression of bad thoughts, it will only push them to forbidden corners of the Web where we won’t be able to monitor them. There’s nothing like the creation of a forbidden fruit to stimulate interest.
The good thing about the purges is that they’ve awakened us to our over-dependence on the ease of use and no-cost service of YouTube and the other major virtual public squares—Twitter and Facebook, which have also cracked down on wrong-think. Foolishly imagining that YouTube wanted to be our servant, we were shocked when we learned that its primary passion was to sell ads. In its own way, Big Tech is trying to tell us to decentralize our conversations and debates to places beyond its control. Let a million YouTubes bloom.
Demonetize me with an email to [email protected]. My email alerts once shook the hand of Sen. Alan Cranston, who bootlegged a version of Mein Kampf and lost a copyright lawsuit filed by Hitler. My Twitter feed favors forbidden commie literature. My RSS feed remains committed to Max Stirner.