YouTube faces backlash after unveiling 'supremacist' content policy

YouTube’s new guidelines designed to curtail racist content and conspiracy theories are being met with backlash from conservative critics, who see the company’s updated policy amounting to a purge of right-wing voices from the popular video-sharing site.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, blasted YouTube on Thursday for removing advertising from the channel of conservative talk show host Steven Crowder. YouTube’s action against Crowder coincided with its rollout of a ban on “supremacist” content.

“This is ridiculous. YouTube is not the Star Chamber — stop playing God & silencing those voices you disagree with,” Cruz tweeted Thursday. “This will not end well. #LouderWithCrowder.”

Cruz demanded that YouTube explain its decision to demonetize Crowder’s channel but not take action against people who have made controversial remarks about Republicans, including comedian Samantha Bee and actor Jim Carrey. “Here’s an idea: DON’T BLACKLIST ANYBODY,” Cruz tweeted.

Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro and NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch both complained bitterly on Tuesday about YouTube’s decision, describing it as an attack based on political ideology. Shapiro portrayed the decision to demonetize Crowder’s account as YouTube making up rules to punish him.

“This is essentially @YouTube admitting that they exercised the heckler's veto,” Shapiro tweeted. “They can’t point to how @scrowder broke their rules, so they just made up new rules based on the fact that a bunch of people whined to them.”

Prager University, a right-wing nonprofit founded by conservative talk show host Dennis Prager, claimed Wednesday that more than 100 of its videos on YouTube have been placed in “restricted mode.” That tool is used by libraries, educational institutions and parents to block content not suitable for younger audiences.

YouTube announced its decision to demonetize Crowder’s account Wednesday after initially saying his use of homophobic slurs against a journalist didn’t violate the company’s community guidelines.

Carlos Maza, a video producer at Vox, posted a video compilation on Twitter last week that showed the many times Crowder has attacked him on his YouTube channel. Crowder’s comments include repeated references to Maza’s sexual orientation and nationality.

Chris Dale, YouTube’s chief of communications, issued a statement Wednesday night defending the company’s action against Crowder. Dale acknowledged that “not everyone will agree” with the company’s actions, but said the company will review its harassment policies in the next few months.

Dale explained that using racial, homophobic or sexist slurs won’t violate YouTube’s policies against harassment and hate speech unless a video’s main purpose is hate or harassment. YouTube’s moderators, however, may look at the “broader context and impact” of a creator’s behavior and decide to take action, he said.

“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,” Dale said. “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.”

Conservatives weren’t the only ones voicing dismay over the changes. Citing what they considered contradictory statements about antigay messages on the site, progressive LGBTQ activists also took issue with YouTube’s new policies.

Tyler Oakley, a gay vlogger with more than 7.4 million subscribers, tweeted Wednesday in support of Maza.

Connor Franta, a vlogger with over 5.5 million subscribers, told Rolling Stone that Crowder’s “hateful bigotry” targets minority groups and shouldn’t be tolerated by YouTube.

Natalia Wynn, known on YouTube as ContraPoints, tweeted that YouTube’s refusal to remove Crowder’s videos was “salt in the wound” considering how the social media company has previously demonetized videos from LGBTQ creators.

YouTube’s algorithms determine whether content is suitable to most advertisers. If it isn’t, advertisements will not be shown on that video. In 2017 and 2018, LGBTQ YouTubers claimed their videos were demonetized — sometimes because of words like “trans” or “transgender” in video titles. YouTube has penalized Crowder by suspending him from the company’s YouTube Partner Program, limiting his ability to make money on the platform.

YouTube’s new crackdown focuses on “supremacist content,” which the company defines as videos that promote ideas of discrimination based any of a number of characteristics, including age, gender, race, caste, religion, sexual orientation or veteran status. The social media giant owned by Google also began demonetizing “borderline content” that brushes up against its updated guidelines.

Dale said in his statement that Crowder’s videos involved an “ongoing pattern of egregious behavior.” Monetization can be reinstated if the talk show host fixes “all relevant issues with the channel” including offensive merchandise, Dale said.

Heidi Beirich, Intelligence Project director at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told Yahoo News that YouTube’s decision not to remove Crowder’s videos is “a perfect example of not applying a policy appropriately.” YouTube’s flip-flopping on whether Crowder violated YouTube’s policies shows the company isn’t sure what their definition of hate is, she said.

“A lot of the tech companies announce what sound like excellent policies, and then when it comes to actually enforcing those policies, there ends up being massive gaps,” Beirich said in a phone interview.

Civil rights groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League have lobbied social media companies for years about removing hateful content from their platforms. Beirich said most of them “did almost nothing” to combat the spread of white supremacist content until the 2017 car attack in Charlottesville, Va.

Dana Loesch, left, Ben Shapiro and Sen. Ted Cruz are pushing back on YouTube's new content guidelines. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News, photos: Jacquelyn Martin/AP, Michael S. Schwartz/Getty Images, Michael Conway/AP, Getty Images)

Beirich said as YouTube builds better algorithms to remove hateful content, the company needs to ensure creators from marginalized communities who may call out racism and white supremacy or discuss LGBTQ-related topics don’t get demonetized by “sloppy” artificial intelligence systems.

“Companies that make billions of dollars a year can certainly figure out a way to fix this,” Beirich said.

Daniel Kelley, assistant director of the Center for Technology and Society at the Anti-Defamation League, said in an interview that the ADL reviewed some of Crowder’s videos and found them to be homophobic.

YouTube’s decision, Kelley told Yahoo News, “demonstrates the need for more inclusion in terms of who’s at the table and making these decisions.”

Kelley said the ADL appreciates YouTube’s willingness to consult outside groups in its efforts to combat hate. However, the organization views the new guidelines as “insufficient” because YouTube’s content moderation system lacks transparency, he said.

YouTube’s Wednesday policy announcement states the platform will promote “authoritative sources,” but it’s unclear what those sources will be, Kelley said. It’s also unclear how successful efforts like demonetizing videos or reducing recommendations are, he added.

“We can’t say for certain on any tech platform how much hate or extremist activity there is, what groups are being impacted and in what ways and if anything they’re doing is working,” Kelley said.

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