Conservatives cry foul over controversial group's role in YouTube moderation

Conservatives cry foul over controversial group's role in YouTube moderation
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Conservative groups are crying foul after discovering that the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is helping YouTube decide what content is too offensive for the video platform.

That criticism came after The Daily Caller reported last week that the SPLC is one of more than 100 groups involved in YouTube’s content-filtering process. The news that the organization has a role in YouTube moderation led to a flurry of right-wing headlines from conservative outlets that see the SPLC as biased against them.

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Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, a co-founder of The Daily Caller, seized on the story, criticizing the SPLC as a “wholly discredited hate group.”

The SPLC has been a civil rights stalwart for decades, with its focus on legal tactics helping to cripple the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and other white supremacist groups.

But in recent years, particularly since the election of President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: WHCA picking non-comedian for headliner a 'good first step' Five takeaways from Mississippi's Senate debate Watergate’s John Dean: Nixon would tell Trump 'he's going too far' MORE, conservatives have criticized the SPLC of straying beyond its original focus on racial extremists. They accuse the group of conflating conservative speech with hate speech, with some detractors accusing the SPLC of fomenting some hate of its own — against conservatives.

Now that the SPLC is helping to police extremist content on social media, conservatives are claiming censorship. 

“It speaks more to YouTube than it does to the SPLC. It’s not surprising at all that the SPLC is doing this sort of thing,” said Brent Bozell, the head of the Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog.

“YouTube has a legal right to do whatever it wants in this space, but it has no ethical right to project itself as some kind of objective purveyor of information when it not only aligns itself with radical groups, but won’t be transparent on how it’s doing business,” Bozell said.

The SPLC rose to prominence during the 1970s and 1980s as it orchestrated lawsuits that helped to bankrupt KKK chapters. Its first president, Julian Bond, was a noted civil rights leader who helped form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

More recently, the SPLC has been best known for its coverage of what it deems “hate groups.” The SPLC’s online “Hate Map” includes 954 supposed hate groups, a daunting picture of extremism in America.

Along the way, the SPLC has amassed a sizable $300 million endowment.

But conservatives have bristled for years at how the SPLC defines “hate groups.”

The SPLC defines a hate group as one that “has beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.”

That definition has traditionally included neo-Nazis, the KKK and other obvious groups.

But the SPLC has in recent years started to extend that definition to groups opposed to LGBT rights, like the Family Research Council, and anti-immigration groups, like the Center for Immigration Studies.

Progressive groups regularly rail at the Family Research Council and accuse it of stoking homophobia. But conservatives have criticized the designation as biased against opinions, like opposition to same-sex marriage, that are common on the right.

And while the SPLC considers the Center for Immigration Studies’s hawkish stance on immigration enough to qualify as a hate group, that organization holds an influential role in the GOP’s immigration discussion — which prompts Republicans to say it shouldn’t be lumped in with the likes of violent white supremacist groups.

The SPLC didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, panned YouTube for allowing the group a seat at the table.

“They have to do one or the other — they are players on the field of public policy and acting as the umpire,” Perkins said. “The SPLC is an advocacy organization for policy. Yet at the same time, they want to flag people on the other side of the debate.”

The SPLC has repeatedly defended itself from criticism about its definition of a hate group, including during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing in November.

“We try to call hate as we see it, we limit our list not by left versus right but by groups who vilify others for issues or factors such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion or the like,” SPLC President Richard Cohen told the committee.

When pressed about the inclusion of the Family Research Council, as well as the decision to not list left-wing antifascist, or “antifa,” protesters as a hate group, Cohen said those on the list don’t necessarily have to “engage in violence.” Cohen added that, while the SPLC condemns antifa tactics, the group doesn’t meet the specific hate group definition of targeting specific classes of people.

But conservatives have long fought with the SPLC on the issue, and have sought to turn the hate group designation back on them.

Conservatives have accused the SPLC of fomenting violence against groups on the list, after a gunman targeting the Family Research Council for its views on gay rights injured a security guard in 2012.

Court documents show that the shooter, Floyd Lee Corkins, told the FBI that he “identified the FRC as an anti-gay organization on the Southern Poverty Law Center website.”

The SPLC condemned the shooting and argued that the decision to include the Family Research Council on its list was not about inciting violence but about calling out bigotry.

It’s against that backdrop that YouTube, which is owned by Google, has made the SPLC one of its more than 100 content flaggers.

While normal users can always report individual videos for review by YouTube staff, the group of more than 100 “trusted flaggers” can easily flag multiple videos for faster review. YouTube says that flags used by those partners are 90 percent accurate — a far better rate than flags from normal users.

The company doesn’t keep a public list of participants in the program. But the SPLC confirmed its role in the program last week to ThinkProgress.

“The Southern Poverty Law Center is greatly concerned about the spread of white supremacist propaganda online and believe that tech companies should enforce their own terms and service agreements,” Heidi Beirich, the director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, said in a statement.

YouTube stressed in a statement to The Hill that the trusted flaggers are not the final arbiters of what stays on YouTube. Instead, it’s up to YouTube staff to decide whether the content meets standards for removal.

YouTube’s policies lay out a wide variety of content that will be banned, including content that is sexual, harmful, hateful, graphic, bullying, misleading or threatening.

“Videos flagged by trusted flaggers are reviewed by YouTube content moderators according to YouTube’s Community Guidelines,” a company spokesperson told The Hill. “Content flagged by trusted flaggers is not automatically removed or subject to any differential policies than content flagged from other users.”

Reports of the SPLC’s role on YouTube come as conservatives have become increasingly vocal about what they see as YouTube censorship.

PragerU, a conservative education site operated by talk radio host Dennis Prager, sued YouTube last year, arguing that the platform unfairly censored its videos.

The Outline reported last week that, as YouTube removed videos touting conspiracy theories, other channels appeared to have been mistakenly targeted.

But videos by the Military Arms Channel, which showed various reviews and demonstrations of weapons and accessories, were also briefly removed, according to The Outline.

Pointing to both the SPLC’s inclusion in the YouTube process as well as the recent spate of targeted videos, conservatives warn that lawmakers could soon step in.

“They are going to find this is a double-edged sword. They want to appease the liberals they’ve stacked onto their boards, then they will find the lawmakers that created the favorable regulatory and tax environments for them will start changing for them as well,” Perkins, who has close relationships with Capitol Hill Republicans, said.

“You’re going to find lawmakers who have been reluctant because of their conservative moorings to weigh in on this. If you see these companies continue to take steps like YouTube teaming up with the SPLC to flag content, you are going to see regulatory action taken or pushed by Congress,” Perkins said.