YouTube on Wednesday updated its policies to ban videos that promote extremist ideologies such as white supremacy or caste superiority, a move that could see hundreds of thousands of videos removed.
The changes aimed at curbing hate speech and misinformation come amid escalating scrutiny from regulators and lawmakers around the world over how the company, which is owned by Google, deals with bigoted or potentially radicalizing content.
But the ban was derided by critics on Wednesday as a public relations stunt. YouTube announced the policy in the midst of a high-profile controversy over its decision to allow a conservative commentator accused of racist and homophobic harassment to remain on the platform.
Tech industry critics on Capitol Hill accused YouTube of putting profits over user safety and failing to dedicate enough resources to prevent the posting of hateful and extremist content to the platform, which boasts a user base of more than 1.8 billion people.
“Congress has focused a great deal on the ways in which Russian operatives exploited Twitter and Facebook in 2016, but an underdeveloped area has been the extent to which YouTube has been used by a range of bad actors, including far-right groups, to facilitate targeted harassment, spread extremist content, and radicalize an entire generation of young users,” Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerPanic begins to creep into Democratic talks on Biden agenda Democrats surprised, caught off guard by 'framework' deal Schumer announces Senate-House deal on tax 'framework' for .5T package MORE (Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement to The Hill.
“White nationalist and other violent extremist movements, in the U.S. and abroad, increasingly seem to be relying on YouTube as a key part of their organizing infrastructure,” Warner noted. “The extent to which YouTube tolerates, amplifies, and even financially rewards hate speech is extremely concerning and deserves to be subject to scrutiny.”
Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzPanic begins to creep into Democratic talks on Biden agenda Hotel workers need a lifeline; It's time to pass The Save Hotel Jobs Act Equilibrium/Sustainability — Presented by The American Petroleum Institute — Scientists potty train cows to cut pollution MORE (D-Hawaii) responded with skepticism to YouTube’s announcement on Wednesday, saying the company seems “to only do things when they’re under pressure.”
“What they actually need is human observation of their platform — not just externally from journalists and people on Twitter, but internally as a matter of principle and a matter of how they actually run their company,” Schatz said. “Algorithms are amoral. People can make judgements.”
Civil rights activists, who have been pressing YouTube to do more about extremists proliferating and making money on its platform, celebrated the new ban on Wednesday but questioned the timing.
“The announcement of this policy, just days after being called out for their continued inaction, underscores YouTube’s flawed approach to handling the growth of white nationalism on its platform: as a public relations crisis first and an operational priority second,” digital civil rights group Color of Change’s president, Rashad Robinson, said.
YouTube in a blog post on Wednesday announced it will begin removing videos that allege any group is superior to justify “discrimination, segregation or exclusion based on qualities like age, gender, race, caste, religion, sexual orientation or veteran status.”
The Google-owned company said videos that “glorify Nazi ideology” would fall under that category, and it will begin banning videos that promote hoaxes like claims that the Sandy Hook shooting did not happen.
YouTube also announced it will begin barring creators who violate its hate speech policies from running ads on their channel or otherwise monetizing their content, while working to surface “authoritative content” through its recommendation feature.
It’s the latest action by YouTube to stem a wave of criticism over its previously hands-off approach to extremist hate speech.
But it comes with the company under fire after it said it would not take down videos from a far-right commentator accused of harassing Vox Media journalist Carlos Maza. Maza, who identifies as gay and is Cuban American, highlighted commentator Steven Crowder using racist and homophobic slurs in videos.
YouTube investigated Crowder and concluded that he had not violated any of the company’s policies. After criticism, YouTube on Wednesday said it will no longer allow Crowder to make money from ads on his videos, citing “a pattern of egregious actions has harmed the broader community.”
But in a tweet shortly after, YouTube clarified that Crowder can lift the restrictions if he stops selling merchandise that says “Socialism is for Fags” on his account and deals with other “issues” with his YouTube presence. The decision came after several companies whose ads were running on Crowder’s videos said they were reaching out to YouTube about the issue.
The company’s response only highlighted YouTube’s challenges in enforcing its rules and determining where to draw the line on problematic content. YouTube has come under fire from conservatives who allege top tech companies routinely censor their voices, claims the companies deny.
Industry watchers who spoke to The Hill said they are skeptical that YouTube will adequately enforce their new ban on extremist content, saying they might begin removing accounts with very few subscribers but could hedge more when it comes to high-profile YouTubers with massive followings, such as Crowder.
Maza in an interview with The Hill called YouTube’s latest move “a bullshit policy.”
“All of the content that should be targeted by this policy should already have been removed under YouTube’s anti-harassment and anti-hate speech policies,” Maza said. “What content is caught by this policy that shouldn’t already have been caught by the former ones?”
He said no one from YouTube’s team contacted him, beyond a direct message on Twitter after their decision.
YouTube has declined to comment further since circulating an email to reporters on Tuesday night explaining its decision. YouTube in the email said they had determined that Crowder was “debating” rather than directing his followers to attack Maza.
Matt Rivitz, the founder of advocacy organization Sleeping Giants, told The Hill that YouTube’s business model emphasizes engagement over safety.
“They care about one thing and one thing only, which is money,” Rivitz said. “And they care about engagement. And engagement brings the ad dollars and it brings them the money.”
The YouTube controversy also comes as U.S. lawmakers have discussed removing the legal shield that protects tech companies from liability over what their users post. The provision, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, has been held up as the law that empowered the internet in its early days.
But influential members of Congress, including Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money — House pushes toward infrastructure vote US mayors, Black leaders push for passage of bipartisan infrastructure bill Lawmakers say innovation, trade rules key to small business gains MORE (D-Calif.), have said those days could be up.
Maza said he did not “trust” lawmakers to address the problem.
“The worst-case scenario is one in which a bunch of 85 year old senators are trying to figure out what to do about speech.”
“This should be the purview of the companies that run the platforms,” he said. “It’s a lack of will, a lack of courage, a lack of ethics.”
In the wake of YouTube's decision to demonetize Crowder, there has a wave of backlash from conservatives claiming it is an example of the platform exercising its alleged bias against conservatives.
"Conservatives have been incredibly effective at beating the wardrum of anti-conservative bias in the hopes of pressuring platforms to be more lenient towards them and avoid enforcing their anti-harassment and anti-bullying policies," Maza told The Hill. "You’ve seen it in this case and it is horrifying to see a huge section of the conservative echo chamber essentially argue that hate speech and bigotry is a legitimate and valid and valuable part of conservative political discourse."
"The stuff in question is somebody calling me a 'lispy queer' and a gay Mexican and it is really bonkers to imagine that there are serious people on the right who argue that that kind of speech is an important and worthwhile part of political discourse and that restricting hate speech is an affront to conservatives," he continued. "This has always been the end game - the end game has always been to make hate speech and violations of terms of service normalized and acceptable and unassailable. And the goal of that has been to push progressive and especially queer and creators of color off those platforms."