As YouTube Cracks Down on Hate, Educators Suffer
Last May, YouTube deemed a Wisecrack video “not suitable for most advertisers” for violating its “hateful content policy.” The video was about Hitler. Specifically, how he evolved as a symbol of evil, and what limitations this one-size-fits-all analogy has in politics. Many of us in the office wondered: “Does YouTube think we’re anti-Semites?”
The question was somewhat amusing, since the video was researched, written, directed, and narrated by four Jewish members of the Wisecrack team (myself included). But that amusement was short-lived, and what followed was a Kafkaesque journey into the administrative machine of YouTube. As it turns out, “does YouTube think we’re anti-Semites” is itself an impossible question to answer, since that answer lies shrouded in layers of opaque bureaucracy.
One thing did become clear, however: In its attempts to combat hate, it seemed like YouTube, inadvertently, was deterring creators from confronting bigotry and misinformation.
In July, Trace Dominguez, a science educator, posted the video “Are There Transgender Animals?” — it explored animals that express gender differently than what is common for their biological sex. “The video was partially demonetized before I had even clicked publish,” he said. At a conference for YouTubers in July, demonetization was a frequent complaint for educational creators, who sometimes took a kind of perverse glee in railing against what YouTube had deemed unfit for advertisers.
Many of the educators’ woes have roots in what is loosely referred to as the “Adpocalypse.” In March 2017, advertisers began pulling out of the platform after their ads were served on videos containing hate speech or other extremist content. After losing millions of dollars in the aftermath, YouTube took on the herculean task of deciding which of its billions of videos were safe for advertisers and which were not. This promptly led to massive losses for many prominent YouTube creators. News commentator Philip DeFranco said his ad earnings dropped 80% in the aftermath, though that leveled out to a 30% decrease by April. With many a YouTuber’s very livelihood at stake, it didn’t take long for the wave of demonetization to trigger arguments about what was and wasn’t advertiser friendly.
Since then, different controversies have left YouTube scrambling to keep ad dollars on the platform — like when a rash of weird, unsettling videos targeting children were scrutinized in the press. Most recently, YouTube received criticism from the left for not demonetizing comedian Steven Crowder for a series of homophobic slurs directed at a Vox journalist, and then received criticism from the right once they changed course and removed ads from his channel.
But as YouTube continually struggles to manage community and advertiser relations, educators are largely left to deal with the fallout on their own.
Dominguez claims dozens of his videos were demonetized during his tenure at DNews (now Seeker), a science news outlet then owned by Discovery.
Lindsey Doe, a clinical sexologist with a YouTube channel about sex education, has publicly talked about her troubles with YouTube’s ad-friendly policy. Other channels covering the recent protests in Hong Kong have also been repeatedly demonetized.
Most creators are kept in the dark about YouTube’s decision-making process. Dominguez was left to guess as to why his “Are There Transgender Animals?” video was flagged. “It could be based on the tags (which contain ‘sexuality’ ‘LGBT’, and ‘transgender’ amongst others), or the content itself,” he said. After submitting it for review, the decision was eventually reversed. “I’m happy,” he noted, “but still left mystified by the whole interaction.”
Tristan Johnson runs an educational channel called Step Back History, where he estimates that a third of his videos are labeled unsuitable for advertisers. “Every time I do a video about Joe Biden it gets demonetized,” he said, musing it was because he mentioned the former vice president’s past relationship to segregation. His videos on the history of birth control, the AIDS crisis, and Canada’s far right have all been demonetized, he says.
The lack of transparency in YouTube’s algorithm and monetization practices has been a frequent complaint among creators, and addressing it is a key pillar of the platform for the recently announced “YouTube Union.” YouTube has also been accused of implementing a double standard for their most profitable creators. Moderators interviewed by the Washington Post described a work environment “marked by ad hoc decisions, constantly shifting policies, and a widespread perception of arbitrary standards.” Decisions made about popular creators were often “overruled by higher-ups within YouTube.”
For smaller educators like Johnson, the ability to speak to an actual person about the decision is impossible by design. Communication with human representatives is reserved for those with a “YouTube Partner Manager,” an invite-only program for (generally) larger or quickly growing channels. Even then, answers can be scant.
Following the demonetization of Wisecrack’s Hitler video, the Creator Studio informed us that the video was in violation of the platform’s Hateful Content policy.
Here’s that policy:
“Video content that promotes discrimination or disparages or humiliates an individual or group of people on the basis of the individual’s or group’s race, ethnicity or ethnic origin, nationality, religion, disability, age, veteran status, sexual orientation, gender identity, or other characteristic that is associated with systemic discrimination or marginalization is not suitable for advertising. Content that is satire or comedy may be exempt; however, simply stating your comedic intent is not sufficient and that content may still not be suitable for advertising.”
Our obvious question was: what group does the platform believe we are promoting hate towards? The question seemed absurd to us. It was a video about the Holocaust citing respected scholars on the topic (Ian Kershaw and Gavriel D. Rosenfeld). Was it the admittedly provocative title (The Hitler Industrial Complex — a reference to the obscene amounts of money the media has made off of a historical tragedy)? Was it images of the victims (from which we, fearing running afoul of YouTube’s graphic content policy, had already removed the most graphic)?
We appealed the decision, but it was upheld by human review. Subsequent conversations with YouTube only yielded speculation about the grounds for the decision. At one point, it was suggested (again, there’s rarely a concrete answer) that it was not that we were propagating hate, as the policy defines, but simply discussing the existence of that hate.
After talking to creators like Johnson, who says he has repeatedly had videos on racism marked unsuitable for advertisers, it became clear that YouTube had a penchant for demonetizing educational content about hate in general. This, obviously, posed a question: Was it the policy of YouTube, who at the time had just wrapped up publicly celebrating Pride Month, to flag any educational content about the existence of bigotry? If a video acknowledged violence during the Stonewall riots, was it not advertiser friendly?
While Wisecrack rarely ventures into historical content, the experience for history channels has been a difficult one. Johnson said that for some topics, he’s simply given up and does not even try to monetize videos about those topics. But even in situations where he believes that the decision was made in error, and successfully appeals, the videos are often re-monetized after they have received the bulk of their views. As a result, his channel loses a substantial portion of the video’s potential ad revenue.
“It’s stressful,” Johnson said. “In my mind it has the chilling effect of showing that YouTube will actively prioritize making advertisers happy rather than supporting content that might be controversial but important.” For some, even YouTube’s priorities are a mystery. “In the education realm, YouTube tells this story of them really being behind education [and] supporting educators,” Johnson continued., “I feel like they tell a different line in different places.”
YouTube is testing changes to the appeal process and has implemented a new “self-rating” feature which could mitigate some creator complaints. However, it is unclear if (and unlikely that) the famously tight-lipped company will be fully transparent with its decision-making process.
While Wisecrack is discouraged by YouTube’s policy, we try to not let it ultimately decide which videos we do or don’t make. Despite the challenges, Johnson and Dominguez aren’t deterred either. They both say they will keep making the videos they want to make — regardless of ad money. But for Dominguez, “It hurts to be told an educational video isn’t suitable for advertisers because it’s sexually explicit or controversial — when I, as the creator of it, know otherwise.”
But Dominguez doesn’t fault YouTube. He understands that a human can’t plausibly greenlight every Google ad. “Shortcuts need to be made,” he told me. “I wish the shortcuts were smarter.”
All Rights Reserved for Alec Opperman