Editor’s note: This story contains terms that many will find offensive.
YouTube has announced it will be taking steps to remove supremacist content and will re-examine its anti-harassment policy — following days of backlash surrounding its decision not to ban a right-wing YouTuber for targeting a gay journalist.
The initial announcement came after Vox host Carlos Maza tweeted a viral thread on May 30 highlighting the racist and homophobic abuse he’s faced. Over the past few days, the company has released two blog posts saying it would review its existing policies, as well as take steps to ban content that tries to justify discrimination based on traits like sexual orientation, race and gender.
The back-and-forth tapped into a broader discussion around social media companies and what their obligation is to prevent harassment and hate speech on their platforms.
The controversy also comes at the start of LGBTQ Pride Month. So while YouTube’s support team announced that the homophobic language by right-wing YouTuber Steven Crowder — who has more than 3.8 million subscribers — against Maza didn’t violate its terms of service, the platform was also promoting rainbow and Pride-themed marketing.
That apparent disconnect touches on an ongoing criticism that social media giants benefit from the LGBTQ community without doing enough to protect those creators — many of whom say that marginalized people disproportionately shoulder the consequences when a platform doesn’t enforce its policies.
Some employees at Google, YouTube’s parent company, also seem to have indicated that they’re troubled by that dissonance, NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik told Here & Now.
So, I have pretty thick skin when it comes to online harassment, but something has been really bothering me.
— Carlos Maza (@gaywonk) May 31, 2019
In his Twitter thread last week, Maza posted a montage of personal attacks he’s faced over the past two years, both from Crowder and his fans. In videos responding to Maza’s work for Vox, Crowder has repeatedly referred to Maza in derogatory ways, including calling him a “lispy sprite,” an “angry little queer” and a “gay Mexican.” (Maza is Cuban American.)
Maza has since received waves of vitriol, and had his personal phone number published online. In his store, Crowder sold a T-shirt depicting Che Guevara with a limp wrist, and a homophobic slur printed underneath. A version of that shirt with Maza’s name on it appeared on a separate online store this week.
YouTube’s support team initially replied to the thread on Tuesday, saying that although Crowder’s videos were “clearly hurtful,” he hadn’t violated the company’s policies against hate speech and harassment. The company argued that it’s vital for users to be able to express their opinions, even if they’re “deeply offensive.”
As NPR’s Folkenflik explained: “As [Maza] brought up pressure, as other journalists looked at it, as a lot of them teased out inconsistencies in the way in which YouTube had enacted its policies — YouTube said we’re gonna demonetize [Crowder].”
YouTube followed up to say the decision to demonetize — or remove ads from his videos — could be reversed, if Crowder addresses “all of the issues” with his channel, which includes linking to his store that sells the Guevara T-shirt.
A Google spokesperson declined to comment further on the Crowder decision.
(4/4) Even if a video remains on our site, it doesn’t mean we endorse/support that viewpoint.
There are other aspects of the channel that we’re still evaluating– we’ll be in touch with any further updates.
— TeamYouTube (@TeamYouTube) June 4, 2019
This debate has opened up a few cans of worms.
Every minute, hundreds of hours of video is uploaded to YouTube, and the site relies heavily on algorithms and user reporting to flag inappropriate content.
Some argue that banning users for perceived harassment or hate speech amounts to censorship, and that enforcing those policies might inadvertently sweep up other content — satire, comedy, videos addressing actual hate speech.
And companies like Facebook and YouTube, both of which provide some financial support to NPR, have long argued that they’re neutral platforms, committed to free speech.
Maza says his conflict with Crowder illustrates a key problem at YouTube.
“That is not a bug in the system,” Maza says. “That’s YouTube working as it’s supposed to work. YouTube rewards engaging content. Hate speech is engaging. So YouTube rewards hate speech.”
But Maza says the issue isn’t that someone is saying mean things; it’s that others are being incited to continue harassing targets of abuse — and that platforms like YouTube continue to profit from LGBTQ people and people of color without adequately supporting them.
“It wants to create an impression that it’s a company that cares about marginalized groups, but it doesn’t want to implement policies that actually deal with the realities of how marginalized groups operate on speech platforms,” Maza said.
“When social media giants don’t enforce anti-abuse policies, the people who suffer the most are the ones who most badly need access to speech platforms. So marginalized groups, people of color, queer people,” he said.
Waves of high-profile LGBTQ creators have posted their support for Maza, including Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon and Tyler Oakley, who rose to fame on YouTube and has 7.4 million subscribers.
— tyler oakley (@tyleroakley) June 5, 2019
Other LGBTQ YouTubers have also continued to speak out about the harassment they have faced on the platform — and their frustration with its lack of response.
“We’ve seen with other platforms that if you don’t enforce these kinds of policies, what ends up happening is not that the targets of abuse and the abusers end up living in harmony,” Maza says. “It’s that the targets of the abuse leave, and the abusers end up running the platform.”
This week, activists reportedly lobbied San Francisco Pride to exclude Google from this year’s parade over the ongoing controversy.
Spokesperson Fred Lopez told NPR that San Francisco Pride is monitoring the situation and has “raised these concerns with our contacts at Google” — but said the company is a sponsor of the 2019 parade and is still a “registered contingent.”
YouTube has previously drawn criticism in 2017 and 2018, when gay and transgender creators claimed the platform was demonetizing and placing unnecessary age restrictions on their videos.
The company published a blog post in 2017 addressing the concerns, saying its algorithms “sometimes make mistakes in understanding context and nuances” when determining what videos to restrict. The company said it would update its system and promised to do better.
But reports of LGBTQ YouTubers having their content restricted surfaced again the following year. Several creators, including Chase Ross and Hank Green, said the platform was adding homophobic advertisements to videos with LGBTQ content.
The company publicly apologized for the ads in June 2018, tweeting: “It’s critical to us that the LGBTQ community feels safe, welcome, equal, and supported on YouTube. … we are committed to working with you to get this right.”