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15 August 2019

YouTube accused of overlooking content violations from top creators

YouTube’s latest controversy surfaced from an article in the Washington Post claiming that it applies different rules over content violation to top creators, dishing out more lenient “punishments” in order to avoid disrupting huge revenue streams from associated ads. Such violations if proved would have serious repercussions for the company but naturally Google has denied them, referring us to the statement that the company conducts “systematic review of our policies to make sure we’re drawing the line in the right place. We apply these policies consistently, regardless of who a creator is.”

It is undeniably true the policies are constantly reviewed but the Post article is contending that they are not in fact applied constantly. This comes down to the fact that, like the social media platforms Facebook and Twitter, YouTube uses moderators to adjudicate content for conformance to standards and fitness for association with adverts. But unlike those others, these adjudicators are not empowered to delete violating content themselves. Instead they can only pass recommendations on to YouTube and they can be overruled by sufficiently senior executives. This is what the Washington Post alleges has happened, citing 11 unnamed current and past moderators who were said to have been involved in the front line of content recommendation making, with claims that popular creators often benefit from “looser interpretations of YouTube’s guidelines prohibiting demeaning speech, bullying and other forms of graphic content.” The moderators singled out popular creators including Logan Paul, Steven Crowder and PewDiePie as examples whose content had been treated leniently.

The moderators suggested that such inconsistency in interpretation is encouraged by ambiguity in YouTube’s own definitions of what constitutes violating content, which can be demoralizing for them and undermine their status. They complain of ad hoc decision making, constantly shifting goalposts and arbitrary application of the guidelines even when applied to creators of equal popularity. This can only encourage bias, even sub-consciously, in favor of bigger creators generating more ad revenues, which are shared between the stars and YouTube.

Google can and does argue that it stands to lose through being seen to be lax over content violations. After all, just 6 months ago in February 2019, Nestle and Disney were among several big brands that pulled adverts from YouTube after claims they had appeared next to offensive content. This was prompted by a video blogger (vlogger) accusing YouTube of enabling a soft-core pedophilia ring to operate on its platform by failing to block comments highlighting compromising moments involving young girls on videos which were not themselves in their totality sexually explicit. Upon viewing, YouTube’s search algorithm would recommend similar videos containing scenes that ran close to violation and some of these appeared next to ads featuring Disney and Nestle among others.

Nestle temporarily suspended YouTube advertising globally and the incident prompted similar action from some new brands targeting young audiences, such as Epic Games, maker of the Fortnite eSports game. Surprisingly, Google had been slow to act on the issue of comments attached to videos not themselves directly in violation of content rules, having been forced to apologize over a year earlier when sexualized comments were found on children’s videos. At that time, ads from government agencies, as well as Marks & Spencer and Audi among others, were also found appearing next to videos from supporters of extremist groups on the platform.

After that violation in February 2019, Google acted on two fronts, firstly to change its warning and punishment system immediately and secondly to work on upgrading its machine learning algorithms so that infringements would be detected more quickly and accurately in order for the forfeits to be applied.

The three-strike system of penalties was upgraded so that after receiving a first infringement a channel would get frozen for a week, during which users would be unable to upload or stream any new content to YouTube. As before, that strike expired after 90 days. However, a second strike within that 90-day period would result in a two-week uploading freeze and a third one a complete shut-down of the channel.

This still seemed quite lenient, especially regarding the second strike, and clearly the attitude to advertising exposed in that Washington Post article needs to be sorted out. Google stands to lose more than it gains by appearing to mollify top creators.

This favoring of major stars also has another negative implication for YouTube by sullying its original reputation as a meritocratic platform encouraging small-time creators. This came to a head recently when Zac Efron became the latest Hollywood celebrity to launch a YouTube channel with strong endorsement. His presence on the platform attracted criticism because of YouTube’s fawning attitude. Again, YouTube has been forced to respond, in this case ironically on Twitter with a series of tweets promoting creators with smaller audiences.

Meanwhile, as the world’s top streamer of free on-demand video, YouTube has had to contend with various other forms of content abuse, such as extortion through spurious copyright infringement accusations. One case occurred in January 2019 when Kenzo, a YouTube creator, uploaded videos and then received two copyright infringement strikes from the same person, who then demanded money paid either via PayPal or Bitcoin to avert a third strike, which could have led to the channel being terminated. However, the strikes were bogus and YouTube confirmed that such requests are only upheld if they are accurate and legally valid in that territory. This again highlighted the ongoing challenge YouTube faces to combat such activity, as well as to balance immediate revenue generation against longer term reputation.

This leads to a key point about YouTube’s unique strategic dynamic. YouTube has appeared to be edging slightly towards a subscription model for premium content but has been notable in not pushing this too hard. This is because the bulk of YouTube’s revenues come from advertising sustained by having such a huge global audience that can be sliced and diced for targeting. Subscription paywalls not only reduce this base but also shut out a lot of the higher net worth users that brands most want to target. This issue of audience size versus subscriptions goes way beyond YouTube and also concerns say sports rights holders balancing subscriptions against Free to Air viewing, aiming to maximize ad revenue in the short term and overall audience size in the longer term.