Friday can never come soon enough, but for YouTube and its community of creators, this week has been a particularly grueling one. With each day came new controversy — and more evidence that YouTube profits at its users’ expense — leaving the multibillion-dollar tech giant scrambling to douse fire after fire while somehow managing to light new ones.
Early Monday, a stomach-turning report from The New York Times revealed how YouTube algorithmically drives pedophiles toward a repository of content that sexualizes children.
The site’s recommendation feature, which is designed to maximize ad revenue by keeping viewers watching for as long as possible, has been guiding users down a rabbit hole of videos featuring young, partially clothed kids, according to researchers who spoke with the Times.
Having just watched advertisers flee following other pedophilia-related revelations mere months ago, YouTube executives immediately jumped into damage-control mode. Within hours of the story’s publication, the platform had posted on its blog about the steps it’s taking to keep kids safe: “YouTube is a company made up of parents and families, and we’ll always do everything we can to prevent any use of our platform that attempts to exploit or endanger minors,” it stressed.
The week was just getting started.
On the fourth day of Pride Month, YouTube issued a rare public statement about a yearslong campaign of homophobic harassment levied against one of its queer creators, Vox journalist Carlos Maza. The company announced that Steven Crowder, a conservative YouTuber with nearly 4 million subscribers, had not violated its policies against harassment or hate speech by posting videos in which he repeatedly calls Maza a “lispy sprite,” “little queer,” “gay V-neck,” “gay Mexican guy” and “anchor baby,” among other cruelty, often while wearing a “SOCIALISM IS FOR F*GS” shirt that he sells and promotes on his channel.
YouTube’s decision not to punish Crowder triggered widespread outrage and confusion, in part because the site claims to prohibit its users from making “hurtful and negative personal comments/videos about another person,” as well as from posting content that “incites others to harass or threaten individuals” or “is deliberately posted in order to humiliate someone.” Many people also pointed out the hypocrisy of YouTube displaying a Pride-themed rainbow flag online while refusing to enforce policies that would protect one of its queer users from targeted anti-gay abuse.
Amid fierce backlash on Wednesday, YouTube changed course and tweeted that it would suspend monetization on Crowder’s channel by eliminating the ads from his videos, due to his “pattern of egregious actions.” Conservatives swiftly screamed censorship, and YouTube appeared to backtrack soon afterward by clarifying that Crowder’s channel could be easily remonetized if he removed the links to his shirts. Further chaos ensued on social media, and YouTube then tweeted a bizarre clarification to its previous clarification, noting that Crowder would actually “need to address all of the issues with his channel” in order to get it remonetized.
Wednesday wasn’t over yet. YouTube then introduced a ban on supremacist content and shared a blog post addressing harassment on the platform. The company apparently felt it was appropriate to mention Maza and Crowder by name in that statement, which came hours after the new ban — effectively making Maza the poster child for a preplanned policy change that he had nothing to do with. (Reached for comment, YouTube directed HuffPost to the blog post.)
The level of vitriol hurled at Maza skyrocketed as Crowder and other prominent conservative commentators proceeded to accuse him and Vox, his employer, of being on a premeditated crusade against free speech.
Though most of the YouTube-related conversation on social media and in the news was hyperfocused on Maza on Wednesday, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) hadn’t forgotten about YouTube’s recently exposed child-predator problem. Hawley proposed a bill that would require YouTube and other video-hosting platforms to stop recommending videos featuring children, which in turn, he said, would force those sites to “prioritize the safety of children over money.”
Meanwhile, YouTube started demonetizing the channels of notorious white nationalists as it rolled out the new anti-supremacy policy. Journalists, historians and documentarians who have simply reported on white supremacy were reportedly caught in the crossfire, showcasing YouTube’s further inability to properly enforce its own policies. But conservatives cast the blame squarely on Maza, and #VoxAdpocalypse was soon the top trending hashtag on Twitter.
By Thursday, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) had gotten involved. He chimed in on Twitter to accuse YouTube of “playing God” for demonetizing Crowder’s show, which the senator has repeatedly appeared on as a guest. Cruz then tweeted that Maza was throwing “a fit” and piled on to the narrative that the journalist was on some kind of pro-censorship rampage.
On Thursday evening, Maza’s face was displayed on Fox News while prime-time host Tucker Carlson called him a “fascist posing as a victim.”
In an article published Friday, The Verge spoke to queer employees at Google, which owns YouTube, about the week’s events. They described a toxic workplace where staffers rarely voice their concerns to management for fear of retaliation.
“Internal outreach to executives has not been effective in years,” said one employee. “They ignore us completely unless there is extreme unrest.”
Speaking out is “not safe for us,” added another. “We need to look out for our jobs, our personal safety, and our families.”
Vox also wrote an open letter to Susan Wojcicki, YouTube’s CEO, claiming the company has “made it easier than ever for people making abusive content to reach a massive scale,” and calling on Wojcicki to “clarify and enforce” its harassment policy.
“The suggestion implicit in YouTube’s inaction is that this harassment is simply the cost of doing business for a gay person of color on your platform,” Vox’s letter continued. “That is unacceptable to us. It should be unacceptable to you too.”
TGIF, right, YouTube?