It’s no secret that YouTube has been host to a multitude of incidents and controversies; millions of users across the globe consume billions of hours of content from an overwhelming catalog of videos covering an infinite range of topics and subjects. We can recall the persistent drama of Logan Paul dating back to January, or more recently the concerning accusations levied at the likes of James Charles and Jared Knabenbauer for soliciting underage photos or manipulating straight individuals respectively. The platform guarantees the amplification of information and drama across the internet given the viral nature of social media.
Perhaps more relevant, however, is the discussion surrounding the monetization of content of YouTube. After an incident where The Washington Post released an article that accused PewDiePie of fostering anti-Semitic content on his channel, multiple companies pulled their advertisements from the website, and paired with a stricter crackdown on monetization guidelines, impacted a large portion of content creators. This was unanimously coined the “adpocalypse”, and multiple creators turned to alternative forms of income, including crowdfunding website Patreon to continue making a living. Needless to say, the reception to the new changes were met with confusion and concern.
Fast-forward to the present day, and it appears that a similar incident is brewing amidst an ongoing debacle between two large personalities: Steven Crowder and Carlos Maza.
Steven Crowder is a YouTube commentator who runs a personal YouTube channel with nearly four million subscribers that places a heavy emphasis on conservative political commentary and satire. He also acts as the host for the television show “Louder with Crowder” that airs of BlazeTV. Carlos Maza is a video producer and contributor for Vox Media that hosts a series called “Strikethrough” on Vox’s YouTube, hosting six million subscribers, which is described as a way to “explore the challenges facing the news media in the age of Trump.”
To summarize the course of events in the most concise terms, Carlos Maza created a string of tweets that accused YouTube of fostering a culture of harassment against certain groups, singling out Steven Crowder as an example of the rhetoric that he claimed to be targeted at him due to the fact that he was doxxed the previous year with messages that read “debate steven crowder”.
Crowder responded to the allegations in the form of a video that denied any encouragement of doxxing or harassing behavior, reaffirming his right to free speech and commentary. After YouTube caught wind of the exchange, the company reviewed Steven Crowder’s channel and determined that his videos did not violate their policies despite their assessment that some of the language used was “hurtful”.
While the response was met with an array of mixed emotions ranging from condemnation to praise, YouTube announced that Steven Crowder’s YouTube channel had been demonetized for violating policies specific to the YouTube Partner Program, which they described as a “pattern of egregious actions has harmed the broader community”, but clarified that the decision was unrelated to the other circumstances pertaining to Maza’s comments. Since then, some users have reported receiving emails that notified them that their channels had been wholly demonetized for their content and/or conduct.
To be transparent, I was and remain quite unfamiliar with the content that both Steven Crowder and Carlos Maza have produced over their careers, with the exception of the former’s “Change My Mind” series. Additionally, it appears that consensus has affirmed that both individuals hold opposing political ideologies and typically appear on programs that tend to affiliate with their beliefs. So while it might be evident, much of the observations require extrapolation of the information apart from the inherent biases that both individuals express when defending their own positions, especially with the superfluous information surrounding the issue.
When discussing the relevance and importance of this controversy, there appeared to be a few major points of contention that circulated segments of social media:
- Are Steven Crowder’s comments at Carlos Maza strong enough to be constituted as harassment?
- Should YouTube take more measures to crack down on certain forms of speech?
- How will the landscape of YouTube change (or not change) as a result of the situation, and what characterized it prior?
What Can Be Considered Harassment?
As Carlos Maza highlighted within his compilation, Steven Crowder referred to him in a variety of ways that often targeted aspects of his identity, including his affiliations with the LGBTQ+ community and his Latino origins. And as YouTube affirmed, none of the language was considered a form of harassment that could be scrutinized or punished by the company.
So what was the process that YouTube underwent in order to arrive at this decision? To better understand it, the vital question lies within the parameters that YouTube has created to encompass harassment. Fortunately, it happens to be outlined on their website for a user’s convenience:
Reading through the criterium that violates their harassment and cyberbullying policy, there are two descriptions that are potentially eligible to describe Steven Crowder’s speech within his videos.
The first would probably be:
Content that make hurtful and negative personal comments/videos about another person
At first glance, it might appear on the surface that Crowder clearly violated the descriptor that disallows people to make offensive comments against another person. And considering the manner and context in which those comments were made, one might consider it mocking or disheartening.
But here’s where the issue lies: did Steven Crowder actually say anything inherently offensive?
Watching over the compilation multiple times, most of Crowder’s comments amount to something along the lines of “gay Latino”, “little queer”, or some related terminology. The latter term certainly has belittling qualities, but it does not change the fact that Crowder’s comments specifically discuss facets of his identity.
This next line of thought acknowledges that people have various opinions across the country about LGBTQ+ rights, whether they be supportive or critical of the movement. In this case however, we are going to operate under the notion that being anything that could be classified as LGBTQ+ is not something negative, but something that people should embrace and acknowledge.
Were Crowder’s channel to be flagged for making hurtful comments, the natural assumption without further clarification would likely form that referring to people based on aspects of their identity is suitable for harassment. If that were the case, it might prove extremely problematic for the review and assessment of content across the platform. Theoretically, I would be able to target somebody for calling me a “straight agnostic biracial” under those conditions and succeed, even if the premise itself is fundamentally preposterous. Think of a more common catchphrase that some people use: “straight white male”. If it was used in the same context that Steven Crowder said those words, one could be just as hurt or offended by the comments as Carlos Maza was. Calling out this specific instance would bring about a wave of criticism against YouTube for employing a double standard on how it might give preferential treatment or lenience for members of certain groups. Instead of opening that can or worms, it would be preferable to maintain the common standard as it currently stands.
The second one would likely be:
Content that incites others to harass or threaten individuals on or off YouTube
Definitions of harassment will differ depending on the source you consult. Merriam-Webster indicates that harassment is “the act of making unwelcome intrusions upon another”, yet the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission describes it as “unwelcome conduct based on race, color, religion, sex…or genetic information”. The latter indicates that harassment becomes illegal when such behavior fosters an unwelcoming or harmful environment for the persons involved.
However, I believe it is fair to assume the criteria required to understand YouTube’s guidelines for harassment on the website. Based on the history of the platform, it appears that 1) harassment must be consistent and targeted at specific individuals and 2) threatens one’s safety or privacy. If this were the case, then Steven Crowder’s content would not meet either criteria for a couple reasons. Instead of speculating on YouTube’s justification, a statement on the issue from their end would prove more fruitful:
We take into consideration whether criticism is focused primarily on debating the opinions expressed or is solely malicious. We apply these policies consistently, regardless of how many views a video has.
In videos flagged to YouTube, Crowder has not instructed his viewers to harass Maza on YouTube or any other platform and the main point of these videos was not to harass or threaten, but rather to respond to the opinion.
There is certain behavior that is never ok: that includes encouraging viewers to harass others online and offline, or revealing nonpublic personal information (doxxing).
None of Maza’s personal information was ever revealed in content uploaded by Crowder and flagged to our teams for review.
In order to verify their information, I searched for and watched sections of Steven Crowder’s videos that mentioned Carlos Maza in some capacity, and the major takeaway was that Maza himself was not the focus of the video. Rather, his writing and content were subject to the greatest degree of critique. And that’s the important distinction: attacking ideas is much different from attacking character. Therefore, little to no ammunition exists for YouTube to deplatform Steven Crowder given his track record.
It also did not help Carlos Maza’s case that a recent tweet of his caught the attention of critics, in which he implored followers to “milkshake” people affiliated with the far-right that organize events. Under technical terms, his comments would be considered an example of inciting violence or harassment against a group of people, which if published in a video format would violate YouTube guidelines (and potentially Twitter’s). This arose suspicions of a double standard on behalf of Maza fueled by partisan thoughts.
So removing any personal assessment of either individual from the equation, Steven Crowder did not violate rules based on the interpretation of YouTube’s policies in the online environment.
Should Speech Be Restricted on YouTube?
One of the largest debates surrounding the First Amendment in the current political climate surrounds the parameters of “hate speech” and whether restrictions upon that form of language are necessary. Hate speech amounts to any rhetoric that is prejudiced against another individual based on aspects of their identity, and under current legislation is currently permitted under free speech guidelines in the United States Constitution (although such speech might incriminate one of a “hate crime” if expressed”).
This remains essential in discourse because alternatives or adjustments to the current state of the First Amendment would dramatically impact the means by which individuals communicate with each other, and more importantly the ideas that are expressed publicly. In certain sects of the country, rules might be imposed that tailor the speech that is allowed on other grounds (i.e. college campuses). YouTube is not an exception to the rule; they are capable of implementing original strategies to counteract speech they find unacceptable on the platform.
But how would the public discourse respond to such changes? As a single indicator, I consulted a survey report from Cato Institute titled “The State of Free Speech and Tolerance in America”. in order to gauge the general consensus surrounding free speech. The report is extensive in its statistics and insight, and I personally recommend going through the survey if you have the slightest of interest in the subject matter.
Alas, here are some interesting tidbits that seemed most relevant to the discussion in the form of a series of images:
Synthesizing all the information together, the majority of Americans are against the notion of restricting or regulating hate speech, with a high degree of uncertainty and confusion around the technicalities of hateful rhetoric contributing in some part to the sentiment. If this report is supposed to be representative of the American population, one could naturally assume that most would disapprove of major changes to YouTube guidelines that alter the speech that is acceptable on the platform.
Yet it turns out that YouTube already has a “hate speech” policy implemented on the website, although its conditions seem to primarily target content whose main intent is to incite violence against a group on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. And it is evident from Steven Crowder’s content that the mere use of identifiers pertaining to such aspects of identity does not qualify as hate speech. YouTube’s current interpretation of hate speech presumably considers the ambiguity of language and the importance of context to tread a thin line of discourse. However, this recent incident presumably lowers the chances of loosening the current guidelines. Whether they should is ultimately dependent on the direction that YouTube as a video-sharing company wants to strive towards, and there might already be indications about its future that can be observed and assumed.
The Future of YouTube
Mentions of the “Vox Adpocalypse” here have been relatively scarce at this point, despite its appearance within the title. Yet it holds the most damaging implications of specific parties of content creators in terms of longevity and exposure. Amidst the controversy, additional creators have reported having their channel blocked or demonetized due to the content that was hosted. Some decisions have been questioned, including the deletion of Scott Allsop’s history channel on YouTube, presumably because it discusses sensitive matters such as the Holocaust.
Moving through the rest of 2019 and thereafter, one can expect harsher crackdowns on offensive and controversial content on the website. In order to ease the concerns that arose in the cases of channels like Scott Allsop, the frequency of manual reviews should increase to ensure a process that flags content that actively promotes harmful and hateful content rather than videos that discuss harmful and hateful content. Policies will probably be updated to guarantee clarity for its creators, and reinforce the core tenets of the video platform.
However, further restrictions seem extremely unlikely due to the backlash that could ensue as a result. YouTube has found itself in hot water multiple times throughout the years, whether it be the Logan Paul incident, or the recent debacle around YouTube Rewind 2018 (the video holds the most dislikes of any video). In order to avoid further damage to their reputation, new announcements regarding the platform need to remain on the safer side unless such changes are urgent.
The fate of Steven Crowder’s channel remains in a shroud of fog after its demonetization. Because he has alternative means of income through subscriptions and merchandise, there remains no doubt that he will continue to produce content in the foreseeable future. Whether his content will be impacted by the hidden algorithms is yet to be seen. With accusations levied at YouTube for holding a political bias against conservative pundits, it will be interesting to observe the forthcoming changes that appear as a result.
YouTube is certainly different from its initial release over a decade ago. In a relatively brief period of time, the platform morphed into a viable haven for creatives to express their opinions to larger audiences and produce content that could pave forth a career path. With such rapid traction comes a need to accomodate with subsequent change, and the growing pains experienced by YouTube and its creators is evident.
In the hands of a major tech corporation like Google, YouTube finds itself under a magnifying glass on the daily, its content and policies reflective of the Internet and its regulation at large. It is an influential platform that hosts commentary and people that mainstream news or televisions might be averse to hosting, and perhaps its popularity skyrocketed because of that.
Caught within the crosshairs of Carlos Maza and Steven Crowder, political discourse, and free speech, YouTube’s actions in the coming months will test its core tenets and carve the path that it hopes to pursue for years to come. While disagreements might arise from the situation regarding much of the topics explored through the “Vox Adpocalypse”, most will certainly hold confidence that these next days, weeks, and months will be critical periods of affirmation and progress for YouTube.