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YouTubers fear looming ‘adpocalypse’ after child exploitation controversy

The fifth adpocalypse wave is on the horizon

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Matt Watson/YouTube

YouTube creators are worried that a catastrophic drop in ad revenue may be upon them following a new controversy over YouTube’s inability to curve predatory behavior on content featuring young children.

“I’m not reporting the story because it negatively affects the whole YouTube community,” Daniel “Keemstar” Keem, the host of popular show, DramaAlert, tweeted. “We don’t need another ad apocalypse. What I have done behind the scenes though is reached out to my YouTube contacts showing them the video and my team is showing them content to take down. This is not just about me. This is about all my friends big and small creators. I’m not reporting something that’s going to affect there livelihoods.”

“Instead I’m going to work privately behind the scenes with YouTube to get this content taken down.”

Controversy sparked again after a video, published on February 18th by Matt Watson, exposes how bad actors and pedophiles re-upload or find videos of young children and use the comment section to talk about kids’ bodies or timestamp certain parts of the video that sexualizes them. The video landed on the front page of Reddit for hours, and Watson asked viewers to reach out to companies whose ads appeared on the videos — like Grammarly, L’Oréal, and Maybelline. YouTube responded to the video, stating that although these videos make up a fraction of a percent of videos that violate YouTube’s guidelines, it’s an issue the company takes seriously.

Companies are already pulling ads in response. Fortnite developer Epic Games has removed all pre-roll ads from YouTube in light of learning its ads were playing on some of the videos discovered by Watson. Other companies like Peloton and Grammarly have asked YouTube to investigate the situation, and are working with independent third parties on their own investigation into what happened, and could pull their own ads. While YouTube has tried to make advertisers more aware of where their ads are being placed, it’s clear that major corporations are concerned and frustrated by where their ads are appearing — and the possibility of an even bigger scandal.

If enough companies do this, it could have serious implications for everyday YouTube creators. The result is something the creator community refers to as the adpocalypse — a term that originated within the creator community back in 2016. Roberto Blake, a popular creator on YouTube and commentator, tweeted that Watson’s ongoing crusade — including multiple livestreams and calls for people to boycott YouTube — is only causing more problems.

“He’s purposely trying to usher in another Adpocalypse,” Blake tweeted. “YouTube has problems, fixing them doesn’t mean you go telling people to call up advertisers. This isn’t some heroic crusade, it’s a vendetta.”

The first adpocalypse began in late 2016, when YouTube decided to focus on promoting family friendly content following backlash from critics over content. Creators like Philip DeFranco were hit pretty hard, and called attention to the fact that they could no longer monetize their channels as frequently or reliably as before.

Things only got worse in February 2017, after reports that there was terrorism and hateful content running on the platform with ads enabled. Not too long after, YouTube’s biggest creator, PewDiePie, found himself embroiled in controversy over a video that contained anti-Semitic imagery. Advertisers threatened to leave YouTube, so YouTube tightened its restrictions.

That “adpocalypse” changed the way some creators approached YouTube. It happened again at the end of 2017, following disturbing children’s content on YouTube being discovered, and again in 2018, following Logan Paul’s suicide forest video. Creators have found alternative monetization solutions, including live shows and merchandise, but the fear of another adpocalpyse on the horizon never goes away.

Now, following Watson’s videos, creators are worried once again. Watson has made his intentions clear: he wants both creators and users to boycott YouTube until the company is able to completely wipe predatory content from its platform. Although Watson followed his call for a boycott up with sympathy for creators who make a living on the platform, other YouTubers have since expressed their concerns with his call to action. Watson linking numbers for companies in his descriptions, for example, and encouraging viewers to call and complain about ads appearing on certain video pages, is a tactic that creators like Eion, whose popular YouTube channel, Nerd City, offers commentary into YouTube culture, have criticized.

“Why is he assuming that the solution to a problem is to create a catastrophe,” Eion said. “That’s what he’s absolutely doing.”

YouTube has given advertisers more control over what genre of videos their ads run on, as well as certain types of videos they don’t want their ads to run on, but there still isn’t a full proof way to prevent ads from appearing on disturbing videos. For example, advertisers can tell YouTube they want to run ads on videos that fall under sports and music, but not video games, and YouTube will distribute ads on channels that fall under those categories. Hypothetically, if a channel that features young children performing gymnastics or showcasing choreography, and their channel meets YouTube’s AdSense requirements, then an advertisement for a Google Chromebook could appear on a video that has also attracted predators in the comments section.

YouTube creators like Eion understand the dangers all too well. The way advertising works on YouTube is something creators have educated themselves on following previous adpocalypses.

“Every time one of these things happens, it plays on misunderstanding of how advertising works,” Eion said. “Targeted advertising works completely different from sponsored advertising, or running ads on television. Coca-Cola was not approaching ISIS channels and saying, ‘Hey, I love what you’re doing, we’d love to run some ads on your channel.’ Coke was targeting people who might drink Coca-Cola. And that’s an enormous basket of people.”

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki addressed the concern between advertisers and creators over harmful videos running with ads, and tightened measures affecting creators back in December.

“We are planning to apply stricter criteria, conduct more manual curation, while also significantly ramping up our team of ad reviewers to ensure ads are only running where they should,” Wojcicki wrote in a blog published on December 4th. “This will also help vetted creators see more stability around their revenue. It’s important we get this right for both advertisers and creators, and over the next few weeks, we’ll be speaking with both to hone this approach.”

YouTube is clearly trying to address creators and advertisers concerns. In an effort to keep the site advertiser friendly, YouTube has increased the requirements for creators to earn AdSense revenue on their channels. In turn, YouTube has started to roll out other monetization models, including helping creators sell merchandise. Still, YouTube is aware of the issue, and is trying to respond as quickly as possible.

“Any content — including comments — that endangers minors is abhorrent and we have clear policies prohibiting this on YouTube,” a YouTube spokesperson told The Verge. “We took immediate action by deleting accounts and channels, reporting illegal activity to authorities and disabling violative comments. There’s more to be done, and we continue to work to improve and catch abuse more quickly.”

YouTube creators have checked in with each other, and there is concern that as more companies become aware of what’s happening and YouTube responds, the more likely it is that another adpocalypse is coming. One of the issues that creators take with Watson’s approach in his ongoing live streams is that calling advertisers and asking people to boycott YouTube isn’t a solution to the actual problem.

“If advertisers leave YouTube, this isn’t going to stop the pedos in the comments section,” Keem said in his latest DramaAlert episode. “This is just going to hurt the livelihood of YouTubers big and small ... YouTube is doing a great job and taking these videos down.”

Creators are aware that a storm is brewing. The attention Watson’s video received has advertisers worried, and creators trying everything in their power to not enter another adpocalypse wave. Eion told The Verge the most that creators can hope for at this point is that YouTube has “the right solution.”

“YouTube is very important to all of us, so elevating a problem into an existential threat for YouTube is going to make me want to defend YouTube,” Eion said.