clock menu more-arrow no yes

YouTube’s new policies are catching educators, journalists, and activists in the crossfire

YouTube’s takedowns aren’t taking context into account

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

YouTube’s new policies designed to more aggressively tackle supremacist content have also led to some creators claiming their videos have been improperly removed or hidden in the process. They argue that YouTube is not distinguishing between actual hate content and videos that document hate groups for educational or journalistic purposes.

YouTube announced on Wednesday that it was taking stronger measures to ban “videos alleging that a group is superior in order to justify discrimination, segregation or exclusion based on qualities like age, gender, race, caste, religion, sexual orientation or veteran status.” It was only minutes later that creators began to see channels being removed or videos pulled down — including a channel run by a history teacher, a video uploaded by the Southern Poverty Law Center, and independent journalist Ford Fischer.

Fischer is a YouTube-based reporter who covers politics, activism, and extremism. He’s shot footage at events like the Unite the Right white supremacy rally that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, as well as gay pride parades. Some of his footage is used by documentarians and educators to study extremism and activist groups around the world, Fischer tells The Verge.

The two videos that were taken down by YouTube included unedited footage of noted white supremacist Mike Enoch talking at an event that happened two months before Unite the Right. That footage was used in a documentary exploring how white nationalism can spread in the United States. The second showcased pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups coming together to debate a holocaust denier. Since his footage falls into categories YouTube has since banned, those videos were removed despite their educational context.

Just an hour after YouTube’s blog post went up, his entire channel was demonetized without any instruction over how to appeal it. Fischer, who has faced growing demonetization over the past few months as YouTube clamps down on footage involving hate speech, lost one of his primary income sources. Fischer argues that he’s not spreading hate speech and it’s unfair that YouTube isn’t using better moderators when it comes to deciding which channels are affected.

“It’s also supposed to matter to them that their content creators are being paid fairly,” Fischer says. “They don’t care about the economic support of the community.”

He’s not the only one who feels that way. Jared Holt, an investigative reporter at Right Wing Watch who covers both the far-right and alt-right, tells The Verge that YouTube restricted one of his publication’s videos focused on Rick Wiles, a reported anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist. Wiles said that YouTube was controlled by “the synagogue of Satan” in one of his own videos. Although Right Wing Watch’s coverage of Wiles’ sentiments was restricted, Wiles’ original video remains up.

It’s part of a bigger structural problem that is under the microscope now, according to Holt. Any time that YouTube rolls out an “intermediary fix or patch to calm down criticism against how the platform operates, the company runs into major problems,” Holt said.

YouTube declined to comment on either case when asked by The Verge, but pointed to a document stating the company relies on teams to review videos before either removing or hiding them. 99.3 percent of those reviews are flagged automatically by YouTube’s machine learning algorithm, but a reviewer is the one to decide if the video should be taken down. YouTube’s blog post also recognized that “some of this content has value to researchers and NGOs looking to understand hate in order to combat it, and we are exploring options to make it available to them in the future.”

“If YouTube really cares about its creator community and wants to foster a healthy community on its site, part of the equation is stepping up and being there for content creators,” Holt says. “That’s something we haven’t seen in this round of action taken by YouTube.”

Holt belongs to a larger news organization, but Fischer is on his own. Without YouTube monetization, he’s left to rely on licensing deals and Patreon subscriptions, which only bring in a few hundred dollars every few months. News organizations and documentarians will sometimes pay Fischer to use his raw footage, but he said that isn’t a reliable source of income. The only consistency he had was advertising on YouTube; without it, he doesn’t know what happens next.

“You can reapply [for advertising privileges] as if you’re a new creator in 30 days,” Fischer tells The Verge. That’s not an appeal — they want me to go through my channel and delete stuff without explanation or context. That’s not plausible for me to do, and I don’t know if I want to. Much of the footage they would consider controversial has been used in the sphere of government, politics, and is historically important.”