YouTube Has a Problem on Its Hands: Change My Mind

The last couple of weeks, a storm has been brewing on social media around the policies and content allowed on the largest social media platform in the world: YouTube. Let me explain.

Who Are the Players?

Before we get into the details about what all is going on, we should meet the characters. Really there are two people at the center of this story and one major company. We’ve already established that YouTube is the major company. But who are the people?

The two warring parties here are Carlos Maza and Steven Crowder.

Carlos Maza is a journalist for Vox Media. He is primarily responsible for “Strikethrough,” which is a video series under the Vox brand. The video series is hosted on Vox’s website as well as YouTube. Maza is gay and, from what I can tell, makes that a prominent part of his platform (it is included in his Twitter handle). Maza holds liberal political views and works for a liberal news outlet, Vox.

Steven Crowder is a conservative political and cultural commentator best known for this picture, which has been edited and memed thousands of times, including in the title of this blog post:

But beyond that memeable picture, Crowder is a new version of the conservative radio shock jock for the digital age. He’s Rush Limbaugh if he was 30 years younger and was on YouTube instead of the radio. He’s John Oliver but conservative..and usually much more offensive.

What’s Going On?

It all started, sort of, when Maza (@gaywonk on Twitter) tweeted this thread last Thursday (click it to see the full thread):

Maza is bothered, as he says, by the insulting commentary of Crowder.

Crowder is a conservative commentator. So naturally, many of his views are inherently offensive to a significant portion of people. But it’s more than just his opinions that are offensive. His delivery is incredibly offensive. He wouldn’t deny this. I’m not accusing him of anything he wouldn’t own.

Here’s a recent example of a typical podcast segment/video from Crowder:

I’ve been aware of Crowder for a while, but I’ve never really consumed any of his content until I started writing this blog post. I see why people like his content. He’s witty. He’s edgy. He has friends who egg him on a la Dan Patrick on his show. It is definitely “entertaining” in the most neutral sense of the word. I didn’t really enjoy any of the content, but I definitely see why people do.

Maza tweeted this compilation video of how Crowder has criticized him:

Without a doubt, Crowder’s treatment of Maza is reprehensible and offensive. It’s probably fair to even call it outright harassment. The question is: does Crowder’s behavior violate YouTube’s policies? Being offensive and rude is not against YouTube policies. If it was, some of the most famous comedians and commentators would have been banned long ago. The question is not whether or not Crowder’s actions are “wrong” or “mean”. The questions is whether or not his actions break YouTube’s policies.

What Did YouTube Say?

YouTube made a statement on Twitter in response to Maza’s Twitter thread saying that after a thorough review of the content on Crowder’s channel, they do not believe he is violating YouTube policies. Here is their statement:

YouTube has decided after a couple of days of review that Crowder should be demonetized but not banned from the platform. On one hand, I appreciate that YouTube isn’t just throwing down the ban hammer on Crowder because he’s mean. In my opinion, some social media platforms have been a bit too quick to suspend or ban users in the past for being jerks when they didn’t violate any stated policies for the platform.

However, in the case of Maza v. Crowder, I’m not sure I understand YouTube’s response. Here is a highlighted line from their policies on harassment and cyberbullying:

I mean it seems pretty clear to me that Crowder has content that “makes hurtful and negative personal comments/videos about another person.” Now, I don’t think Crowder has any videos whose sole and primary focus is Maza and making hurtful comments about him (I couldn’t find any). From what I can tell, most of Crowder’s rude remarks toward Maza are in the context of covering the content/topic Maza has covered in his videos. In providing commentary on an issue Maza has covered, he throws jabs in about Maza.

What I mean to say is that Crowder insults Maza in passing within the context of videos rather than creating videos whose primary topic is Maza and making fun of him. Obviously neither is good, but I wonder if YouTube finds passing insults permissible and more focused insults as breaking the above policy.

For now, YouTube has decided that what Crowder has done is permissible but not able to be monetized. As you can imagine, that has not gone over very well. Demonetizing Crowder won’t really do anything except galvanize his supporters. He likely makes a small percentage of his overall revenue through YouTube monetization as his content isn’t very lucrative for advertisers in the first place.

Why Does All of This Matter?

It matters because small fights like this have historically had massive implications on how social media platforms regulate content and execute their policies. People don’t like it when the policies of social media platforms allow jerks to thrive on being jerks.

YouTube, and other social media platforms, have the difficult job of deciding where it is that a line is crossed. For instance, Crowder was being criticized for calling Maza a “queer”. But Maza regularly refers to himself and his community as “queer” (it is the “Q” in “LGBTQ” after all). Certainly, Crowder was using the term in an insulting way. But is it YouTube’s job to prevent someone from insulting another person? Or is it YouTube’s job to make sure that it’s platform isn’t used for physical violence?

At the center of all of this conversation is a controversial subject: words and the extent of the damage they can cause.

YouTube unequivocally does not allow any content that suggests physical harm be done to individuals. However, in recent years, more and more emphasis has been put on the “harm” words cause people.

Many, particularly those on the political left, consider verbal attacks or insults as serious as physical attacks. This belief is particularly popular on college campuses which set up safe spaces for students to retreat when speakers come to campus and challenge their views. Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff write of this phenomenon in The Coddling of the American Mind:

The belief that words or ideas can be “dangerous” or “harmful” is growing in popularity and social media is obviously a huge minefield of verbal insults. So, for some, logging on to social media at the risk of enduring a barrage of verbal abuse could be as risky as stepping onto a literal, physical battlefield.

Many want YouTube to treat verbal abuse and harassment with the same level of severity as threats of physical abuse or attacks. YouTube seems to have drawn a line in the sand, making it much more difficult to be banned for verbal attacks than for physical attacks. This is not popular.

I don’t really have an opinion on this. I’m glad I’m not the one who has to figure out where to draw the line. I don’t believe jerks should be banned from having a voice online, even though I think jerks are jerks. But where does one cross the line from being a jerk to being worthy of being silenced? Has Crowder crossed that line? It’s hard to say. With Alex Jones, who was banned from YouTube months ago, it seemed as though it was when his verbal abuses started to have offline effects that he was banned from the platform. He wasn’t banned for saying Sandy Hook was a hoax, but he was banned when some of his viewers started harassing the family of Sandy Hook victims in person and in ways beyond social media.

Perhaps with Crowder it’s the same. He’s verbally insulted Maza online, but no one has approached him in person as a result of Crowder’s words. Maybe that is what would put it over the edge? It’s hard to say. I don’t think even YouTube knows, honestly.

What Happens Next?

Maza has continued to hound YouTube about its faulty policies. He claims the platform doesn’t care about LGBT creators:

All the while, conservatives regularly complain that YouTube and other social media platforms have a bias in favor of liberal ideas and creators.

Crowder posted a video defending himself here:

But what is next for YouTube and speech on social media? That remains to be seen.

Earlier today YouTube started banning users and removing videos revolving around neo-Nazi and white supremacist content. Kevin Roose and Kate Conger wrote in the New York Times:

YouTube announced plans on Wednesday to remove thousands of videos and channels that advocate for neo-Nazism, white supremacy and other bigoted ideologies in an attempt to clean up extremism and hate speech on its popular service.

The new policy will ban “videos alleging that a group is superior in order to justify discrimination, segregation or exclusion,” the company said in a blog post. The prohibition will also cover videos denying that violent incidents, like the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, took place.

YouTube did not name any specific channels or videos that would be banned.

“It’s our responsibility to protect that, and prevent our platform from being used to incite hatred, harassment, discrimination and violence,” the company said in the blog post.

Since that article was written this morning, some channels have already seen the effects:

Moving forward, it is going to be interesting to see how major social media platforms regulate content on their platforms.

The people who use these platforms come from innumerable backgrounds with varying kinds of morality. A room full of 100 social media users would generate dozens of opinions about where the “line” needs to be drawn in terms of what content is allowed and what content is not allowed.

Maza v. Crowder is important because it may act as a critical inflection point regarding these discussions. Can a conservative commentator use a social media platform to call a liberal commentator names based on his nationality and/or sexual identity? Is such action just mean or is it not allowed on the platform?

We are living in fascinating times. Our grandchildren will look back on this time in the age of the internet and marvel at how unregulated and “wild west” everything was.

For now, we watch some of the most powerful companies in the world grapple with their own morality and the morality of their users.