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.

The Christian Social Internet and (Sorta) Learning to Shut My Virtual Mouth

When I graduated college in 2013 and entered the realm of “professional social media manager” for a world-renowned Christian leader and avid online content creator at one of the largest Christian organizations in the world, I was an idiot.

But before we get into that, let’s take a minute to explore what I’ll call the “Christian Social Internet.” This context will provide a basis for my self-reflection.

A Recent History of the Christian Social Internet

This makes me sound old, but 2013 was a much different time in the Christian Social Internet than it is today, event though it was just six years ago.

Please note this tweet, which I think provides a simple framework to shape our exploration:

In 2013-2014, the Christian Social Internet was, in my view, at Stage 2 of this progression.

Christians of varying beliefs had already gotten over the novelty of being able to connect with other believers online, and 2013-2014 seemed to be peak in-fighting on the Christian Social Internet. Ex-evangelicals were rallying around one another and evangelicals were huddling together to defend basic tenets of evangelical faith that were being called into question by people “leaving evangelicalism.”

Much of the in-fighting I was watching can be summarized most simply as a warring of worldviews between conservative evangelicals (Southern Baptists, PCAers, Reformed folks, etc.) and liberal evangelicals/Mainline protestants.

For example, I remember many a Twitter battle between Rachel Held Evans, Joe Carter, Jonathan Merritt, Jared C. Wilson, and others. Rachel and Jonathan would often contend for a more liberal view of a particular issue, while guys like Joe or Jared would contend for a more conservative view.

In my newfound role as social media manager for a well-known Christian leader, I spent a significant amount of time monitoring the conversations (read: “fights”) among Christians arguing about everything from what makes someone an “evangelical” to whether or not a megachurch pastor who has a moral failing can ever lead a church again.

I would say that, though there is division and fighting among Christians online today, it doesn’t quite match the intensity and fervor of what was going on in 2013-2014 (but some may disagree). Much of the division centers around political issues, whereas the division in 2013-2014 often related more to theology or overall worldview issues.

It was like the internet brought thousands of vocal Christians together on Twitter and when they all realized they didn’t think the same way about important issues, they fought for social confirmation of their rightness. In public. Before a watching world.

I think that, in large part, much of the Christian Social Internet has moved to Stage 3 of the progression given in my tweet above. I think many evangelical and liberal evangelicals/Mainline Protestants have come to realize that they are not going to get one another to agree on biblical sexuality, the role of women in the local church, or other hot issues.

It almost feels as though the warriors who once patrolled the Christian Social Internet have retreated to their homelands, now more interested in building up their own citizens than winning battles and seizing cultural territory.

The battles were unhealthy. They were unhelpful. None of the combatants left convinced or converted. They earned clout among their like-minded peers, but no land was actually won.

I speak as one who observed these wars, but I didn’t just observe them. Remember what I said at the beginning? I was an idiot.

I tried to enter some of these battles as an infantryman. That’s where I messed up. I played myself.

I Am Culpable

I remember standing in the eight-foot-long kitchen of our Nashville area apartment making dinner with my wife and furiously tweeting at people like Rachel Held Evans or Jonathan Merritt to tell them how dumb and misguided they were.

I also remember receiving phone calls from various people at work telling me that I need to stop tweeting.

I didn’t always listen.

I showed up to fight in a battle to which I wasn’t invited in order to take a stand no one was asking me to take so that people who don’t know me would see how smart I was.

How dumb was that?

I was so mad at people peddling what I thought were lies that I was willing to spend hours of my days tweeting at other people how wrong they were. As if they needed some 22-year-old kid to right their theology and worldview.

I was arrogant. I was pursuing my own glory. I was satisfying an urge. Yelling my two minutes of hate into the void.

It was a different time. It was, perhaps, more acceptable to do that back then. But that doesn’t excuse how I acted. I messed up. I shouldn’t have done it. I sinned against a lot of people.

I was one of those people about whom friends of mine would say, “Yeah, but he’s not like that in real life,” when defending my idiocy on Twitter. What a shame. Foolishness.

But a lot has changed since 2013-2014.

The Christian Social Internet has become more ideologically segregated, which is maybe a good thing (depending on who you ask).

I have become a much more spiritually and emotionally mature person. God has graciously sanctified me by his Holy Spirit. Life goes on.

This past fall, I was given a new responsibility that has drastically affected the way I interact online in general, but especially on the Christian Social Internet.

You Just Don’t Know the Whole Story

This is where this post gets a bit dicey because I don’t know how much I’m allowed to say here, so I’ll say enough to make my point and not say more than I should.

I manage the @LifeWay social media handles. When you tweet @LifeWay or engage with the @LifeWay Facebook page, that’s my desk. That’s my work. That’s me.

I took the keys for the @LifeWay social media handles this past October when a colleague took a job at a different company. I haven’t crashed the car yet, despite the spotty driving record we just reviewed.

A lot has happened at LifeWay since last fall, if you aren’t aware. Namely, we just announced a shift in focus toward a more “dynamic digital strategy” which will result in the closure of some of our LifeWay Christian Store locations.

Between that and some changes in leadership, it’s been an active first few months to be running the @LifeWay social media handles.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of managing the @LifeWay social media handles, particularly the Twitter handle, has been observing the wide variety of negative feedback we get about an assortment of issues. But internet hate is the way of the road these days, even (perhaps especially) on the Christian Social Internet.

But the most striking feedback I’ve seen is the comments on various news articles about the “erosion” of our brick-and-mortar stores and the shift we’re making toward a more “dynamic digital strategy.”

Everyone has an idea about why the erosion of retail has happened. But that’s beside the point. Here’s the point:

Watching all of the reaction around LifeWay’s recent announcement humbled me.

Seeing dozens of commenters incorrectly theorize why LifeWay brick-and-mortar stores have struggled made me realize how little I know about the things I have criticized in the past. For example:

Something silly I like to criticize is ESPN’s botching of the Monday Night Football program. They’ve had the program for years and I’ve always thought it’s terrible, as have most people on Twitter, it seems. I think they try too hard. Their commentators are too over the top. They Disney-fy it too much.

But what do I know? With what authority am I able criticize ESPN’s (mis)handling of Monday Night Football?

Am I a television programming expert? Do I know what makes a good football commentator? Do I have any right to call out one of the largest entertainment companies in the world on how they handle a program?

The answer is “No” to all of the above.

So often I don’t know the whole story, and I act like I do.

It didn’t click with me how foolish I am to do something like that until I saw all of the errant criticisms of the erosion of LifeWay retail stores. I was humbled and I recognized my own foolishness.

It’s really transformed how I interact with social media.

On Deleting Apps and Logging Off

I haven’t left any social media platforms entirely like some of my friends have, but I have dramatically changed how I interact with them.

I deleted the Facebook suite of apps off my phone long ago, except the Pages app, which I need for work.

I deleted the Twitter app from my phone, but still access it on my web browser from time to time. The more annoying interface of the web browser makes me use it less often.

I go back and forth between being logged into my personal Instagram account. I have to have access to the LifeWay Instagram at all times, though, so I can’t delete the app.

I created an anonymous Twitter account for lurking when I’m working so that I am not tempted to tweet dumb stuff from my personal Twitter account when it comes to mind during the day (because I’m on Twitter all day for work stuff).

I stopped following anything on Twitter that made me mad and exclusively use it as a platform to engage with people and things I enjoy: friends or professional contacts, funny comedy accounts, or various accounts in my areas of interest (sports, gaming, social media culture).

It’s super difficult to “leave” social media when it’s your everyday job and when you genuinely enjoy so many bright parts of it like I do. But it is helpful to deploy guardrails that can assist in a pursuit of sanctification and wisdom.

My relationship with social media and the Christian Social Internet has matured a lot in the six years I’ve been creating content for a living. I went from needlessly entering Twitter fights I had no business entering to managing the corporate accounts of one of the largest Christian resource providers in the world. God has done a work, amen?

But he’s not done working, either. Which is why I’ve taken many steps to protect against any foolishness that still seeps out of my fingers from time to time.

The Lord has taught me the merit of shutting my virtual mouth more often than I have in the past.

My friend Michael Kelley wrote in a blog post that went live on LifeWay Voices today:

We have an increased opportunity to run our mouths more than any other generation.

That’s because we can effectively run our mouths not only with our actual mouths, but with our devices as well. We have at our fingertips the ability to broadcast our deepest thoughts, most profound opinions, and hottest takes more easily than ever before. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why we are such a loud people – it’s because we have the opportunity to be loud.

You know the feeling as well as I do. There is someone who brings something to us – it’s an accusation, it’s a criticism, it’s a rebuke – it’s a whatever. Someone does something or says something or insinuates something and we, in return, feel a compulsion inside of us. It’s a burning down deep in our guts. We. Must. Respond. And usually when that response comes, it’s part and parcel with what has just been dealt to us. If it was anger, we respond in anger. If criticism, we respond with criticism of our own. If accusation, we respond with defensiveness. Whatever the case, we respond.

But into the throng of noise steps the command from James – the command to listen. Not tweet. Not broadcast. Not Facebook Live. But listen.

Amen. Let’s run our mouths less and listen more.

When we’re tempted to take up arms in virtual battles over frivolous issues, let’s remember that the war’s already been won.