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It’s Too Late for YouTube to Save Itself

If big tech wanted to effectively combat hate, it would have done so from the beginning. The damage is already done.

This week, YouTube — the Google-owned social platform that launched with a brief video about elephants and 14 years later stands openly complicit in the rise of right-wing extremist violence — announced plans “to remove thousands of videos and channels that advocate neo-Nazism, white supremacy and other bigoted ideologies,” per the New York Times. This is, on its face, a good thing… but probably not so good as preventing these ideologies from taking root on your site in the first place. Right?

Sure, you’re finally getting rid of the people who say the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting (in which 26 people, mostly first-graders, died) never happened. Trouble is, they’ve been saying this on your site for years, driving harassment of the victims’ families and trapping them in a nightmare of grief without end. A company that does not know or care enough to intercept and dissolve these movements as they form has, by any reasonable metric, failed. It has proven the harm of Silicon Valley’s disruption fetish, the move-fast-break-things ethos that has wrought, among other things, a Facebook riddled with disinformation and hate speech that helped Trump to the White House and a Twitter that permits rampant abuse because, allegedly, users aren’t reporting it.

YouTube itself was pressured into doing too little, too late, by people who have endured vile attacks from the site’s most toxic “creators.” Carlos Maza, a Vox correspondent who produces video segments on “journalism and media in the age of Trump,” snared viral attention for a Twitter thread in which he outlined a horrifying campaign of racist and homophobic smears in videos posted by Steven Crowder, a failed standup comedian once fired from Fox News who now has nearly 4 million subscribers on the website.

It was clear to any reasonable person who read Maza’s complaint and watched the content in question that Crowder’s channel is the exact sort YouTube would do well to delete in unapologetic fashion; instead, moderators landed on the chickenshit compromise of (maybe?) demonetizing it. As Maza pointed out, this course of action may be worse than none at all — it gives Crowder oxygen for a persecution narrative while leaving him the means to continue peddling it. In the way of most half-measures, YouTube then had to awkwardly qualify and further explain its failure to serve up meaningful consequences. This, naturally, led to a complete breakdown of meaning.

In the meantime? The videos condemning the conspiracy theories or anti-LGBT stuff that deserves to be purged were targeted themselves for containing similar keywords. Very few channels appear to have been banned outright, so the proliferation of extremist rabbit holes the company refuses to acknowledge, via an algorithm that nobody seems to understand apart from its radicalizing effect, has not been hindered. Whatever enforcement YouTube manages to haphazardly effect in the midst of its branding crisis is unlikely to touch the issues of enabling pedophile rings or poisoning children with hellish animations. Hoaxes and hate will keep reinforcing engagement, the only metric that matters to YouTube’s bottom line. The company is now poised to profit from the backlash to its own spineless idea of accountability for malignant propagandists.

But just as it’s worth getting mad at YouTube for neglecting a moral duty to protect marginalized groups, it’s important to see that it never gave serious thought to such an imperative in the first place. Otherwise, we would not be begging them to do the bare minimum right now, and for the millionth time. Even Twitter, far short of adequate in this regard, has banned a sufficient number of dangerous zealots to inspire an alternative social network where Nazi talking points are welcome. For the most part, however, these businesses and their shockingly naive founders have bent disastrously in the other direction, hewing to ideals of “free speech” and borderless communication that manifest, in reality, as a pathetic fear of their most hostile customers, who are incentivized to rail against any platform that doesn’t treat them with total deference.

One plausible outcome of kowtowing to this element is the slow exodus of everyone else. Maza’s message to LGBT YouTubers — that they are marketing props for a hollow and craven shrine of capital — begins to sound like the call to strike, to show the idle gatekeepers they have more to lose than gain in preserving an echo chamber of intolerance. The problem is indeed so far advanced, compounded by the irresponsibility that shadows big tech’s denialist attitude, that revolt may be the only good way through.