YouTube Keeps Screwing up, and There's No End To It in Sight

Rules inconsistently applied, problematic creators rarely reprimanded, and chaos is ever-enduring.

Because we live in the era of late-stage capitalism, the premiere destination for user-generated video content — YouTube, arguably a quasi-monopoly — happens to also be owned by one of the most powerful tech companies in the world. That by itself wouldn’t be cause for fuss were it not marked by frequent instances of the video giant not wielding its power responsibly–the platform has a ruleset it’s supposed to enforce, but it rarely does so with any consistency, often making carve-outs to its most problematic elements while the rest languish in neglect, only reacting to trouble when it threatens their bottom-line.

That YouTube is traditionally reactionary about much-needed changes to its regime wasn’t in contention–what’s egregious however is the way chronic violators of the platform’s rules keep getting away with it under YouTube’s philosophy of treating sunlight as a most-adequate disinfectant of rule-breaking content. This proves resonant in the platform’s treatment of hate speech, and while devising a federal doctrine for it in America has proven fickle because of 1st amendment protections, platforms themselves have not shied away from drawing their own line in the sand by declaring it crucial to their ecosystem’s health for othering language to stay off their premises–the issue is, and especially in the case of YouTube, that is rarely ever enforced; not to a degree that matters at least.

The latest in such transgressions comes in the form of a Steven Crowder rant about Black farmers on the heels of a recently-passed COVID relief package, one where the host unmistakably uses racist language to undermine their claim to access aid. Under any rational terms-of-service enforcement, this would result in a strike, potentially leading into a ban if moderation latitude was still taken advantage of–we’ve yet to see YouTube’s response to this, but if their treatment of past blunders from Crowder is anything to go by, they’re unlikely to see through any kind of justice.

This isn’t a theme unique to YouTube’s legion of conservative commentators however–the platform has long struggled to keep a lid on creators’ impulse to duke it out with each other or trivialize the plight of marginalized groups under the guise of well-intentioned “debate” and “discussion”, sentiments oftentimes expressed behind a very thin layer of humor as to assume plausible deniability in the case of retaliation. PewDiePie did it by indulging anti-semitic memes for cheap laughs in the past, Logan Paul was equally as guilty of it when he filmed a dead corpse in Japan’s Aokigahara forest for clicks, and both of those instances were met with swift action once taming the storm proved more opportune than turning a blind eye–there’s a fundamental issue with YouTube ignoring that and focusing on gratuitous use of copyrighted material when it’s obvious which one has more immediate consequences on the health of public discourse.

One would be remiss to not dub this simply a mechanism of untamed profit-seeking motives, where YouTube is willing to rid itself of as much friction as possible in the service of universality rather than embracing their role as a crucial medium through which ideas are disseminated and shared, throwing us vacuous platitudes about the sanctity of free speech to bask in instead. It would’ve been cause for much introspection were it not often uttered in service of the most nonsensical libertarian take on speech dynamics that takes neither affect nor social impact as helpful measures of its health and efficacy.

Even in the event that vigilante justice is pursued, its promoters are hit with what could only be described as a surgical form of censorship, tantamount to book-burning of old. Pastelle Belle, a YouTuber that focuses on the macro effects of letting platform celebrity run amok without tabs on their power was recently hit with an algorithm-demotion filter that saw her engagement all but wither if the names of her prior subjects were ever to be uttered as a result of her unfavorable coverage of Eugenia Cooney–after weeks of relentless badgering, Pastelle’s calls for just treatment were finally answered. Though given the platform’s poor track-record with grievances raised by smaller creators, a rematch is likely to occur again in the not-so-distant future.

It’s difficult to see the callousness of what YouTube allows and doesn’t as anything other than shareholder interest taking over shared noble virtue, a calculus where the health of society and individuals within it are taken as secondary to the pursuit of profits aplenty. Saying that hate speech and harassment isn’t allowed on your platform isn’t cowering to the feeble sensibilities of polite society–it’s recognizing that public discourse needs fair mediation that comes not in the form of coddling venomous rhetoric, but rather enabling and facilitating its best kinds. It’s a responsibility that legacy media institutions — like newspapers — used to shoulder the burden of, but now that user-generated reigns supreme in many spheres, rigorous evaluation of our current standards is very much in order so that our public discourse may retain its function as a key component of a democratic and fair society.

These may sound like unnecessarily-specific demands from a platform whose most popular produce remains quite politically-neutral, but it pays dividends to at least ensure there are basic standards to abide by. The above may suggest a particular bias against the right-wing, but it’s only because they’ve unequivocally taken more liberty with the platform’s rules than the left ever did–regardless of optics, the party most-responsible for causing turmoil may take heed, and if it doesn’t, then there should be plenty of hell to pay.

We’ve been in this song and dance before–there was momentum building up back in mid-2019 following Kevin Roose’s profile of recently-deradicalized Caleb Cain to see that YouTube keeps its most rabid dogs on a tight leash, but that fizzled out quickly in favor of complacency as Donald Trump proved himself a useful backdrop for tolerating mischief, the Former President’s account only suspended a mere week before his successor was sworn in.

For YouTube to only put its foot down when its host country almost descends into authoritarian chaos should tell us plenty about its willingness — or lackthereof — to self-regulate. To that end, anything shy of strict government action is unlikely to bring about tangible and noticeable change–we’ve expended much time and effort to figuring out what the problems were, now let’s get to actually fixing them before it’s far too late.