If internet history proves anything, it's that not a day can pass without someone protesting about "free speech." And while this theme is nothing new—as events like the Meow Wars, from 20 years ago, demonstrate—I suspect that free speech will be remembered as one of the defining questions of our era, the adolescent internet at its most audible and belligerent and angsty.
Which is why the latest outcry on YouTube over censorship is hardly a surprise.
Some background: One week ago, a video appeared titled "THE YOUTUBE RANT (I'm getting banned off YouTube)." Its creator was already infamous: the "commentary" channel Leafyishere.
The video accuses YouTube of a selective approach to moderation, one where smaller channels are cautioned or shut down entirely for "roasting" and casual parody, while bigger channels (like Leafy's own—he has well over 4 million subscribers) consistently get away with it. But now, Leafy argues, even bigger channels are being removed for minor infringements on community guidelines, which have been altered, he protests, to define even casually criticising another account in a video or comments as a form of cyberbullying.
Soon, he speculates, his own and other popular channels will vanish from YouTube. Soon, Leafy will not be "here" at all.
Posted on July 26, "THE YOUTUBE RANT" has been watched, at the time of writing, over 5 million times, and tweets continue to flood in on the hashtag Leafy started in protest, the Trump-esque "#makeyoutubeentertainingagain." Either the fear is real, or YouTubers and their fans just really love controversy.
Leafy, whose real name is Calvin Vail, is a 20-year-old gamer from Utah with a preternatural gift for clickbait. Most of his videos feature footage of a game, often Counter-Strike: Global Offensive played on a surf server, which technically qualify them as gaming videos. Over this footage, Leafy will "rant" about something or someone—usually another YouTuber—then post a disclaimer in the caption asking viewers not to "witch hunt" them.
Leafy excels at selecting lurid video titles; you can track periods in his five-year YouTube career through the different styles he employs. Older videos feature all-caps incitement to controversy: "I WILL SUE YOU," "ADDERALL," "BLACK TAR HEROIN," ""GETTING SOILED." Others rely on superlatives attacking other YouTubers, such as "THE SADDEST GIRL ON THE INTERNET" or "THE SEXIEST AND STUPIDEST RUSSIAN VIDEO ON YOUTUBE EVER." Others still are just repetitive letters and symbols: "??????????" or "AAAAAAAHHHHHHH."
Leafy's fans are called the Reptilian Brotherhood, and are fond of the hashtag '#Leafyisbeefy." They draw him in tribute portraits and tweet "NOTICE ME LEAFY," desperate for his approval.
While his videos are executed with humour and a grubby, idiosyncratic style, what Leafy does is essentially trolling. His history includes multiple run-ins with other channels, and he has been criticised in the past for mocking YouTubers with learning disabilities (a video he, to his credit, removed and apologised for).
So why is Leafy now directing his ranting at YouTube itself?
In May of this year, YouTube signed an EU code of conduct against hate speech which, while not legally binding, marked a serious "public commitment" made by the site. YouTube's own guidelines addressing harassment and cyberbullying were updated in late June of this year, drawing criticism from the day of their launch.
The guidelines define harassment as "abusive videos, comments, messages, revealing someone's personal information, maliciously recording someone without their consent," as well as deliberately trying to sexualise or humiliate another person. Compare these rules with the old guidelines, seen here with the Wayback Machine, and one new addition has been made: YouTube now defines "incitement to harass other users or creators" as cyberbullying too.
In his video, Leafy takes particular issue with the rule against making "hurtful and negative comments" about other people, calling it "so fucking vague." He suggests that even a casually negative comment might now be enough to attract censorship.
Up-and-coming YouTubers may have some reason for concern. Delving into recent videos about YouTube bans and "community strikes" (a warning issued by YouTube when a video is flagged, which often also limits access to certain features of a channel), apparent inconsistencies are revealed, with most of the protests being made by smaller channels.
Leafy names several of them: A YouTuber called Elvis the Alien was banned for from live-streaming on YouTube for six months over a video called "Leafy Dickriders" (a video, ironically, about three other YouTubers responding to Leafy), which two of the subjects defended in videos of their own. Another small channel called The Burkinator was hit with strikes he believes were an organised effort to troll him. He tweeted in mid-July, "Absolutely completely and utterly destroyed by this, all I ever wanted to do was make people laugh."
Absolutely completely and utterly destroyed by this, all I ever wanted to do was make people laugh.
— channel back happy (@TheBurkinator4) July 15, 2016
Another account called Weegee Plays had a video removed titled "THE MOST [adjective] [noun] IN/ON THE ENTIRE PLACE," a Leafy parody released on April Fools Day. In an update video he explains that, following protest from bigger channels, the video reappeared unannounced one day with no explanation from YouTube.
So much of YouTube is made up of content about other content, ranging from replies and reaction videos, to music covers, to video "tags" passed between friends and "Drama" channels which review YouTube news and stir up scandal. The lines between "commentary" and targeted aggression are murky, not least in the gaming community where, in the 4chan tradition, a degree of obscenity, insult, and mockery comes with the culture. The careers of many YouTubers depend upon walking this line, but staying on the right side of it.
I mailed YouTube's press department to ask about changes to the rules, and whether a video or entire account could be removed for talking negatively about another channel. The company's reply was clear but non-specific: It replied with a list of its terms and conditions, including recent updates, and said it had "clarified [its] existing policy in the context of harassment and cyberbullying." The line about inciting others to harass had been in old guidelines, but in a different section titled "Encouraging Terms of Service Violations."
The YouTube rep also directed me to YouTube's Community Guidelines, where individual sections address threats and hate speech. These two are clearly outlined and understandable: aggression focused on someone's ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion or age is forbidden.
Leafy's videos don't seem to amount to hate speech, but they do rely on roasting (creatively insulting) other YouTubers, a trend so fashionable at present that YouTubers have taken to roasting themselves. The average Leafy video would certainly count as "negative" and, depending on the target, "hurtful," which perhaps technically risks him being banned from the site. However, it's worth noting that, for all his concern, Leafy's channel is still very much active.
After "THE YOUTUBE RANT" appeared, smaller channels seized on the theme. YouTube is currently full of videos claiming their makers might soon be banned: "HARASSMENT=ANYTHING NEGATIVE!" reads one title. "NO MORE ROASTING" says another (all-caps titles are obligatory in this particular corner of YouTube). Another speculates on "3 BIG YOUTUBERS WHO MAY GET TERMINATED," citing Leafy, fellow roaster and sometime collaborator RiceGum, and, inevitably, Drama Alert, the troll-happy news channel created by YouTube's villain du jour, Keemstar.
It becomes clear, the more of these videos you watch, that this is not an issue affecting the wider YouTube community. This is a problem unique to trolls
In his original video, Leafy makes the point that on YouTube there are channels that are worth being talked about. YouTube needs criticism of other videos, because YouTube can't fully monitor itself.
His point is understandable—there are channels where people break the law, or behave in an abusive or sexist or bigoted manner. "YouTube news" rarely gets coverage in mainstream press, the odd Marina Joyce conspiracy theory aside. Without the ability to discuss their own medium within YouTube, who is going to call these people out?
But it becomes clear, the more of these videos you watch, that this also is not an issue affecting the wider YouTube community. This is a problem unique to trolls. Some are more aggressive than others: BDTV, one of the channels mentioned by Leafy, has a reputation for stirring offense and causing raids on other channels.
Is it ever right to pity the troll? Are these channels actually being targeted unfairly, or are they trying to cash in on a trend, feigning Milo-style martyrdom on behalf of "free speech"? And do they really deserve an explanation if YouTube, a commercial company, decides they'd prefer to kick them off?
Leafy, approached for comment, did not reply.
Notice me Leafy, please.
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