After nearly a week of sustained controversy, YouTube announced Wednesday that the platform will demonetize the channel of one of its most popular right-wing users due to "continued egregious actions" after his harassment of a gay journalist in his videos was called out.
Last week, Vox journalist Carlos Maza tweeted about the years of harassment he's received from Steven Crowder, a right-wing pundit, and his fans. This harassment involved repeatedly making references to Maza, who he called “an angry little queer,” “gay Mexican,” and “gay Latino from Vox,” among other things, often in a mocking lisp. Crowder commands a significant audience on Youtube, with more than 3.8 million subscribers on the platform.
Maza spoke out about how he’s received a torrent of abuse from Crowder fans ever since the YouTuber started producing videos about him, including publishing his phone number online. Maza's Twitter thread went viral, and YouTube attempted to do damage control via tweet and background statements given to journalists.
At first, YouTube said that Crowder didn't break any rules and attempted to tweetstorm its way out of its mess by noting on Tuesday that "while we found language that was clearly hurtful, the videos as posted don’t violate our policies," but added that "there are other aspects of the channel that we’re still evaluating—we’ll be in touch with any further updates."
YouTube then muddied the waters by announcing the biggest overhaul of its content moderation system in recent memory on Wednesday afternoon. The platform's policies now ban Nazis, Holocaust denial, and Sandy Hook trutherism, in addition to "videos alleging that a group is superior in order to justify discrimination."
This policy change doesn't affect Crowder, however, and has caused confusion as channels that were dedicated to documenting hate on YouTube have been flagged by moderators since its announcement.
YouTube changed course again just hours after that policy change, announcing it would be "demonetizing" Crowder's channel. When a channel is demonetized, the owner can no longer earn ad revenue from their videos. In a tweet, YouTube said Crowder was demonetized due to “continued egregious actions,” though it did not explain what those were.
However, YouTube will not be removing Crowder's channel from the platform, spokespeople told VICE in an email.
“We will not be removing Steven Crowder’s channel. We reviewed the channel carefully over the weekend and did not find evidence that he violated our policies—in no videos did he urge his followers to go after Maza," YouTube told VICE about its decision on Crowder. "When determining whether a video violates our policies, we consider the context of the entire video…we take into consideration whether criticism is focused primarily on debating the opinions expressed or is solely malicious. We apply these policies consistently, regardless of how many views a video has.”
A YouTube spokesperson told VICE that the platform evaluated Crowder’s channel on a set of rules outside of the strike system that is typically used to evaluate channels for a ban.
“Specifically, we were evaluating the channel under the guidelines that we announced following the Logan Paul issue in 2018 where one creator's actions harm the wider YouTube community,” the spokesperson told VICE. “These are steps outside of the existing strike system, which is focused on violations of our Community Guidelines.”
But YouTube ads aren't Crowder's only revenue stream. He also sells merchandise that is advertised in the videos themselves. For many popular creators, merchandise is a significant and possibly even larger portion of the income that they make by virtue of being a YouTuber. The company also didn't say which "issues" he would need to address.
Maza tweeted that he doesn’t believe YouTube’s decision will be impactful.
“Demonetizing doesn't work,” he tweeted. “Abusers use it as proof they're being ‘discriminated’ against. Then they make millions off of selling merch, doing speaking gigs, and getting their followers to support them on Patreon. The ad revenue isn't the problem. It's the platform.”
To be clear, YouTube has decided that Crowder's content is too hateful for advertisers, but not too hateful for the platform itself.
YouTube has also had quite a difficult time messaging its decisions on Crowder: The company has unveiled multiple policy decisions within a 24-hour period via tweet, blog post, and background conversations with reporters. YouTube has not been forthcoming about who is actually making these decisions, no YouTube executive has been willing to defend these decisions or explain them on the record, and YouTube's tweets are neither consistent nor clear.
In a tweet, YouTube tried to "clarify" what it was doing by noting that "in order to reinstate monetization on this channel, he will need to remove the link to his t-shirts." It then clarified that clarification by tweeting that "this channel is demonetized due to continued egregious actions that have harmed the broader community. To be reinstated, he will need to address all the issues with his channel … sorry for the confusion."
YouTube seems to have decided that Crowder's content crosses one arbitrary, YouTube-defined line in the sand that led to demonetization, and approaches, but does not cross another arbitrary, YouTube-defined line in the sand that would lead to getting banned entirely. But the company has done a truly terrible job of actually explaining where those lines are, why they are there, and who makes the decision about where its lines are.
As Motherboard has explored at length, content moderation on a platform as large as Facebook or YouTube is extraordinarily difficult, and mistakes are common. It's difficult to keep everyone happy. But while Facebook has been increasingly allowing executives and high-ranking members of its content moderation policy teams to explain the decisions it makes and the challenges it is facing, YouTube has not. Instead, YouTube's external communications strategy appears to be winging it on Twitter (another platform!). People are outraged at YouTube, and they have every right to be. The company is making what appear to be arbitrary decisions spurred by PR crises, a complete failure of the open platform that YouTube claims it strives to be.