A week after Steven Crowder’s bullying of a Vox journalist pitted conservative media against Big Tech, it’s official: Crowder has won.
In an interview Monday night at the Code Conference in Arizona, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki apologized to the LGBTQ community for belatedly taking action against Crowder’s channel, which repeatedly targeted Vox’s Carlos Maza with racist and homophobic insults. But she stood by her company’s decision to allow Crowder to remain on the platform — just without a cut of YouTube’s ad sales around the conservative comedian’s videos.
“If we took down that content, there would be so much other content that we would need to take down,” Wojcicki said.
What YouTube intended as a slap on Crowder’s wrist has instead turned the video creator into a martyr standing against Big Tech overreach. And it could even help him solidify a more durable business model that limits the pain YouTube can inflict for breaking its rules in the future — outside of an outright ban.
“We’re not really beholden to the YouTube advertiser,” Crowder said on his show Wednesday.
Creators like Crowder have built deep relationships with their audiences through content that drives the user engagement tech platforms crave. Creators then convert those relationships into cash in a variety of ways that don’t always rely on platform approval: t-shirts, sponsored content, memberships, and more.
Right-wing media personalities rallied behind Crowder after the YouTube nixed some of the advertising on Crowder’s videos last week. Sen. Ted Cruz has publicly taken to Crowder’s defense. And new subscribers have flooded into his channel, which pushed merchandise and memberships to its “Mug Club” through the promo code “FREESPEECH” over the weekend.
Critics including Maza have slammed YouTube for allowing his videos to remain live despite their apparent violation of the platform’s harassment policies. They argue that YouTube’s decision to cut the ad revenue it shares with Crowder green lights him to continue making money in other ways.
Provoking tech platforms into such awkward public positions could be lucrative in its own right. Crowder claimed in a series of giddy shows last week that YouTube’s selective enforcement of its policies even provided a financial shot in the arm.
As conservatives like Ben Shapiro and self-styled freethinkers like Joe Rogan came to Crowder’s defense, he pushed “Mug Club” memberships at a 30% discount. The deal gave fans access to the right-wing BlazeTV for a year for just $69. And Crowder’s show on Thursday went so far as to nominate Maza as Louder With Crowder’s employee of the month “for selling more Mug Clubs than ever in the company’s history.”
“We would all gladly give up all monetization if it just meant that we got to keep the reach that we’ve acquired ourselves — meaning you, who’s subscribed, or you, who decided to get notifications,” said Crowder, who on Wednesday’s show wore a shirt emblazoned with the gun manufacturer Walther, a sponsor. “If we get to keep that, we’re OK because we’ll make it with people joining Mug Club, with people buying merch.”
It’s impossible to independently verify new signups to Crowder’s paid offering or sales of his “Socialism Is For F*gs” shirts, among other products. He and BlazeTV didn’t respond to requests for comment.
But perceived threats often drive new subscriptions to media companies. And the attention last week yielded Crowder’s YouTube channel a huge jump in followers.
Nearly 86,000 users subscribed to his feed over that 7-day span, according to the analytics firm SocialBlade. That’s up from just 15,000 the week before. Numerous Twitter users likewise shared photos of themselves drinking from official Mug Club mugs.
There was also spillover growth for some Crowder allies. Shapiro — who ran ads about the controversy on Facebook and publishes sponsored content to Crowder’s Facebook page — likewise saw an uptick in YouTube subscribers to his channel for The Daily Wire last week, per SocialBlade.
Crowder, for his part, repeatedly framed the outcry as a veiled jab at independent creators who compete with mainstream media for user engagement. Criticism from outlets like Vox, he argued, fit within YouTube’s stated goal of steering users toward more brand-safe video producers like Vox.
That will likely be a recurring claim as YouTube puts its rules around hate speech and related issues under the microscope. In a blog post following the Crowder flare-up, YouTube Spokesman Chris Dale said the company also “will be taking a hard look” in the coming months at how it deals with harassment on the platform.
“We are determined to evolve our policies, and continue to hold our creators and ourselves to a higher standard,” Dale wrote.
To some creators accustomed to the company’s previously hands-off approach, however, such new standards could prove costly. Kyle Kulinski, a progressive commentator with nearly 678,000 subscribers to his channel Secular Talk, said in a video Thursday that YouTube’s decision to demonetize Crowder’s channel could set a precedent for other channels not deemed brand-safe.
“It’s a package deal,” said Kulinski, a frequent Trump critic who railed on Crowder for several minutes. “The only way you can have a YouTube where that stuff is out there and this channel is monetized, is if you have a YouTube where Steven Crowder’s channel is monetized, and Steven Crowder’s channel is up.”
Kulinski and others referenced previous “Adpocalypses,” such as in 2017, when major corporations momentarily pulled ads from YouTube after they appeared next to racist content. YouTube responded by tweaking its ad placements to ensure that companies like Coca-Cola or General Motors were in more family friendly territory.
“Pennies a day”
David Pakman, a progressive political commentator, told VICE News that his channel got swept up in the enforcement, temporarily losing 99 percent of its revenue.
“For a brief period, we were making pennies a day,” Pakman said. “That was when I started going to the audience and saying, ‘This can be solved by severing the relationship between advertising and creators.’”
The David Pakman Show, which has 658,000 YouTube followers, subsequently began to promote its $6-a-month membership program much more aggressively. Pakman told VICE News that such direct contributions are now the program’s leading revenue stream, bringing in upward of 40 percent of its total. The rest is split between various types of ads placed by YouTube, and ads or sponsorships sold by Pakman’s team and inserted into his shows.
“My idea is that every dollar that I can get without a middle person is a dollar that is not at risk if YouTube doesn't want to monetize my entire channel or individual pieces of it,” Pakman said. “If we directly support media we like, we don't need to worry about this sort of thing.”
Pakman argued on Rogan’s mega-popular podcast last week that Crowder clearly broke YouTube’s terms of service by repeatedly targeting Maza. But he added in a follow-up video to his audience on Friday that the platform’s decision signals that other creators could be next. That might be particularly painful for YouTubers who, unlike Crowder, don’t have money from other sources and endorsements from major public figures rolling in.
“Unfortunately, I don't think a lot of creators are thinking about this proactively enough,” Pakman said. “If YouTube went to zero overnight, we would all be in rough shape.”
Cover: Screenshot of Steven Crowder on YouTube.