When YouTube deleted Steve Cronin’s channel, which had hundreds of videos and over 22,000 subscribers, he found that trying to talk to the company was useless. Every email from YouTube looked like a robotic form letter. Some appeared to contradict each other, first claiming he was penalized for posting harmful content, then saying it was spam. He filed an appeal, which was denied.
Frustrated, he posted on Reddit and Twitter—and surprisingly, he got a response. A Twitter user with the handle @Contributors_YT asked a few pointed questions about his videos, which were mostly reviews for nootropics, or supplements that claim to enhance cognitive function. On Reddit, another user messaged him and said, “Looks like you got in contact with @Contributors_YT already. They will handle it from here.”
“I can't find any violations on your channel, then,” @Contributors_YT told him. “I'll push it up for review.”
“Omg that's 10 years of work, thank you!” Cronin said. “Are you Batman?”
The next day, his channel was back.
It’s hard to say if this anonymous stranger was really the reason Cronin got his channel back, but @Contributors_YT claimed responsibility. “My appeal for him got the channel reinstated,” they said in a Twitter DM. “The appeal was through a private process. I can't go into detail on it.”
YouTube did not respond when asked to confirm, and it’s also conceivable that Cronin’s case was escalated after Motherboard wrote about a string of nootropics deletions.
But it’s not far-fetched: Increasingly, YouTube creators are getting help from anonymous YouTube super-users, including @Contributors_YT, who have access to a backchannel that allows them to escalate complaints to YouTube employees and sometimes get mistaken channel deletions or “false strikes” against videos reversed.
These super-users volunteer for YouTube through a company initiative that used to be called “YouTube Heroes” but is now known as two separate programs, Trusted Flaggers and YouTube Contributors. They patrol the official YouTube Help Forum and social media, where many of them use TweetDeck to sift for keywords that signal distressed YouTubers.
Most of the time, the volunteers simply add expertise, offering advice on everything from how to get more subscribers to technical support. They know YouTube’s Community Guidelines inside and out, and can usually figure out why action was taken and help fill in the gaps around YouTube’s notoriously poor communication with creators. Sometimes they pass along messages from YouTube staffers related to specific cases.
But lately, as YouTube ramps up enforcement due to negative press coverage about the prominence of violent videos and conspiracy theories on the platform, they’ve been intervening more and more when videos or channels are incorrectly penalized. For YouTubers who get wrongly caught up in the company’s enormous, faceless content moderation machine, these volunteer crusaders are their last hope.
Jonathan Harchick ran more than 30 whimsical YouTube channels, including the tongue-in-cheek JonDrinksWater, in which he reviews different brands of filtered and bottled water for more than 20,000 subscribers; JonEatsCarrots, “the internet's premier carrot eating series,” and the 10,000 Movie Project, a video of 10,000 movies playing at once. Many of his videos got acclaim from bloggers and other YouTubers and took considerable time to make. But YouTube hit him with waves of suspensions from May 2017 to December 2017, eventually suspending all his channels while offering a variety of vague explanations from “spam” to “deceptive content.”
“During those months that it was suspended I tried everything I could think of to get it unsuspended, emailing youtube, mailing physical post letters, calling them, posting to the help forum,” he said in a Reddit DM.
Most of the responses directed him to fill out YouTube’s suspension appeal form, which resulted in an automated response. “Always the same, and clearly not a unique response written by a human,” he said, “with no explanation of why the channel was suspended or why the appeal was rejected.”
Things looked hopeless, but Harchick’s case caught the attention of a Reddit user with the handle LightCodeGaming. “Apparently he saw a post somewhere on Reddit about my channel being suspended and looked into it and fixed it,” he said.
LightCodeGaming, who gave his first name, Nick, but declined to give his last name, said he remembered the incident well. “It was one of my first escalations,” he said. “They were incorrectly terminated and my escalation got them reinstated.” He declined to give specifics on how the escalation was done, saying it was covered under “NDA.”
Nick responds to questions about YouTube dozens of times a day through Reddit, often accompanied by the phrase “Here to help :).” He’s explained what constitutes “fair use” under copyright law; the lockout periods YouTube imposes for various infractions; and other quirks of YouTube’s Community Guidelines, dispensing insights such as “No number of reports will cause an auto removal” and “Swearing almost never causes problem unless it's directed at someone in a hateful way.” When a user claimed to have had 90,000 subscribers on a channel that was improperly terminated, Nick offered to watch the offending videos. “Do you have a copy of the video(s) that was removed? If this is an incorrect termination I can help,” he wrote.
“I'm motivated by the fact that I'm able to make a difference, to share knowledge around,” he told me in a Reddit DM. YouTube has an “immense user-base that is, quite literally, too large for them to handle with employees,” he said, “so there will be mistakes every now and again. By volunteering, I feel I make a difference in helping fix these mistakes.”
In his experience, more than 75 percent of the people who say they were mistreated by Youtube were actually handled correctly. But for that 25 percent of the time, he will push YouTube employees for another review. He’s sent in about 100 escalations since December, he said. “It is kind of unpaid customer service, but it's fun.”
Nick’s compatriots include LeoWattenberg and SalubriousTF, both active Trusted Flaggers who use Twitter and Reddit to seek out YouTubers who are in trouble. Another less active volunteer, Liam Seys, said he spends just a few hours a month on YouTube moderation but has helped more than 20 creators get their videos reinstated after a false strike. They have the sort of helpful, bubbly customer service attitude that we expect from traditional consumer companies but have given up on when it comes to Facebook and Google, where the products are largely free and customer service is mainly done by algorithms. (Note: As YouTube cracks down on channels, there has also been an increase in scammers promising to restore channels in exchange for cryptocurrency. There is no guarantee of getting a channel restored, and the official YouTube volunteers I spoke to do not ask for payment.)
In 2012, YouTube introduced the Trusted Flaggers program, which gave organizations such as the UK Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit and the Anti-Defamation League the ability to flag videos in bulk. Flagging videos does not result in an automatic takedown; it just marks them for review by YouTube staff.
YouTube noticed that some individuals were flagging, or reporting, lots of videos with high rates of accuracy, meaning that the flags correctly identified videos that violated the site’s guidelines. So the company started inviting these super-users to the Trusted Flagger program too.
In 2016, the platform announced YouTube Heroes, an initiative that included Trusted Flaggers as well as super-users who contribute translations and captions to videos. The announcement of YouTube Heroes provoked a backlash from prominent YouTubers who believed it gave volunteers too much power. PewDiePie released a video satirizing the new system with a comparison to, of course, Nazi Germany.
"One of those heroes saved my channel"
In reality, volunteers have little enforcement power. They cannot remove or issue “community strikes” against videos, but they can flag multiple videos at a time for review and their flags are also considered higher priority than a flag by a regular user. “Because participants’ flags have a higher action rate than the average user, we prioritize them for review,” according to a YouTube transparency report. “Videos flagged by Trusted Flaggers are subject to the same policies as videos flagged by any other user and are reviewed by our teams who are trained to make decisions on whether content violates our Community Guidelines and should be removed.”
“The whole branding of the program, ‘Heroes’ was short-sighted and I don’t think many of the collective groups felt that sort of name was appropriate and I certainly didn’t want YouTube to label me as that,” said the Twitter user @TrustedFlagger, whose display name is “Ben,” a member of the Trusted Flagger program who frequently intervenes on behalf of YouTubers. He says he’s helped “thousands” of users get videos or channels reinstated after YouTube made an error.
Some YouTubers who have been helped by volunteers like @TrustedFlagger disagree about the YouTube Heroes brand. “They genuinely are ‘heroes,’” one Redditor wrote. “One of those heroes saved my channel.”
After the backlash, the YouTube Heroes program was divided into the Trusted Flagger program, which emphasizes reporting and is reserved for flaggers with high accuracy rates, and the YouTube Contributors program, which focuses more on subtitling, captions, and answering questions in the YouTube Help Forum (although members are also encouraged to report Community Guidelines violations.) Many Trusted Flaggers are also YouTube Contributors.
The Trusted Flaggers program, which is invite-only, now includes more than 100 organizations. The number of individuals like @Contributors_YT and @TrustedFlagger, who were recruited due to their high accuracy rates in reporting content that YouTube later determined was in violation of its community guidelines, is not public. “I have over 43k reports with 98.6% accuracy,” @Contributors_YT told Motherboard in a Twitter DM.
"It's worth it though because I feel like I’m making a difference"
According to a Google support page about the program, Trusted Flaggers have access to: “a bulk-flagging tool that allows for reporting multiple videos at one time,” “private forum support for questions about the policy enforcement process,” “visibility into decisions on flagged content,” and “prioritized flag reviews for increased actionability.” Notably, Trusted Flaggers have no jurisdiction when it comes to monetization—videos eligible for YouTube’s ad program, which is how many YouTubers generate income—and they do not deal with copyright violations other than to give general advice.
The real power, however, appears to come from their ability to escalate wrongful suspensions to YouTube employees, a precious privilege that has many of them inundated with help requests from desperate YouTubers.
YouTube Contributors also have the ability to escalate issues to YouTube staff, although members say they typically focus on issues outside of the Community Guidelines, such as bugs.
“I often feel overwhelmed with the number of messages I get each day,” @TrustedFlagger said. He has systematized the process: DM his account, and you’ll get an automated reply directing you to fill out a Google form with your complaint.
“It's worth it though because I feel like I’m making a difference,” he said. “Loads of people tell me that they really appreciate it and that it makes a difference for them – even the majority of the people who don’t get the answer they’re hoping for!”
The Trusted Flaggers and YouTube Contributors I spoke with did not want to reveal their real names or the precise mechanism by which they escalate complaints. Even though their labor for YouTube is unpaid, they value their status as members of the programs, and are wary of violating the confidentiality agreement they entered into with the company. They put hours of unpaid labor into their work as volunteers, and some even have areas of specialty, such as spam, sexual content, extremist content, or child pornography: “There’s a dark side to YouTube which thankfully most users don’t see but without us, the site would be a much more dangerous place,” said @TrustedFlagger.
YouTube has been adding new moderators and increasing enforcement over the last year, which, the company has acknowledged, resulted in some mistaken takedowns. Nootropics fans, conservatives, mushroom growers, vaping enthusiasts, and a chemist are among those who say they have been wrongly targeted. The crackdown coupled with YouTube’s inconsistent communication has caused fear and confusion.
When asked about how volunteers fill in the gaps when creators can’t get in touch with YouTube, the company pointed to its efforts to increase communication on social media. "We've made it a priority to communicate directly with users and creators to get them fast responses to their questions, including questions about our Community Guidelines and our appeals processes,” YouTube said in a statement. “We respond to support requests directly through our @TeamYouTube Twitter handle. Just this year, we’ve expanded the languages we can provide support in and we improved our Support Team’s reply rate by 75% year over year for 90% of tweets addressed at our official handles when a user or creator is looking for support.”
Google has long supplemented its workforce with volunteers. Its Top Contributors program recognizes people who field questions from users on its product forums and through a program called “Help on Social” that allows contributors to specify which products they are experts in (such as Hangouts or Maps) and answer questions via Twitter. In return, they get to “join a community” and “help others,” according to Google. More tangibly, they get to beta-test new products and attend events at Google offices.
Trusted Flaggers and YouTube Contributors, the programs specific to YouTube, also get invited to events. “They treat us like Kings and Queens,” said @TrustedFlagger. “They’re usually a mix of talks from employees, creators, and speakers – lots of feedback, a tour around, photos, great food, evening entertainment, and the best part – an open bar!”
"Listen, you gotta pay people, that way they’re impartial, they’re competent"
These perks are generous, and volunteers for YouTube and other Google products seem happy. But given that YouTube’s parent company Alphabet’s profits are at an all-time high, with the company netting $9.4 billion in the first quarter of 2018, it’s a little bizarre that the company still uses so many unpaid workers.
YouTube moderation is largely done by a combination of algorithms, staff, and part-time human moderators who work on contract. (YouTube has also used Amazon’s microgig platform Mechanical Turk to train its machine learning algorithms, Wired reported.) These contractors do not have benefits, for which Google has been criticized — but YouTube Contributors, Trusted Flaggers, and volunteers for other Google products not only lack benefits, they’re not even being paid to do what is clearly a valuable service for the company. The existence of violent, offensive, or harmful videos on YouTube drives away advertisers, while inconsistent enforcement and bad communication from YouTube drives away creators. Trusted Flaggers and YouTube Contributors mitigate both of those problems. A transparency report for October 2017 to December 2017 shows the outsize effect that Trusted Flaggers have: Regular users were responsible for 94.9 percent of flags leading to 402,335 video removals during that period. Trusted Flaggers were responsible for just 4.8 percent of flags but 1,131,962 video removals. Individual Trusted Flaggers also far outpaced the removals initiated by NGOs (63,938) and government organizations (73), which are also part of the Trusted Flagger program. Automated flagging led to far more takedowns—6,685,731—but even Google agrees moderation can’t be done by algorithms alone.
In addition to questions about basic fairness, the lack of pay also made some YouTubers suspicious of the volunteers’ motives. When the YouTube Heroes program was announced, the popular YouTuber Ethan Klein of H3H3 Productions criticized it for depending on unpaid labor. “Listen, you gotta pay people, that way they’re impartial, they’re competent,” he said in a video at the time.
The volunteers try to be clear that they are not employees and do not represent YouTube, but their ambiguous role is still confusing to regular users. Nick helped Harchick get 13 other channels restored as well, for which the YouTuber is extremely grateful.
“I don't know exactly what he did or how it works,” Harchick said. “I'm not even sure if he's a paid YouTube employee or just a volunteer, but I do know he helped me.”