YouTube lays out its anti-harassment policies pretty clearly, yet doesn’t enforce them due to profits and political pressure which results in creators like Steven Crowder continually posting problematic content.
By Brent Dondalski
Over the past fifteen years, YouTube has grown from a small website hosting sketches and homemade videos to one of the largest video platforms in the world, if not the largest. As one of people’s main sources of information and entertainment, YouTube has a responsibility to enforce its guidelines against discrimination and content that includes or promotes the harassment of others. Unfortunately, the YouTube model has grown to give a platform to and sometimes encourage toxic content that directly violates the website’s guidelines. The problem is YouTube fails to enforce these guidelines because it would lose them money and also raise bad-faith accusations of censorship.
This situation is best demonstrated by Steven Crowder. Sitting at 5.46 million subscribers, Steven Crowder is a popular conservative host who also claims to be a comedian. You may have recognized him from his popular “Change My Mind” series in which the 33-year-old man ventures to college campuses to debate students about contentious issues such as rape culture or hate speech. Though this specific series tends to fall within YouTube’s guidelines, a quick look at his more regular content shows repeat offenses. Carlos Maza, a gay, Cuban-American journalist, has been the target of Crowder’s harassment over and over again. Crowder has called Maza a “lispy sprite,” “angry little queer,” and a “gay Mexican” all on camera in his show (NPR). At the time of this controversy 2 years ago, Crowder was also promoting his merchandise that included a homophobic slur. Only after Maza spoke up did YouTube decide to demonetize Crowder’s channel temporarily, a consequence many considered only to be a slap on the wrist.
After the controversy more or less subsided, business continued as usual, with Crowder being welcomed back into YouTube’s Partner Program which enables monetization. Crowder didn’t have a change of heart, however, and might have only gotten worse; he promoted the conspiracy theory that the election was stolen and encouraged the type of violence we saw at the Capitol building in January. He has violated YouTube’s COVID misinformation policies repeatedly. Yet his most obvious violation in recent memory comes from an extremely racist tirade against Black farmers: He uses an egregious Black accent, talks about Hennessy trees, and suggests that Black people wouldn’t want to work on farms since their ancestors were slaves. Trust me, the clip is actually worse than it sounds.
One might think that saying Black farmers want Hennessy trees violates YouTube’s policy of “use of racial, religious or other slurs and stereotypes that incite or promote hatred,” but YouTube themselves came out and said that “while offensive, this video from the Steven Crowder channel does not violate this policy” (The Verge). This is similar to the response they gave to Maza’s claims of harassment, in which they acknowledge that the content is hurtful but don’t actually do anything about it. This has enabled Crowder to have these repeat instances of producing racist, sexist, homophobic, and/or transphobic content, all generating revenue for Crowder and YouTube before they once again suspended ads on his channel this past April.
With that said, the issue isn’t necessarily with Crowder, since malevolent people will always exist, but with YouTube’s continued negligence and unwillingness to enforce their policies. YouTube will gladly turn their logo rainbow and engage in LGBTQ+ pride while doing very little to protect LGBTQ+ creators from harassment. YouTube’s guidelines are there to tell people that the company is ensuring inclusivity without actually enforcing it, allowing harassment and toxic content to fester.
One of the reasons YouTube refuses to enforce its guidelines is because media outlets and politicians have spun a new “Big Tech Censorship” narrative in which they claim tech companies and media platforms unfairly discriminate against conservatives. There are a couple of examples to point to: Crowder’s main YouTube channel was suspended for a week after he posted election fraud conspiracies, Twitter suspended former President Trump’s account, and previously popular commentators like Nick Fuentes and Milo Yiannopoulos have essentially been blacklisted by many major social media platforms.
However, the idea that these instances are “censorship” is ridiculous. Crowder, after posing with guns in his thumbnails and peddling election fraud misinformation, was only suspended from his main account for a week and was free to post on his second account. He lost monetization privileges, but he’s gotten them back before, and probably gained members on his personal subscriber service due to the controversial publicity. When Twitter suspended Trump, he was tweeting wildly reckless things and encouraging terrorism with his “Stop the Steal” declarations.
Yes, Nick Fuentes and Milo Yiannopoulos are conservative commentators who were blacklisted, but they’re also basically Nazis and Fuentes even still has his verified status on Twitter. Maybe they should have stuck to something less extreme, such as berating Black farmers with blatantly racist stereotypes.
The truth is YouTube’s bar for hate speech is extremely high and conservatives still sometimes breach it, which probably says more about modern right-wing ideologies than it does about Big Tech. In fact, it’s quite eyebrow-raising to notice how adjacent mainstream conservative discourse is the type of extremism and toxicity that technically falls outside content guidelines.
An employee at Twitter noticed this when trying to develop an algorithm that removes white supremacist content, saying “on a technical level, content from Republican politicians could get swept up by algorithms aggressively removing white supremacist material” (Vice). Yet, the censorship narrative persists.
YouTube might enforce their guidelines more if there weren’t so much pressure from Republicans in power to avoid actions that can be even loosely characterized as “Big Tech Censorship.” Even then, this type of controversial and extremist content is very profitable for YouTube, even if it’s at the expense of marginalized people who are often the victims of this content. Unless content creators face serious consequences such as total channel closures, YouTube and many other social media platforms are failing to enforce their content policies against hate speech and harassment due to its profitability and pressure from tech censorship narratives.
Crowder on Black farmers: https://www.mediamatters.org/steven-crowder/youtube-steven-crowder-uses-racist-stereotypes-attack-black-farmers
Melanie Moyer '22,