Taking away creators’ ability to make money from video is a form of censorship because it allows YouTube to effectively control what they say and how they say it. And unfortunately for some YouTubers and their audiences, that’s what’s happening today.
Discussing controversial topics—whether in real life or on social media—has always come with the fear of repercussions. Typically, those who do so do it at the risk of angering groups of people who do not share their opinions, and who may seek some form of retribution. Until recently, YouTubers were able to speak freely and even monetize their videos.
YouTube has always had rules against hate speech, along with bullying, victimizing and depictions of real-world violence. However, the regulations have been vague at best, and enforcement of these rules has been consistently inconsistent. In the past, YouTube has stood up for free speech by refusing to remove videos critical of Islam despite requests from the White House to do so. As a result of its stance, the website has been banned from countries like Iran, Pakistan and North Korea. In some countries, the ban has been permanent.
Regardless of its previous stance, new rules instituted in late 2015 have caused YouTubers—especially alternative media journalists—to worry that their channels and videos would be blacklisted and they would no longer make any money from their videos. A new rule pertaining to advertiser-friendly content guidelines prohibits channels from monetizing videos containing “controversial or sensitive subjects and events.”
Given how poorly the guidelines were enforced, many YouTubers managed to make a living by discussing controversial topics across the political spectrum—much to the dismay of social justice warriors who often find themselves the subject of controversy and mockery. False DMCA charges have caused numerous videos to be removed or demonetized over the years, but YouTubers have always enjoyed some security in knowing that those videos would eventually be reinstated.
This is no longer the case. Two high-profile vloggers, Philip DeFranco and Daniel “MrRepzion” Sulzbach, revealed today that many of their videos have been hit by YouTube’s monetization policy since they produced videos critical of Annaliese Nielsen, the social justice warrior who abused her Lyft driver over an “offensive” hula girl bobblehead. The video, which was recorded by Nielsen herself, went viral after journalist Lauren Southern published it on YouTube.
MrRepzion was hit particularly hard. More than 50 of his videos were demonetized. He published a video, seen below, to highlight the problem.
DeFranco, who has been with the platform for more than 10 years and was the first vlogger to popularize fast-paced jump cuts, stated on Twitter that the demonetization was no mistake. He also stated his intention to keep speaking his mind and his refusal to yield to YouTube’s form of censorship. He also expressed concern that YouTube might shut down his channel after his videos, including the recent feature on Nielsen, were flagged and demonetized for “excessively strong language.”
Seems like @Youtube will be stripping most of my advertising from now on. Oh well.
I'm not going to censor myself. pic.twitter.com/a9upZh6eTY
— Philip DeFranco (@PhillyD) August 31, 2016
Producer just got off the phone with Youtube and it wasn't a mistake. Feels a little bit like getting stabbed in the back after 10 years.
— Philip DeFranco (@PhillyD) August 31, 2016
Other popular YouTube channels including ReviewTechUSA, ETC Show, LukeIsNotSexy and AreWeFamousNow have also been hit by the hammer. Karim Metwaly of AreWeFamousNow revealed that three of his videos soliciting the opinions of Muslims—New York on Syria, New York on Palestine, and New York on ISIS—were unceremoniously demonetized for not being “advertiser-friendly.” Luke Cutforth had his personal vlog on his struggle with depression demonetized. “Sorry depression isn’t fucking pretty enough,” he wrote.
In the wake of these events, other popular YouTubers have raised concerns about the future of the platform and what it means for producers. On Twitter, John “TotalBiscuit” Bain blamed the “drama” channels, which often incite bullying, for the policy enforcement, but stated that the guidelines are “far too vague to be useful” and are open to serious abuse, especially when people like Philip DeFranco are affected. Jenna Marbles expressed her disgust with the ruling and wondered aloud why DeFranco’s channel was hit before any of the drama or prank channels that do in fact incite abuse.
YouTube’s crackdown on political videos follows in the wake of actions taken by other social media platforms. In July, controversial right-wing pundit Milo Yiannopoulos was permanently banned from Twitter after he made fun of Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones. Facebook also has shut down multiple pages and suspended accounts that received complaints from feminists, and the satirical anti-SJW page Meninist was temporarily banned after similar complaints. Conservatives in particular have been subject to censorship on the platform. In an ironic move, journalist Lauren Southern was suspended for complaining about censorship.
Beyond any direct influence Nielsen may have had on YouTube’s policy enforcement, the move may be related to a recently signed accord between social media platforms and the European Union. Earlier this year, YouTube, Microsoft, Twitter and Facebook signed an agreement with the European Union to remove any videos—deemed “illegal hate speech”—that the government found objectionable. Many in the media, Heat Street included, expressed fears that the new code of conduct would stifle free expression, especially because of its vagueness and uneven application. Given recent events, we were right to raise concern. We can expect further videos to be demonetized, if not removed outright.
Just as Nintendo’s excessively strict monetization policies towards Twitch streamers and YouTube gamers backfired after influencers refused to freely advertise their games by streaming them to their fans, YouTube’s censorship of its most prolific producers will ultimately drive away the site’s viewers. Unless they reverse their policies, it’s only a question of when that’ll happen—not whether it will.