Google has just announced that it is establishing new guidelines to determine which content is ineligible to receive advertising dollars on its YouTube platform. More than any of the other debates about fake news and bias in media, this kind of financial muscle (censorship) is what’s really going to have impact on the content business in the long-term. And, at the moment, the real leverage is held by the very small number of gatekeepers which control large scale distribution and major ad dollars on the internet–chief among them Google and Facebook.
YouTube’s new clarification will prevent ad money from being allocated to content in which “family entertainment characters” (think Mickey Mouse) are shown “engaging in violent, sexual, or otherwise inappropriate behavior.” Hard to argue with that one, though some satirical news outlets might still ask how YouTube’s algorithm can really determine context and nuance.
The updated guidelines also take cash away from content that is “gratuitously incendiary, inflammatory, or demeaning.” Specifically, no more money for videos that are “gratuitously disrespectful or language that shames or insults an individual or group.” Imagine applying that test to the mainstream political debate. Basically, a good portion of cable news, talk radio, and political punditry would be un-monetizable.
This might translate into defunding videos from CNN or The Young Turks in which pundits call President Trump despicable and disgusting and all sorts of other things which are undeniably hateful. On the other side, imagine if you’re a hardcore member of the alt right and the incendiary voices of Alex Jones or Glenn Beck are financially censored?
So who actually makes these decisions on what is acceptable, or rather how to program the algorithm of financial acceptability? Is it some crusty “Capital J” journalism professor hired as a consultant? Perhaps some actual practicing journalists? Or maybe a panel of voices from different economic backgrounds, geographies, and intellectual viewpoints as well as the more conventional definition of diversity including varying racial, ethnic, and gender make-ups?
No, not really. It’s most often some well educated, perhaps well intentioned, Silicon Valley executive who has climbed the corporate ladder enough to be trusted, or saddled, with this sort of issue, which is the opposite of what a tech company actually wants to be handling.
Enter the “product manager”.
“While it’s not possible for us to cover every video scenario, we hope this additional information will provide you with more insight into the types of content that brands have told us they don’t want to advertise against and help you to make more informed content decisions,” VP of Product Management Ariel Bardin wrote in the blog post directed at publishers who choose to let YouTube sell their ad inventory in return for a cut of the proceeds. According to LinkedIn, Bardin is a Stanford and USC grad who has been at Google for the last 13 years working in Adwords, Payments, and now YouTube. Not the usual resume for a key arbiter of the national conversation.
Perhaps it’s a good thing after all that it’s next to impossible for large news brands to earn enough money on YouTube to meaningfully sustain their businesses. But that’s not the case for smaller upstarts and individuals who may well have content which is no more or less “inflammatory” than the stuff which gets slung around on CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News.
Moreover, these same issues of objectionable content and the questions about the real value and placement of ad dollars have all existed for a decade or more. Google is just now reacting to the howling of a bunch of advertisers. “Companies such as AT&T, Verizon, Johnson & Johnson, The BBC, The Guardian, Channel 4, Toyota, McDonald’s, and even the British Government all withdrew adverts from Google-owned sites, including YouTube, claiming to be “deeply concerned” about their ads appearing alongside content on YouTube promoting “hate”.
In this case, the big brands, and the agencies that manage their ad spend, saw an opportunity for some leverage. If you’re a big consumer brand and you want audience reach that’s going to move the needle, Google and Facebook are currently capturing most of your dollars, so why not goose them a bit when you have the chance? Certainly they are entitled to allocate their marketing dollars as they see fit.
The bigger issue here is the advent of a truth algorithm. That’s not what Google says it’s doing. But in the end it’s the money that matters.
Steve Alperin is the CEO of DSA Digital Holdings