YouTube’s free speech problem

By Edridge D'Souza

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The year 2018 is off to an interesting start. It’s been less than a month, and we’ve already seen a laundry detergent poisoning epidemic, a federal government shutdown and a false alarm Hawaiian missile crisis. It seems to go without saying that things are more than a little chaotic. Ignoring all the current global problems, there was one story at the start of January that provided a particularly important look at how media and culture can affect our lives. YouTuber Logan Paul published a video in which his group of friends traveled through a Japanese “suicide forest” and found a recently-deceased body. This video was swiftly met with backlash, ultimately resulting in the removal of Paul’s channel from YouTube’s premium advertiser service.

In the time between the release of the infamous video and the eventual punishment, this case was seen as a prime example of YouTube’s notoriously inconsistent standards for demonetization. Over the past year, the popular video-sharing platform has been experiencing troubles related to its new advertising policies. Termed the ‘Adpocalypse,’ the new policies allow YouTube to remove advertisement revenue from videos that it believes contain “sensitive content.” In theory, this is to prevent advertisers from having their brands associated with things such as tragedy, hate speech and political content. In practice, however, the Adpocalypse guidelines pose a unique threat to free speech in the age of online communication.

Because YouTube’s algorithms are imperfect, content creators often find their videos demonetized despite containing no offensive content. Conversely, the Paul affair was one example of YouTube failing to sufficiently punish large content creators even in the face of flagrant violations. While there is a process to appeal the video demonetization, it requires videos to first contain a threshold of 1,000 views, providing a barrier that smaller channels cannot easily overcome. The net result is that smaller content creators lose the ability to easily make money off the platform, while larger, established channels can afford to publish more controversial content.

This creates a high barrier of entry to YouTube content creators; if these policies continue, the only channels that will attain popularity are those that already have significant followings. These policies therefore will result in YouTube having more videos from established channels, at the expense of the smaller channels that brought the website to its current level of ubiquity.

While the power balance is a major consequence of the Adpocalypse, the issue of free speech is perhaps the most relevant to the average person. While not outright censorship, demonetization causes videos to reach smaller audiences. In the context of videos involving controversial issues, this can often result in accusations of YouTube censoring content in a partisan manner. The conservative channel PragerU has filed a lawsuit alleging that YouTube restricted some of its videos due to ideological reasons. This is an issue that should worry more than just conservatives, as LGBTQ+ groups have also complained that the site is restricting their content.

YouTube, as a company with a virtual monopoly on video sharing, has the theoretical power to pick and choose which opinions get spread or silenced. As a private company, YouTube has no legal obligation to provide people with a platform to express their views. However, from a societal perspective, they represent a major source of information to the public, and the ability to manipulate the visibility of political and non-political videos is an example of concentrated power that can easily be misused.

There is a delicate balance to strike, given the commitment by companies such as Facebook and Twitter to fight the spread of state-sponsored propaganda. YouTube has the power to stop foreign interference in the American political system, but also has the responsibility to not misuse this ability on legitimate voices. At times, the distinction between the two becomes unclear, and there is massive potential for innocent parties to be affected.

The University of Massachusetts is currently grappling with its own free speech issues, with the Young Americans for Liberty filing a lawsuit against the University for its ambiguous criteria restricting protests and demonstrations. This is essentially the same problem that YouTube is grappling with: As soon as an institution has the power to determine what does or doesn’t fall within the realm of “free speech,” there will inevitably be a few individuals who are miscategorized. In the case of UMass, this issue is about the legal right to speech, but with YouTube, it is about the value of the free exchange of ideas inherent to liberal Western democracy.

Ideas must be exchanged freely in order for society to progress. YouTube needs to balance acting as a platform for this free exchange and preventing this platform from being abused. In this effort, their new policies have ended up silencing smaller voices, making it more difficult to build up grassroots support for political movements. As a society, we value the impartial nature of the marketplace of ideas and must therefore preserve its integrity to uphold our values. While Paul’s forest ramblings are far from the last online controversy we’ll see, we should take note of the special place it occupies within the conversation of free speech and censorship.

Edridge D’Souza is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]