YouTube’s new policy was supposed to combat extremism on the site. Some white supremacists lost their videos, but after a confused rollout on Wednesday, journalists and educators are also seeing their videos purged.
Nazis, Holocaust deniers, and Sandy Hook truthers would have their videos eligible for removal, YouTube announced Wednesday, amid controversy over a prominent right-wing YouTuber who repeatedly targeted a gay journalist with slurs. But the policy’s announcement seemed slapdash. YouTube tried to clarify it over multiple tweets and blog posts. Many of the policy’s targets (white supremacists, male supremacists, homophobes) were untouched by the new rule. Meanwhile, people uploading historical footage of fascists or debunking far-right conspiracy theories saw their videos and channels suspended.
During its new purge of extremist content, some fringe figures like far-right metal musician Varg Vikernes lost their pages. Others remained live, while their opponents had their accounts flagged.
YouTuber Rational Disconnect makes videos challenging the far right. But one of his videos was swept up in a ban against their content.
In 2018, YouTube flagged one of Rational Disconnect’s videos debunking a white nationalist talking point about South Africa. The video opened with clips from Infowars and other conspiracy-mongers, whose arguments he proceeded the dismantle.
“YouTube said that it was reviewed & didn't violate the TOS [terms of service], but that it was ‘offensive,’” Rational Disconnect told The Daily Beast. They placed the video in a “limited state,” which closed the comment section and prevented him from running advertisements on it. It stayed that way for almost a year, until Wednesday.
“It was still locked until yesterday when I got a notice from YouTube that the video was flagged again,” Rational Disconnect said. “Now they decided that it did violate the rules. The video was deleted from my channel.”
After he lodged a complaint, YouTube restored the video and removed its limited state. As of Thursday, YouTube hadn’t provided any information on the ban and the restoration, he said.
Other YouTubers were less lucky.
High-school history teacher Scott Allsop lost his entire YouTube channel, where he uploaded archival footage of historical events, including footage of Nazis.
“My stomach fell,” Allsop told BuzzFeed. “I’m a history teacher, not someone who promotes hatred. I share archive footage and study materials to help students learn about the past.”
Daryle Lamont Jenkins, executive director of the anti-racist organization One People’s Project, said one of his seven-year-old videos was removed in the ban. The video showed how flags by the National Socialist Movement, a neo-Nazi group, were actually made in China.
"My guess is one of our 'fans' might have reported it knowing YouTube won't do a real investigation and just take it down just because they saw the swastika on the flag's package," Jenkins told The Daily Beast. "I am not even sure I have a copy of that video on my hard drive anymore, but now I am going to go through all of my videos and backing them up in case they pull this on another, more important one."
The Moa, who makes explainers on extremism, lost his video “Understanding Alt-Right Anti-Semitism” to the new policy, he said in a tweet. YouTube also suspended the account DenyingHistoryTalk, which debunks Holocaust denialism.
YouTube has long been called out for extremism on the site, but for years left major accounts online, even when they violated its rules. Most notoriously, YouTube only banned the conspiracy outlet Infowars in summer 2018, after its founder accused parents of Sandy Hook victims of being “crisis actors.”
Part of the problem, Rational Disconnect said, was the wording of YouTube’s new policy. The new rule bans “videos alleging that a group is superior in order to justify discrimination, segregation or exclusion based on qualities like age, gender, race, caste, religion, sexual orientation or veteran status. This would include, for example, videos that promote or glorify Nazi ideology, which is inherently discriminatory.”
While none of the aforementioned videos violated those rules, all contained keywords relating to the far right. Actual far-right YouTubers, however, are more likely to use language that only their ideological fellow travelers would recognize.
“Unfortunately YouTube is using an algorithm that can’t tell the difference between propaganda & videos combating that propaganda,” Rational Disconnect speculated. (YouTube did not return a request for comment on whether it was automatically flagging videos.)
“So the Far Right uses dog whistles to dodge the system, but people acting in good faith who want to combat that propaganda tend to use open plain language as to educate people.”
He pointed to a series of anti-Semitic videos that are still active. Many of the video titles referenced far-right memes, like surrounding a name with multiple parenthesis, which are more obscure than terms like “alt-right.”
Even the ban’s origins are murky. YouTube announced the policy after gay Vox journalist Carlos Maza revealed that right-wing personality Steven Crowder had been making videos attacking him with homophobic slurs, resulting in a harassment campaign from some of Crowder’s fans. In a dizzying series of reversals, YouTube announced that Crowder had not violated its policies, then changed course and demonetized Crowder’s channel before announcing the broader ban on extremist videos.
But YouTube’s new policy is sloppily applied bandage on top of another policy they already failed to enforce. The site’s rules against hate speech and harassment should already cover most of the content the new policy targets.
“I’m not asking YouTube to create some massive, complicated new policy to deal with this person,” Maza told The Daily Beast shortly before the new policy was unveiled Wednesday. “I’m asking them to enforce the policies that have been on the books for a long time at YouTube.”
David Ibsen, executive director of the Counter Extremism Project, called YouTube’s new policy a public relations stunt.
“Instead of simply enforcing its long-standing community guidelines consistently and transparently, YouTube has once again resorted to big tech’s usual tired PR playbook,” Ibsen said in a statement, “publicizing a new policy change via the media only after a high-profile incident, namely that of a well-known YouTube personality harassing a Vox journalist, which resulted in negative publicity for the company.
“YouTube has also issued similarly vague announcements in the past, subsequently followed by inconsistent and non-transparent enforcement. This is why YouTube is still a preferred platform for hateful material promoting far-right and Islamic extremism, which continues to radicalize people around the world.”
That non-transparent enforcement means YouTubers like the history teacher Allsop have lost their accounts, while Crowder’s account and those of high-profile white supremacists remain online.
In an email to Gizmodo earlier this week, YouTube defended Crowder, saying the slurs he used against Maza came in the context of “debating.”
The decision wasn’t shocking to Becca Lewis, a PhD student at Stanford researching far-right YouTube communities.
“Unfortunately, YouTube's decision about Crowder falls into a broader pattern of platforms allowing harassment to run rampant under the guise of ‘discussion,’” Lewis said.
“While platforms often defer to these positions by citing the importance of free speech, they fail to understand that multitudes of voices that are silenced when faced with harassment.”