Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Pursuing Increased Viewership, YouTube Executives Ignored Warnings About the Rise of Conspiracy and Extremist Videos

Mark Bergen’s investigation for Bloomberg is devastating:

Micah Schaffer joined YouTube in 2006, nine months before it was acquired by Google and well before it had become part of the cultural firmament. He was assigned the task of writing policies for the freewheeling site. Back then, YouTube was focused on convincing people why they should watch videos from amateurs and upload their own.

A few years later, when he left YouTube, the site was still unprofitable and largely known for frivolity (A clip of David, a rambling seven-year old drugged up after a trip to a dentist, was the second most-watched video that year.) But even then there were problems with malicious content. Around that time YouTube noticed an uptick in videos praising anorexia. In response, staff moderators began furiously combing the clips to place age restrictions, cut them from recommendations or pull them down entirely. They “threatened the health of our users,” Schaffer recalled.

He was reminded of that episode recently, when videos sermonizing about the so-called perils of vaccinations began spreading on YouTube. That, he thought, would have been a no-brainer back in the earlier days. “We would have severely restricted them or banned them entirely,” Schaffer said. “YouTube should never have allowed dangerous conspiracy theories to become such a dominant part of the platform’s culture.”

Somewhere along the last decade, he added, YouTube prioritized chasing profits over the safety of its users. “We may have been hemorrhaging money,” he said. “But at least dogs riding skateboards never killed anyone.”

It has only gotten worse as YouTube’s popularity has increased and Google has taken a more active role in the company. Bergen cites verbal warnings to YouTube staff members from company lawyers, advising them not to get too involved in content moderation to avoid losing plausible deniability. He writes about an internal demonstration that showed that “alt-right” videos were among the most popular categories on the platform, and how a father’s exploitation of his children was defended with free speech arguments.

Meanwhile, one of the best music critics on YouTube is struggling with having dozens of his videos pulled due to copyright violations — despite falling under fair use allowances — and a small-ish comedy channel was deleted from the platform for reasons that are unclear at best. And these individuals can’t simply go somewhere else; there isn’t another YouTube. It has a monopoly on the independent web video space.