YouTube Tightrope

Article by Phil Hanrahan and JaggerXTC

Advertiser pull-outs, content scandals, controversial stars, and political backlash — will things get any smoother for the platform in 2020?

This past June, an odd hashtag shot to No. 1 on Twitter and YouTube trending tabs. #VoxAdpocalypse, it read. Circulated by conservatives and libertarians, along with some less politically driven social media users wary of internet policing, the tag referenced a demonetization controversy on Google-owned YouTube. Demonetization — meant to modify a user’s behavior and keep the platform advertiser-friendly — is when the company removes ad-placement capability on a channel, denying its creator a share of ad revenue.

In this case, the #VoxAdpocalypse firestorm began when YouTube demonetized the channel of conservative comic and former Fox News contributor Steven Crowder, host of Louder With Crowder, for repeated mocking and insulting of a Vox Media journalist, Carlos Maza, in ways the company judged offensive enough to violate its terms of service.

The hashtag got a boost from Crowder himself, whose YouTube show reached well over three and a half million people, and whose Twitter account had 900K followers. Its rise was also helped by figures like Texas senator Ted Cruz, who posted two tweets sharply critical of the video-hosting platform on June 6, the day the hashtag blew up. That same day, the popular podcaster, columnist, and Daily Wire founder Ben Shapiro also issued angry tweets and on-air comments regarding the Crowder demonetization.

Crowder’s channel wasn’t the only one to get demonetized, which meant other channel creators, and their followers, took to social media to express dismay and criticize the company. Under attack from the left for the way it was handling channels trafficking in hate speech, bigotry, incitement, and extremist recruitment, YouTube had decided to more vigorously enforce its community guidelines. Demonetizing a significant number of channels (we don’t know the exact number) was one of the steps it took that early-June week.

Unsurprisingly, there were some implementation glitches. These missteps led to more outcries on social media, and more propellant for the hashtag. For example, a history teacher’s channel got mistakenly demonetized because his content included archival video of Hitler’s speeches, and keywords in its descriptive text created pings in YouTube’s algorithmic dragnet. Sweeping its platform for possible neo-Nazi content, the company had flagged the educational site as pro-Hitler. Alerted, YouTube restored monetization.

The scale of the ad-removal operation accounts for the hashtag’s doomsday pun. But the fact that #VoxAdpocalypse remained at the top of trending tabs throughout June 6, and stayed trending for days, speaks to the way the controversy intersected with matters of weighty cultural and political consequence: the power of Big Tech, online freedom, the role of the media, media fairness, the reach of digital advertising, and the ongoing conflict between political correctness and conservatism. In no way dampening the furor, some of those who used the hashtag in social media posts argued that free speech was at issue, too, and deployed language like “censorship,” “Big Brother,” and even “Stalinism.”

Senator Cruz himself raised the specter of censorship in a tweet sent to his 3.3M followers. Without getting into the nuances of how far this term actually applied in the Crowder case, which involved not government suppression of political speech, but rather a private company enforcing its policies, the Harvard Law grad referenced a notorious English court synonymous with secrecy, abuse of power, and lack of due process in a post retweeted 12.5M times: “YouTube is not the Star Chamber — stop playing God & silencing those voices you disagree with. This will not end well.”