As we continue to watch social media giants fumble their half-baked policies around hate speech and harassment, one of the most visible blunders recently has been YouTube’s mishandling of videos with homophobic and racist comments about one of its creators by another. During an interview at Code this week, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki offered a weak defence of the company’s inaction by claiming the platform needs to have “consistent policies.”
YouTube recently came under fire for failing to act on those videos from pundit Steven Crowder in which he called Vox journalist Carlos Maza, among other things, a “lispy queer”. YouTube initially declined to do anything about it, tweeting at the time that “while we found language that was clearly hurtful, the videos as posted don’t violate our policies.”
“I know that the decision that we made was very hurtful to the LGBTQ community,” Wojcicki said. “That was not our intention and we [are] really sorry about that.”
Pressed by Recode Senior Correspondent Peter Kafka about the company’s decision to allow Crowder videos containing homophobic and racist hate speech to remain on YouTube, Wojcicki said she “agreed that was the right decision” and followed up with word salad about “context” (emphasis ours).
“First of all, we look at the context of, was this video dedicated to harassment or was it a one-hour political video that had, say, a racial slur in it. Those are very different kinds of videos,” she said. “We certainly looked at the context, and that’s really important. We also looked to see is this a public figure. And then the third thing we looked at is, is it malicious? Is it malicious with the intent to harass? For right or for wrong, right now, malicious is a high bar for us.”
Wojcicki went on to say that YouTube needs to police its policies “consistently,” adding that content like “rap songs and late night talks” might contain racial slurs or sexist comments, a convoluted line of defence the company favours.
“If we were not to enforce [our policies] consistently, what would happen is it would be literally millions of other people saying, ‘What about this video, what about this video, what about this video.’ Why aren’t all of these videos coming down?” she said.
Wojcicki stressed that YouTube is willing to “take a look” at flagged content but claimed that the company doesn’t want to be “knee jerk” about enforcing its policies.
“We need to have consistent policies, they need to be enforced in a consistent way,” she said. “We have thousands of reviewers across the globe. We need to make sure that we’re providing consistency.” In addition to the challenge of providing consistency across policies and how they’re applied, there’s also the problem of running a website that’s bigger than any company could possibly moderate.
“It’s just from a policy standpoint we need to be consistent — if we took down that content, there would be so much other content that we need to take down,” Wojcicki explained. Got that? The bad content can’t be banned because there’s just so much of it.
The company did eventually suspend monetisation of Crowder’s videos amid condemnation from the company’s creators as well as its own employees. Wojcicki insisted that its change of heart was part of a policy overhaul and not a result of widespread outrage following the company’s initial inaction.
Confusingly, however, YouTube head of communications Chris Dale wrote in a blog post just days ago that after initially claiming Crowder’s comments about Maza did not violate its policies, its reversal on that position came as “we saw the widespread harm to the YouTube community resulting from the ongoing pattern of egregious behaviour, took a deeper look, and made the decision to suspend monetisation.”
Whatever public narrative YouTube eventually lands on for its defence of keeping highly trafficked bad faith arseholes on its platform, there’s no debating that Google faced both internal and external pressure to act.
Screenshots of an internally circulated petition obtained by Gizmodo called for YouTube to remove its pride branding, writing that its handling of the Crowder situation “allows, and thereby perpetuates, homophobic hate speech and rhetoric in favour of defending the right to public debate.” A document titled “No Pride in YouTube” also asked Google employees participating in Pride events to consider carrying protest signs.
Dale wrote in the company blog post last week that YouTube will, in the coming months, be “taking a hard look at our harassment policies with an aim to update them.” Surely that initiative will be taken as seriously as YouTube takes all the rest of its dirty laundry.