YouTube has rolled back a permanent suspension of Right Wing Watch (RWW), a nonprofit that tracks extremist individuals and groups, apparently backtracking from its stance that documenting those extremists’ actions is the same as promoting them.
RWW tweeted on Monday that its mission to “expose the bigoted view and dangerous conspiracy theories spread by right-wing activists” had been disrupted by YouTube. According to screenshots of emails tweeted by the organisation, YouTube moderators wrote they had found “severe or repeated violations of our Community Guidelines.” RWW appealed the decision but received a response from the Google-owned video site saying, “Thank you for your account suspension appeal. We have decided to keep your account suspended.”
Our efforts to expose the bigoted view and dangerous conspiracy theories spread by right-wing activists has now resulted in @YouTube banning our channel and removing thousands of our videos. We attempted to appeal this decision, and YouTube rejected it. pic.twitter.com/74Rfi31uQe— Right Wing Watch (@RightWingWatch) June 28, 2021
Hours later, however, and presumably after receiving numerous media inquiries, YouTube backpedaled in predictable fashion.
The video giant changed its mind, acknowledged it hadn’t made the right call, and reinstated the group’s channel. In a statement to Gizmodo, a YouTube spokesperson described the decision to ban it in the first place as an error: “Right Wing Watch’s YouTube channel was mistakenly suspended, but upon further review, has now been reinstated.”
RWW is a project of People for the American Way (PFAW), a group originally launched in 1981 to combat the growing influence of evangelical Christians in U.S. politics (specifically the Moral Majority, a “traditional family values” political organisation that dissolved in the 1980s but served as a predecessor to today’s powerful religious right). While it is perhaps best known for tracking prominent far-righters like InfoWars conspiracist Alex Jones or The 700 Club host Pat Robertson, much of RWW’s work focuses on an array of more obscure individuals ranging from members of the “constitutional sheriff” movement and radical evangelical preachers to radio hosts, QAnon personalities, and all other manner of volatile weirdos.
RWW’s detailed site and video collections thus exist as a long-term archive of extremists’ past comments and actions, which is both helpful for understanding their actions in the present and a roadblock to them obscuring their pasts in pursuit of greater public exposure. On more than a few occasions, RWW’s coverage has played a role in extremists getting suspended from sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, which goes a long way toward explaining the gloating tone of right-wing Twitter users responding to the tweet in which the site announced it was banned.
Kyle Mantyla, a senior fellow at RWW, told the Daily Beast that YouTube moderators had penalised RWW for reposting clips of right-wing activists for years but had been stricter in the last year as the video site claimed to be addressing issues like extremism, disinformation, and hate speech on its platform.
Mantyla told the Daily Beast that in April, RWW’s YouTube account received two strikes. The organisation chose to wait out the 90-day period until the strikes expired before posting more content but received a third and final strike over a video from nearly a decade ago.
“And then they found some video from eight years ago, that they flagged, took that down, and that was our third strike,” Mantyla told the site. “And they took down our entire account.”
Mantyla added that in many cases, the YouTube moderation system regularly penalised RWW for reposting clips from far-right personalities while the original source videos remained available elsewhere on the site.
“The number of times our video has gotten flagged and removed and the video from which we took it is still up on YouTube, you’re just like, well, something is wrong with your system here,” he added.
According to Mantyla, RWW had mostly begun uploading content to smaller competitor Vimeo after the two prior strikes on YouTube in April. Both YouTube and Vimeo have similar rules against hate speech, disinformation, and the like, but both sites have sections specifying the importance of context when making moderation decisions.
In a statement, Right Wing Watch’s director, Adele Stan, wrote that “there is a world of difference between reporting on offensive activities and committing them.”
“Without the ability to accurately portray dangerous behaviour, meaningful journalism and public education about that behaviour would cease to exist,” Stan added. “We hope this is the end of a years-long struggle with YouTube to understand the nature of our work. We also hope the platform will become more transparent about the process it uses to determine whether a user has violated its rules, which has always been opaque and has led to frustrating and inexplicable decisions and reversals such as the one we experienced today.”