clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

YouTube may allow hate speech if it’s part of a larger argument. Yikes.

The platform’s response to a queer Vox journalist’s harassment complaint has sparked backlash and confusion.

YouTube updated its social media icon for Pride month — just in time to tell queer users that homophobic hate speech may be okay.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

YouTube has long had a rocky relationship with its queer users, due to a history of restricting queer content. Those tensions deepened this week when Vox video journalist Carlos Maza called out YouTube and right-wing personality Steven Crowder, saying that Crowder has harassed him for years using the platform.

Crowder is the host of Louder With Crowder, a political commentary show airing on Blaze TV, a conservative broadcasting network with cable, satellite, and streaming assets that hosts talking heads like Glenn Beck and Ben Shapiro. Maza says Crowder has targeted him personally because of his race and sexual orientation.

Maza is the host of Vox’s YouTube series Strikethrough, which analyzes news media’s role in the Trump era. For the past two years, Maza said on Twitter last week, Crowder has taken aim at him through Louder With Crowder, on which he regularly mocks Maza for being gay and Latinx. The effect, Maza says, is that Crowder’s followers have harassed Maza and invaded his privacy.

Maza first detailed his concerns publicly on May 30, illustrating Crowder’s behavior through a video compilation of Louder With Crowder video footage that he shared to Twitter. The compilation features repeated clips of Crowder mimicking Maza with an exaggerated lisp, saying that Maza “sashays” around, and painting him with other homophobic stereotypes, all while referring to him as “the gay Vox writer.”

YouTube responded to Maza publicly in a series of tweets on June 4. The company disagreed with Maza’s assessment of Crowder’s behavior, arguing that Crowder’s language isn’t harassment because it’s couched within a larger political debate.

The company’s statements sparked debate and discussion Wednesday, as well as anger from Maza and his supporters. And though YouTube subsequently did penalize Crowder — sort of — it was because of a “pattern of egregious actions,” and not because of the specific language used in his videos about Maza.

YouTube’s official position regarding Crowder is confusing and difficult to parse, but it has major implications for YouTube’s many communities, especially those consisting of marginalized creators who are often subject to abuse. And with the situation unfolding during the opening days of June, which is Pride Month, YouTube’s actions have resonated with users, and infuriated them.

A Vox journalist made a video to prove he was being harassed by a popular right-wing YouTuber. YouTube judged the situation differently.

Steven Crowder is a Canadian talk show host and comedian who is known for right-wing political commentary. His YouTube channel, where he posts late-night comedy videos and news commentary, has nearly 4 million subscribers.

On May 30, on his personal Twitter account, Vox journalist Carlos Maza posted a video compilation of instances in which he says Crowder has targeted him:

Maza argued that Crowder’s videos revealed a pattern of targeted, “repeated, overt attacks on my sexual orientation and ethnicity” and “homophobic/racist harassment.” Such speech would be a violation of YouTube’s community guidelines, which explicitly prohibit “content or behavior intended to maliciously harass, threaten, or bully others,” including “content that makes hurtful and negative personal comments/videos about another person” and “content that incites others to harass or threaten individuals on or off YouTube.”

Maza pointed out on Twitter that Crowder is frequently wearing a homophobic T-shirt in the videos; the shirt reads “Socialism is for f*gs,” and he sells it in his online store. Displaying homophobic messaging in his videos would seem to put Crowder in clear violation of YouTube’s policy against malicious bullying.

Maza also noted on Twitter that whenever Crowder has mentioned him in a video, he has been harassed and sometimes doxxed — meaning that personal information such as his phone number was leaked on the internet, spurring Crowder’s fans to contact Maza to harass him. Maza described the aftermath of Crowder’s videos as “waking up to a wall of homophobic/racist abuse on Instagram and Twitter.” (Crowder said on Twitter that he has “completely condemned” doxxing Vox staff but has not yet responded to a request from Vox for comment.)

Underscoring Maza’s point, Crowder’s supporters responded to his Twitter thread by making a version of Crowder’s “socialism” T-shirt, which directly targets Maza with a homophobic slur.

After Maza’s complaint thread garnered more than 20,000 retweets and coverage from multiple major news outlets, YouTube responded to him directly via Twitter. Its position was that while Crowder used language that was “clearly hurtful,” the type of harassment Maza said he was experiencing fell short of the standard described in YouTube’s community guidelines.

YouTube clarified to Vox in an email that the company had found that Crowder had not directly incited his followers to go after Maza, despite Maza saying that a large number of Crowder’s fans had harassed him as a result of Crowder’s videos.

According to YouTube, the platform considers the context of all criticism when reviewing harassment claims — that is, it scrutinizes whether the criticism is coupled with a larger debate or whether it’s intended mainly to target an individual.

In Crowder’s case, YouTube decided that since Crowder’s main goal was ostensibly to respond to Maza’s opinions on various contemporary issues, as expressed in Maza’s Strikethrough videos, his videos were not instances of hate speech; instead, they qualified as analysis.

Further complicating the issue was the timing. YouTube responded to Maza’s complaints just hours before revealing a policy change regarding hate speech. On the afternoon of Wednesday, June 5, the company updated its community guidelines in a blog post, detailing its efforts to combat white supremacist and other extremist speech across the platform. The company agreed to take action against thousands of videos that violated the updated guidelines by purging them from its archives. And while promising to take a “tougher stance” against extremist content, YouTube also clarified that some controversial clips could remain on the site if they were part of broader analytical commentary:

We recognize some of this content has value to researchers and NGOs looking to understand hate in order to combat it, and we are exploring options to make it available to them in the future. And as always, context matters, so some videos could remain up because they discuss topics like pending legislation, aim to condemn or expose hate, or provide analysis of current events.

According to YouTube, this policy announcement was not connected to complaints about Maza’s harassment.

Still, YouTube’s public statement confused and enraged many onlookers who felt it was a slap in the face to the platform’s queer community members. Among those angered by the response was a cadre of Google employees, who swiftly formed a social media protest to express their frustration with (Google-owned) YouTube.

According to a BuzzFeed report, some YouTube staffers were so upset by their company’s handling of the situation that they were circulating an internal petition asking that YouTube remove all of its rainbow-patterned Pride Month branding from social media in the wake of its decision.

And after widespread public backlash to YouTube’s statement, the company updated it with an addendum: It was suspending monetization of Crowder’s channel, meaning Crowder would no longer be eligible to profit from participation in YouTube’s Ad Sense program for its creators. YouTube said the reason for the action was not that it had changed its position on Crowder’s comments about Maza, but that it found Crowder to be engaging in “a pattern of egregious actions”:

The company then explained that to have monetization of his channel reinstated, Crowder would have to remove links to the homophobic T-shirts he has for sale.

In response, Crowder seemed openly defiant, launching a Twitter hashtag, #VoxAdpocalypse, to protest YouTube’s decision and claiming that Vox Media has a larger goal to “silence independent creators” on the platform.

Meanwhile, Maza was among many YouTube users who were angered by YouTube’s course of action, including its move to demonetize Crowder — which Maza said was a meaningless gesture that would not stop revenue from Crowder’s YouTube fans.

All this culminated in a late-night statement from YouTube. Shortly before midnight on Wednesday, June 5, the company updated its blog again. YouTube’s global head of communications and public affairs, Chris Dale, posted a much more detailed statement about Maza and Crowder’s cases, and the considerations the company makes when deciding when and how to enforce its policies on harassment:

There are two key policies at play here: harassment and hate speech. For harassment, we look at whether the purpose of the video is to incite harassment, threaten or humiliate an individual; or whether personal information is revealed. We consider the entire video. ... For hate speech, we look at whether the primary purpose of the video is to incite hatred toward or promote supremacism over a protected group; or whether it seeks to incite violence. To be clear, using racial, homophobic, or sexist epithets on their own would not necessarily violate either of these policies. ...

Not everyone will agree with the calls we make — some will say we haven’t done enough; others will say we’ve gone too far. And, sometimes, a decision to leave an offensive video on the site will look like us defending people who have used their platforms and audiences to bully, demean, marginalize or ignore others. If we were to take all potentially offensive content down, we’d be losing valuable speech. ...

In the case of Crowder’s channel, a thorough review over the weekend found that individually, the flagged videos did not violate our Community Guidelines. However, in the subsequent days, we saw the widespread harm to the YouTube community resulting from the ongoing pattern of egregious behavior, took a deeper look, and made the decision to suspend monetization. In order to be considered for reinstatement, all relevant issues with the channel need to be addressed, including any videos that violate our policies, as well as things like offensive merchandise.

In the coming months, we will be taking a hard look at our harassment policies with an aim to update them.

Yet despite YouTube’s multiple attempts to amend its initial response, skeptics of its policies have good reason to be worried.

YouTube’s new policy follows a long history of missteps regarding queer content

Maza feels that YouTube is sidestepping its responsibility to protect its queer creators and other marginalized users, and that his experience is just the latest example of the platform’s history of doing so.

“It’s a batshit policy, and YouTube knows it,” he told Vox in an interview regarding YouTube’s response to his complaints about harassment from Crowder. “A policy that says that all you need to do to get away with hate speech on the platform is to mix it with something else is an instruction manual to monsters who want to figure out a way to target people based on identity.”

The ways Crowder speaks about Maza in the video excerpts Maza compiled are exactly the kinds of methods bullies use in real life, Maza said: “Anyone who’s experienced bullying knows that harassment is always coupled with other criticisms.” For queer people and other marginalized users wanting to create content on YouTube, he says, “the price of entry is that you have to accept that the people who respond to you are allowed to use hate speech to target your identity as part of their criticism. That’s a miserable policy. It’s not actually an anti-harassment policy. It’s a loophole.”

Maza’s points were echoed by YouTube’s queer community, who were blunt about the danger of conflating homophobia with political debate.

Some YouTubers vowed to delete their channels, while others pointed out that YouTube’s policies are often applied in ways that seem to benefit extremists and hurt their victims:

But even without factoring in harassment, YouTube has frequently acted in ways that have made queer users feel like second-class citizens. In the past, YouTube has faltered when it comes to treating queer and genderqueer content equitably with other kinds of content. In 2017, the site had to walk back a policy that erroneously restricted LGBTQ content after public backlash. The restriction was intended to filter out “potentially inappropriate” content; YouTube’s algorithms seemed to conflate queer content with explicit content automatically.

A year after YouTube took steps to correct the problem, however, transgender creators were still claiming that YouTube’s algorithms were automatically demonetizing and restricting their content. And these creators allege that YouTube’s decisions were based entirely on the creators’ use of the word “transgender” in video descriptions and titles. (YouTube denied that this content was triggering its algorithm.)

Additionally, some queer creators found that YouTube was attaching homophobic advertising to their content:

The outcry over the advent of homophobic advertisements across queer content on YouTube began in May 2018 and continued throughout June — Pride Month — and eventually resulted in YouTube apologizing to the queer community as a whole:

But a year later, with another Pride Month becoming defined by a groundswell of YouTube-focused outrage, it seems as though the platform is nowhere closer to understanding how to protect and foster a positive queer community.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misquoted one of YouTube’s tweets.