YouTube tries to have its cake and eat it too

Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

Google would really like everyone to know that its video sharing service, YouTube, is on the job when it comes to cracking down on offensive content. To that end, the company put on a full-court press this week announcing that it had removed more than 100,000 videos and over 17,000 channels for violating its hate speech rules between April and June, which is five times more than it removed in the previous three months. The company said it also took down over 500 million comments because they included hate speech. According to a blog post about the crackdown, YouTube’s moderators removed about 30,000 videos last month alone. And how popular were these videos compared to the rest of the content on the streaming service? The company would like you to know that they “generated just 3% of the views that knitting videos did over the same time period.”

In other words, instead of getting actual usable information about something, we get a comparison to something else that we also haven’t been given any details on, in such a way as to provide an illusion of transparency. How popular are knitting videos compared to the rest of what appears on YouTube? We have no idea. But we know that they are just about as popular as 30,000 videos the company removed, which we also know nothing about, other than they breached the site’s terms and conditions. That means we know next to nothing, and that seems to be the way YouTube would like to keep it. As far as the company is concerned, getting upset about people viewing offensive content is like getting upset about knitting videos. YouTube’s community guidelines Enforcement Report is similar: Filled with impressive-looking numbers, but little useful detail.

But even the illusion of transparency is better than what the company usually comes up with when it removes and/or reinstates accounts and videos. Just days before the announcement about the removals, for example, YouTube reinstated two controversial accounts that it had previously removed after much criticism — one belonging to white nationalist Martin Sellner, and another belonging to a British YouTube broadcaster who calls himself The Iconoclast, both of whom have ties to the white supremacist movement, including the shooter who opened fire on a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand (and spread video of the shooting on YouTube). Why the sudden change of heart on these two and their use of YouTube’s platform? Are there new criteria being applied? All the company would say was that while many “may find the viewpoints expressed in these channels deeply offensive,” the company had decided the channels in question did not violate its community guidelines after all.

In a recent open letter to creators who use the service, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki (who rented her garage to Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page when they were creating the search company) said YouTube struggles to find the right balance between allowing users to exercise their freedom of speech, and providing a platform for hate. A commitment to openness “sometimes means leaving up content that is outside the mainstream, controversial or even offensive,” Wojcicki wrote. But she added that she believes “hearing a broad range of perspectives ultimately makes us a stronger and more informed society.” There’s no question that this is a struggle many digital platforms face, and both Facebook and Twitter have had some significant failures. But YouTube seems to have spent the least amount of time attacking this problem. And while Facebook is not known for being transparent about such issues, YouTube gives the company a run for its money when it comes to being opaque.

What we know from interviews with former YouTube staffers is that the company has spent much of its history caring about one thing above all else: engagement, or the amount of time users spend on the service, and how often they click. Increasing those numbers has taken precedence over removing offensive content, former YouTube insiders say, and it shows. The company would very much like you to think that all of that is in the past, and that it now cares deeply about taking action against such content. But it won’t provide enough detail about what it is doing to back up those statements, and so the skepticism about its true motives continues unabated.

Here’s more on YouTube and its content problems:

Radicalization engine: White supremacists and other right-wing agitators often say they were radicalized in part by the recommendation algorithm on YouTube, which they say can turn into a black hole of ever more conspiratorial video clips. “I think YouTube certainly played a role in my shift to the right through the recommendations I got,” one former right-winger told The Daily Beast. “It led me to discover other content that was very much right of center, and this only got progressively worse over time.”

Time spent: Guillaume Chaslot, a programmer who worked on the YouTube recommendation algorithm, told CJR that he offered to work on ways of keeping offensive content out of the recommended list. But his superiors told him all they wanted to see was the amount of time spent by users increasing, and that it didn’t matter how they got there. “Total watch time was what we went for—there was very little effort put into quality,” the former YouTube developer said.

Slap on the wrist: Even as it was bragging about its crackdown, YouTube was hit by the largest fine ever recorded under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, for targeting children with personalized advertising: $170 million. In practical terms, however, this amounts to barely a slap on the wrist for YouTube, since the company is estimated to bring in revenues of more than $10 billion a year.

Other notable stories:

In a four-hour hearing before the House Committee on Homeland Security, which subpoenaed him to testify, 8chan owner Jim Watkins said that the hate speech and white-supremacist content that caused him to be called to the hearing only comes from “a small minority of users,” and that he “has no intent of deleting constitutionally protected hate speech” from the online forum. 8chan has been linked to three mass shootings, including an attack in El Paso last month that killed 20 people. The shooter in that case uploaded his manifesto to 8chan.

More than ten years after it dropped its paywall, The Atlantic has put it back up again, adding a meter that will restrict the number of articles a visitor can read for free. The 162-year-old publisher said Thursday it’s launching a subscription plan that will give users access to five articles every month before requiring them to pay a fee. The magazine is offering three plans: $49.99 for digital only, $59.99 for both print and digital, and $100 for a premium package that includes print and digital, ad-free web browsing, and other features.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has donated the $15,000 monetary award it received as part of its Pulitzer Prize win for breaking news coverage to the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill. The newspaper won the Pulitzer for its coverage of the shooting at the synagogue last year, in which 11 people were killed and seven others were wounded. The paper said it will also sponsor an annual symposium in honor of the victims that will explore “how free speech and free thought can be used to confront hate speech and violence and overcome both with decency and love.”

CJR has been doing a series of interviews on our Galley discussion platform with leading thinkers, on topics such as the clash between free speech principles and the rise of digital platforms, and how to fight disinformation. Our next interview is with Mike Masnick, who runs a site called Techdirt and is an expert on the First Amendment and digital rights. Past Interview subjects have included Joan Donovan of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, free speech expert and law professor Kate Klonick, and Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

A group of academics have written a white paper arguing that the government could help restore the media industry and journalism to health by giving every American citizen a $50 annual tax rebate that they could donate to their favorite news outlet. Only outlets that run “serious news” would be eligible, the group says (as defined by a panel of experts) and no single entity could receive more than one percent of the proceeds. The package would cost an estimated $13 billion per year to finance, according to the group.

NPR’s Board of Directors announced on Thursday that it has chosen John Lansing to become its next President and Chief Executive Officer. A former president of the Scripps cable network, Lansing was most recently the CEO of US Agency for Global Media, the federal agency that runs Voice of America, Radio Free Europe and several other entities that broadcast media into other countries with the intention of spreading American democratic principles.

An opinion column signed by Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao and published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in January, endorsing a development proposal by a private corporation called NH District Corp., was written by agents working for the company, according to documents obtained by the Times-Dispatch through an Access to Information request. The column supported the private group’s plan for a development that includes a new downtown Richmond arena, hotel and apartments.

A police officer in St. Louis has been accused of misconduct after the Post-Dispatch published his description of a particularly violent shift, which he posted to his personal Facebook page along with a plea for state officials to support the police department. Officer Ryan Lynch wrote the post on August 23 about a police chase involving an armed 16-year-old, and a fight that led to the fatal shooting of an 8-year-old after a football game at a local high school. The police department has said Lynch is guilty of “conduct unbecoming an officer.”

Mandy Jenkins, the former CEO of Storyful and now the head of the Compass Experiment — a McClatchy project aimed at revitalizing local media — has published a report on disinformation she wrote while she was a Knight Fellow at Stanford last year. Jenkins says her interviews with news consumers convinced her that the sharing of disinformation is driven by a fundamental disconnect between audiences and the mainstream media, which they distrust.

The Walrus, a non-profit magazine published in Toronto, has partnered with the Global Reporting Center to launch an investigative series on global corruption. The series features reporting from international award-winning journalists, including a Pulitzer Prize recipient and a five-time winner of the Amnesty International Media Award. The magazine’s editors say the series exposes “flagrant large-scale corruption and detailed patterns of collusion between shady businesses and unscrupulous politicians.”

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