More than 100 nongovernment organizations (NGOs) and government agencies around the world help police YouTube for extremist content, ranging from so-called hate speech to terrorist recruiting videos.
All of them have confidentiality agreements barring Google, YouTube’s parent company, from revealing their participation to the public, a Google representative told The Daily Caller on Thursday.
A handful of groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and No Hate Speech, a European organization focused on combatting intolerance, have chosen to go public with their participation in the program, but the vast majority have stayed hidden behind the confidentiality agreements. Most groups in the program don’t want to be publicly associated with it, according to the Google spokesperson, who spoke only on background.
YouTube’s “Trusted Flaggers” program goes back to 2012, but the program has exploded in size in recent years amid a Google push to increase regulation of the content on its platforms, which followed pressure from advertisers. Fifty of the 113 program members joined in 2017 as YouTube stepped up its content policing, YouTube public policy director Juniper Downs told a Senate committee on Wednesday.
The third-party groups work closely with YouTube’s employees to crack down on extremist content in two ways, Downs said and a Google spokesperson confirmed. First, they are equipped with digital tools allowing them to mass flag content for review by YouTube personnel. Second, the partner groups act as guides to YouTube’s content monitors and engineers who design the algorithms policing YouTube but may lack the expertise needed to tackle a given subject.
It’s not just terrorist videos that Google is censoring. Jordan B. Peterson, a professor known for opposing political correctness, had one of his videos blocked in 28 countries earlier this month. A note sent to Peterson’s account said YouTube had “received a legal complaint” about the video and decided to block it.
Here's some more "explanation" for the censorship: incitement of hatred, terrorist recruitment, incitement of violence, celebration of terrorism. Even to fall briefly and erroneously into such a category is a chilling event.... pic.twitter.com/F00kmIGXLX— Jordan B Peterson (@jordanbpeterson) January 2, 2018
Peterson used his large social media following to push back, calling out YouTube on Twitter, where he has more than 300,000 followers. YouTube reversed Peterson’s block after another popular YouTuber, Ethan Klein, demanded an explanation on Twitter, where he has more than 1 million followers. Although the original notice said that YouTube was responding to a legal complaint, on Twitter the company gave the impression that the block was erroneous.
@TeamYouTube any insight on this?— Ethan Klein (@h3h3productions) January 2, 2018
The overwhelming majority of the content policing on Google and YouTube is carried out by algorithms. The algorithms make for an easy rebuttal against charges of political bias: it’s not us, it’s the algorithm. But algorithms are designed by people. As noted above, Google’s anonymous outside partners work closely with the internal experts designing the algorithms. This close collaboration has upsides, Google’s representatives say, pointing to advances in combatting terrorist propaganda on the platform. But it also provides little transparency, forcing users to take Google’s word that they’re being treated fairly.
YouTube’s partnership with outside organizations to combat extremist content is just one part of the company’s efforts to prioritize certain kinds of content over others. YouTube also suppresses certain content through its “restricted” mode, which screens out videos not suitable for children or containing “potentially mature” content, as well as by demonetizing certain videos and channels, cutting off the financial stream to their operators.
Prager University, a conservative nonprofit that makes educational videos, sued Google in October for both putting their content in restricted mode and demonetizing it. Prager faces an uphill battle in court (as a private company, Google isn’t bound by the First Amendment) but the lawsuit has forced Google to take public positions on its censorship.
The Google representative who spoke with TheDC said that it is the algorithms that are responsible for placing videos in restricted mode. But in court documents reviewed by TheDC, Google’s lawyers argued otherwise. “Decisions about which videos fall into that category are often complicated and may involve difficult, subjective judgment calls,” they argued in documents filed on Dec. 29.
In her testimony before the Senate committee on Wednesday, Downs described some of the steps Google has taken to suppress “offensive” or “inflammatory” content that falls short of actual violent extremism.
“Some borderline videos, such as those containing inflammatory religious or supremacist content without a direct call to violence or a primary purpose of inciting hatred, may not cross these lines for removal. But we understand that these videos may be offensive to many and have developed a new treatment for them,” she said.
“Identified borderline content will remain on YouTube behind an interstitial, won’t be recommended, won’t be monetized, and won’t have key features including comments, suggested videos, and likes. Initial uses have been positive and have shown a substantial reduction in watch time of those videos,” she added.
YouTube’s demonetization push, which is affecting some of the most popular non-leftist political channels, is meant to accommodate advertisers who seek to avoid controversial content, the Google spokesperson said.
Dave Rubin, a popular YouTube host, has seen his videos repeatedly demonetized. Rubin posted a video, “Socialism isn’t cool,” on Wednesday. The video was up a little over 24 hours before YouTube demonetized it on Thursday.
And of course, @TeamYouTube has demonetized my video on socialism. Guaranteed a critique of capitalism would’ve been just fine.— Dave Rubin (@RubinReport) January 18, 2018
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The video was later remonetized, a Google representative told TheDC. But users can’t recoup the advertising dollars they lost while their videos were erroneously demonetized.
“I suspect that there is some political bent to it but I don’t think it’s necessarily a grand conspiracy against conservatives or anyone who’s not a leftist. Part of the problem is their lack of transparency has created a situation where none of use really know what’s going on,” Rubin told TheDC.
“Does it seem that it is more so affecting non-leftist channels? Yeah, it does.”