by Daley Wilhelm
YouTube has often been credited as being the platform that supports stories we don’t often see in the mainstream. It was the launch pad for hundreds of vloggers and their unique experiences and lent itself to represent those whose stories weren’t getting told on television. A massive part of YouTube’s community has centered around the queer experience, it being the base of the “It Gets Better Project” and gay vloggers like Tyler Oakley or Hannah Hart who have become synonymous with the YouTube brand. So it would follow that YouTube would do its utmost to preserve, protect, and even promote queer content, right?
— Normal Human (@GeekRemix) September 21, 2017
It doesn’t appear to be that simple.
Earlier this year we wrote about the “Adpocalypse” involving YouTube’s crackdown on what content is deemed appropriate to be monetized. The beauty, and perhaps the curse, of YouTube is that it is essentially uncensored. Therefore brands like McDonald’s, Walmart, Verizon, and others pulled their ads upon finding that their commercials could appear on videos promoting hate speech or even content featuring Neo-Nazi ideology.
So it was understandable then for YouTube to start being more proactive in finding and flagging what was inappropriate for advertisers, whether this was done manually or through an algorithm. The logistics of exactly which videos are not allowed the be monetized, and thus what is or isn’t allowed to make money for the content-creator in question, is murky. It appears that videos with thumbnails featuring guns are often demonetized, along with excessive language within videos themselves, and what’s frankly baffling, videos with LGBT+ tags or titles.
“We noticed it a few weeks ago. There was a subtle dashboard notification one time, but it does not notify you every time a new video is flagged. You have to find that yourself.”
Mari and Stacy, quoted above, run the channel GeekRemix, where the two of them host gameplays, easter egg videos, and other content that you might find on any let’s play channel. Unfortunately, GeekRemix is feeling the demonetization debacle harder than your average channel, because they often play LGBTQIA+ games and label them as such.
“Some of the demonetization I understand and is completely fair based on YouTube’s user guidelines, the issue is that it does not tell you for individual videos what caused it to be flagged.” They told me in an email this weekend.
Currently, the only context creators are given as to why their videos have been demonetized is the message, “not suitable for all advertisers.”
Explaining their experience, Mari said that, “You don’t know what the cause is on the per video basis. And that makes it confusing because you don’t know what YouTube is deeming ‘inappropriate’. For example the word ‘lesbian’ and other LGBT+ terms which we have tested by uploading blank videos with different words in the title to see what terms get flagged.”
When similar apparent discrimination on YouTube occurred early this spring in relation to LGBT+ content being filtered out of YouTube’s Restricted Mode, VP of Product Management at YouTube Johanna Wright stated that their systems “were not working as intended” and the incorrect filtering had been fixed, allowing innocuous but queer content like NeonFiona’s “What People Say When You Come Out As Bisexual” on to be viewed on Restricted Mode.
“Using descriptive tags such as ‘lesbian’, ‘gay’, and other LGBT+ terms is especially important for people to be able to find the content that they are looking for. And if the algorithm punishes you for using LGBT+ terms in order to help LGBT+ people find your content, when you are not violating YouTube’s user guidelines, then that is discriminatory.”
Mari and Stacy’s sentiment was echoed by those who spoke out against the censorship of queer content on Restricted Mode, who resented the idea that the LGBT+ community is not suitable for the typically young audiences who utilize Restricted Mode. However, those people were given an, albeit vague, answer and a remedy to the controversy. Officials within YouTube on the current censorship have been silent, and those who can be contacted by creators have been unable to give straight answers.
Year 2017: the largest tech company on earth is run by an algorithm that discriminates it's employees and there is no way of fixing it.
— Normal Human (@GeekRemix) September 21, 2017
Mari posted the following exchange with YouTube’s Creator Support, which is meant to “help you with technical issues, questions related to your YouTube content, or whatever else comes up while you manage your channel.” “Whatever else” these days has often been centering around the repeals of various content’s demonetization or simply trying to get an answer as to why YouTube feels that the video is inappropriate. Mari found out that this was not an easy or seemingly possible task, saying,
“I have reached out. The response I received was they ‘have no idea why’.”
This goes on for a long time, and while the link that Ram gives Mari outlines what content is not eligible for advertising, nowhere among “harmful or dangerous acts, hateful content, violence, sexually suggestive content, and inappropriate use of family entertainment characters” could it be construed that queer identity or PG-rated queer PDA fits. So far in my research, I’ve been unable to find the “responsible team” that addresses cases like Mari’s to which Ram referenced.
“People wonder why I don’t ask to speak to someone higher up, but my answer is that it is simply not possible. Youtube does not give you any access to the people who make these choices.” said Mari.
There’s no clear answer given as to why LGBT+ content is demonetized, and it’s even stated that Creator Support does not “have the power to question the decision maker on these kinds of flagging.” So who does? What can queer content creators do?
Ram suggested appealing the demonetization, but there’s a catch to that. Videos that have not gotten at least 1,000 views in the last seven days will not be reviewed. This is what can be very frustrating when older videos are suddenly stripped of their ad revenue. For even smaller channels, this can mean a death sentence.
— Just Another Gamer (@rsmokinjoe) August 26, 2017
Some channels have reported that over 90% of their content has been demonetized, hundreds of videos previously bringing in revenue, dead on their channel. Some see this as a kind of purge on the part of YouTube, which has become inflated with “bigger channels” that average one million subscribers. For those with smaller bases, like GeekRemix, alternative ways of supporting their work like Patreon have become more important than ever.
Relying on YouTube as a career, or even as hosting platform, has become risky it seems. With the fall of big channels, controversy upon controversy, and the fickleness of YouTube’s flagging, it seems like the site might be in its death throes. I asked Mari if she thought YouTube was dying and she said she hopes not.
“Because I love my job. I love making things. But what I don’t love is how YouTube is treating me. I am paid by them. I am their employee. I want to be treated with respect.”
Back in May, YouTube claimed that it does respect LGBTQ+ voices, saying in a tweet that they were “so proud” and that “they’re a key part of what YouTube is all about.” Mari and Stacy chalk this up to “virtue signaling,” which is the practice of conspicuously expressing moral values with the intent of enhancing one’s standing in a social group. Basically, YouTube is aligning itself with the LGBT+ community without actually working to support it.
“Because putting the pride flag up in June, and then not paying the LGBT+ creators is wrong. You can’t say you are a LGBT+ friendly company to have good press and then do this to the LGBT+ community. This is the true meaning of ‘virtue signaling.’ They say they are supportive, but when they think they can get away with they still discriminate.” she explains.
Where it stands now, terms like “lesbian” and “transgender” are viewed by YouTube as equally inappropriate or controversial as terms like “Nazi” and “genocide.” Blank videos are flagged that use these terms, but so are actual gameplays like that of Life is Strange: Before the Storm which Mari pointed out “has no overtly sexual content, but is about LGBT+ teens.”
The queerphobia in #Youtube's algorithm is just ONE flaw out of many that negatively affects all youtubers. I don't mean to invalidate them.
— Normal Human (@GeekRemix) September 21, 2017
Other communities such as YouTubers with disabilities have also protested that their content has been deemed “not advertiser friendly.” Andrea Lausell made a video about her experience having her videos on living with disability demonetized, saying that, “this is how censorship and demonizing communities starts.”
So what can be done?
Mari and Stacy say that it’s important now for YouTube to make a statement, which they have yet to do since the issues back in May.
“If it is their algorithm messing up, they have the ability to fix it. If the advertisers don’t want to work with the LGBT+ community, they should say so.”
Mari elaborates on Twitter, saying, “If I can make YouTube admit this one flaw, it validates all the flaws too. And will put pressure into fixing the system as a whole.”
YouTube’s system appears broken. It’s excluding a large part of what made it into a media giant and household name, formerly a safe haven for those who wanted to tell their stories. Mari and Stacy have been pushing for answers as to why this has suddenly changed, contacting every PR outlet YouTube has to offer, so far to no avail.
Dang it Karen, I never said I was part of the press. All I did was ask you a question. Do You Support The LGBT+ term flagging!?!? pic.twitter.com/r0qEFbbwR4
— Normal Human (@GeekRemix) September 22, 2017
“I want people to know that I do not want to be a victim. It’s something I have been accused of. If I wanted to be a victim I would give up and feel sorry for myself. But I have used every resource I have to get answers and justice.” they said.
Earlier this year, it was public outcry that begot answers on YouTube’s part – that aforementioned tweet thanking those who advocated for change for their “passion for making YouTube such an inclusive, diverse, and vibrant community.”
With what we know now, is this still true? Can YouTube still call itself an advocate of the queer community while simultaneously blocking their content?
While we can’t know for sure until YouTube chooses to speak up and acknowledge this issue, for now we have the evidence amassed by GeekRemix and others suggesting otherwise.
Images: Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr