YouTube, the First Amendment and the Myth of Sisyphus

The first amendment to the United States Constitution reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech.” It’s been challenged many times since it was written in 1791, but the freedom of speech remains one of the bedrocks of America.

The internet, since its commercialization, has morphed into one of the last bastions of free speech. So when YouTube announced its new policy of purging videos in an effort to combat extremism, you would’ve thought first amendment stalwarts would line up to argue against their removal. They did not.

YouTube, whose parent company is Google, was left to its own devices to clean its system. To say that it’s been an imperfect process would be a generous understatement.

There’s the story of high school history teacher Scott Allsop, who had his channel purged because he posted historical footage, including films of Nazis, to the site. He told Buzzfeed, “I’m a history teacher, not someone who promotes hatred. I share archive footage and study materials to help students learn about the past.”

In a recent blog post, YouTube stated: “It’s our responsibility to […] prevent our platform from being used to incite hatred, harassment, discrimination and violence. We are committed to taking the steps needed to live up to this responsibility today, tomorrow and in the years to come.”

Then there is Carlos Maza, an openly gay journalist for Vox. Maza revealed that right-wing personality Steven Crowder has been making videos attacking him with homophobic slurs. As a result, Crowder’s fans have begun harassing Maza. Given YouTube’s stance regarding hatred, harassment and discrimination, you might think they would discipline Crowder in some form.

They did not. In fact, they did just the opposite. YouTube defended the slurs used by Crowder, saying that they came in the context of “debating.”

Based on that alone, it’s worth questioning their level of commitment to upholding their previously-stated values.

Furthering this oddity is the case of YouTuber Rational Disconnect, who makes videos challenging the far right. Many of his videos have been taken down by Youtube from the platform. One such video was pulled last year, when it was flagged for debunking a white nationalist talking point about South Africa. The video violated YouTube’s terms by opening with clips from Infowars and other conspiracy-mongers, even though he proceeded to dismantle their arguments.

Now, if you’re thinking that this recent purge is the first initiative that YouTube has made in an attempt at cleaning up its airwaves, you’d be wrong. Tech companies like YouTube and Facebook have been at it for years. They are using human moderators to screen videos. A 2018 documentary titled The Cleaners showcases this manual process. The film focuses on the outsourced companies used by the tech giants that are located in the Philippines.

These outsourced Fillipino companies are screening and removing the real video detritus from the internet. While they are given removal criteria, the moderators bring their own inherent prejudices and beliefs to the job, and are not generally concerned with the first amendment.

In fact, one could easily argue that the Filipino threshold for offensive content is wildly different than elsewhere, based on social norms and given their current political situation. The current President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has been called a “serial killer president”. Duterte has condoned rape and openly referred to his political enemies as “gay”. Human Rights Watch called the first year of the Duterte presidency a human rights calamity, estimating that he killed 7,000 people between June of 2016 and January of 2017.

Nonetheless, succumbing to political and social pressure, YouTube stepped up and responded in June of this year. They did this by adjusting their algorithm and, according to The Washington Post, using a “combination of human monitoring and software in its take down efforts,” saying “that every video that was taken down in the sweep was subject to a human review.” Thus the current situation was born.

Now, on the one hand, there can be no denying that the removal of hate mongers, race baiters and deception traffickers is a good thing. On the other, in America, it begs the question about whether this is in violation of their first amendment rights.

The fact is that, yes, this purge is fundamentally in violation of the first amendment. YouTube’s terms of use have been updated to prohibit videos alleging that a well-documented violent event, such as the Holocaust or the Sandy Hook school shooting, did not take place. It also includes the rule wherein videos in which a user asserts superiority over a vulnerable group, such as women, veterans, LGBTQ+, people of color and victims of a violent crime, should be removed without hesitation.

It doesn’t mean they won’t find a home elsewhere on the internet. It just won’t be on the service that maintains an average of five billion hours of videos viewed daily. It also means that neither YouTube nor the video owner will generate any revenue from the content.

Now there are some who say that YouTube can sometimes function as an educational resource, like a library. This is not a wildly incorrect line of thinking. As such, YouTube should be more diligent about not publishing misinformation or at least be more responsible about their “recommended content.” Unfortunately, that’s not really the way algorithms work. YouTube’s algorithms are designed to match you with content that they think a viewer will be likely to want to watch.

For example, prior to the recent purge, if you searched for Leni Riefenstahl’s much revered 1935 documentary Triumph of the Will on YouTube, you could spiral down a Nazi rabbit hole quickly. Despite its historical and educational value, Triumph of the Will was scrubbed because of all of the related content that it could potentially send you to.

The fact is that YouTube isn’t a library – it’s a commercial enterprise owned by an international conglomerate. It shouldn’t be held to the same standard. Frankly, the idea of categorizing or prioritizing five billion hours of videos a day isn’t humanly possible – it couldn’t be done without an algorithm.

However, the reality is that, no matter what YouTube did, no one was going to walk away satisfied.

  • The people who had their videos unjustly scrubbed, for whatever reason, were frustrated.
  • The people who had their channels deleted are angry.
  • The people who have been calling for this type of action for years may feel some sense of satisfaction, but are probably annoyed that videos were removed unjustly.
  • The people who feel that the first amendment is being violated are irate.
  • YouTube will lose a little revenue because a lot of those scrubbed videos were wildly popular, potentially provoking the ire of Wall Street.

The process of scrubbing videos from YouTube was messy and will continue to be so. It hasn’t been perfect or ideal, but YouTube had to do something, so they did. That should matter. This is going to be an ongoing process, whether it’s in the Philippines, through an algorithm or, as is most likely, both.

In the digital world, the degree of perfection and specificity that people seem to demand is a Sisyphean task.

The good news is that the first amendment is still alive, because those people who had their videos scrubbed from YouTube are not prohibited from finding another home for them. So the internet can remain a bastion of free speech in America, just not on YouTube.