Welcome to the umpteenth #YouTubeIsOverParty. Yesterday, YouTube decided that when right-wing commentator Steven Crowder calls Vox video host Carlos Maza, who is gay and of Cuban descent, a "Mexican" "lispy queer," it does not violate the platform’s policies on harassment. Not even after Maza called it to their attention. Not even after YouTube admitted the language Crowder used was "clearly hurtful." The decision may not make much sense, but for those who follow YouTube, it's totally unsurprising.
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Maza has been dealing with Crowder for two years, ever since Crowder decided to start "debunking" Maza's YouTube series, Strikethrough, a show about politics, media, and technology. Nothing wrong with a bit of political debate, but for Crowder those debates include things that he calls "harmless ribbing" but actually sound a lot like open bigotry.
Last week, Maza compiled Crowder's "jokes" into a shocking video that motivated YouTube to open an investigation into Crowder's content. To Maza and many others, Crowder's engagement in homophobic harassment was unambiguous: During part of the clip, he's wearing a shirt that says "Socialism is for F*gs" around an image of a limp-wristed Che Guevara; he sells the shirt to his YouTube subscribers. It seemed obvious, all told, that what was in Maza's compilation would be considered an infraction against YouTube's harassment and cyberbullying policy, which includes a stipulation against posting "hurtful and negative personal comments/videos about another person." However, that was not the case.
It's not that YouTube doesn't think this is a problem. It's that they didn't think it was their problem. According to YouTube, Crowder's remarks don't break the terms of service because he hasn't directly incited his followers to harass Maza and because they believe Crowder's commentary was primarily about debating opinions. But mere hours after the company tweeted at Maza saying Crowder's actions wouldn't lead to his videos being removed from the site, YouTube announced that they had demonetized Crowder's account because "a pattern of egregious behavior has harmed the broader community," violating YouTube's Partner Program policies. In other words: Wait, everybody's mad? Time to rethink things. (Predictably, far-right outlets are already frothing about censorship and political correctness gone wild.)
Emma Grey Ellis covers memes, trolls, and other elements of Internet culture for WIRED.
The flip-flop might have been forgivable if it made any sense, and if it hadn't been part of a years-long pattern of YouTube failing its LGBTQ+ creators. YouTube's Partner Program guidelines include its community guidelines and terms of service and doesn't add much to them. The policy they're citing, enacted after YouTuber Logan Paul filmed a dead body in Japan's Aokigahara Forest last year, just makes it clear that demonetization can be a penalty for accounts violating the spirit of those rules. As Maza pointed out on Twitter, demonetization is hardly a punishment when most creators make their money from brand deals, speaking gigs, merch sales, and Patreon. In fact, demonetization is something of a joke among YouTubers. Even after scandal and demonetization, Logan Paul still reportedly made $14.5 million last year. And even though Crowder referred to the day's events in a Twitter video as "adpocalypse," he promised his followers there was a "silver lining" on the horizon, adding that "Vox [is] still gonna be pissed" because "their goal is to get rid of people."
Queasiest of all, YouTube's choice to demonetize Crowder means that the penalty for posting anti-LGBTQ+ content can be the same as the penalty for existing on the platform while queer. Last June—yeah, Pride month again—YouTube apologized to LGBTQ+ creators for demonetizing their videos for no reason (many creators alleged that putting the word "trans" in their video titles is what triggered the demonetization) and for allowing hateful, homophobic ads to run ahead of their videos. Before that scandal, there was the "family friendly" filter fiasco, which scrubbed even the most G-rated queer-adjacent content, like Tegan and Sara music videos, from people's screens.
Anti-LGBTQ+ harassment is causing "egregious harm" on YouTube even when it doesn't make headlines. Ash Hardell, a trans YouTuber, has been the target of "countless" transphobic videos, sometimes from people with wide-reaching influence. "Hurting me in this way gained this person enormous traffic to their channel," Hardell says. "The video is now one of the most successful videos they have posted. YouTube absolutely rewards conflict and harassment with clicks, views, and money." That's terrible no matter where it happens. But on a platform that prides itself on fostering the LGBTQ+ community online, that encourages its queer creators to participate in its public relations campaigns, that rainbow-washes its own logo, such moves play out as awfully hypocritical.
The Maza/Crowder debacle is just one of many issues YouTube is currently facing and struggling to address. The platform has spent the week rolling out "new" policies hoping to appease the angry masses, but it hasn't actually changed much and has so far been unclear about how it will enforce the new policies or punish offenders. Creators like Maza see right through it.
If YouTube wants to do right by its queer creators, a community that brings millions of viewers to the site every day, it needs to decide what harassment actually is. It can start by listening.
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