YouTube’s censorship regime was meant to root out misinformation and prevent the rise of extremism. Instead, it’s amounted to an attack on independent, left-wing media.
“There’s something weird that happens with the numbers on certain issues.”
Rania Khalek is thinking back to all the times YouTube seemed to screw her over. There was the time that Khalek, the host of Dispatches from the Underclass at Breakthrough News, an online left-wing media organization, had on historian Vijay Prashad to discuss how the war in Ukraine was reshaping the global order. The livestream did gangbusters for the nonprofit political news channel — “It had I think the most views we’ve ever had on a livestream for us,” says Khalek — but come the next day, the thousands of views an hour it had been getting drastically slowed to a trickle.
That wasn’t the only time. Having noticed that all the channel’s coverage of the war in Ethiopia did particularly well, Breakthrough traveled there to produce a series of reports, visiting war zones and talking to locals. “The first couple of reports did well, then suddenly there was a huge dip,” she recalls. “Either our entire Ethiopian audience just entirely disappeared, or something fishy is taking place.” It was a similar story, she says, with her work on issues related to Palestine.
This wasn’t how things normally went on the platform. “You notice a pattern with YouTube, that when a video gets a certain number of views in the first hour, you have an idea of how well it’s going to do for the week based on that,” she says. “But sometimes, a video will just be doing amazing in the first hour or two, and then it just dips.”
Khalek is just one of many left-wing media figures who have been negatively affected by the platform’s content moderation policies. Suppression, demonetization, outright removal of content: as the drive for tech censorship has grown, ostensibly to take aim at “misinformation” and online extremism, independent left-wing outlets have suffered all this and more, caught in the expansive net that overzealous, overworked, or automated YouTube censors have thrown at the content on their platforms.
Post in the Machine
Jordan Chariton is familiar with YouTube’s “content moderation” policies. The founder and host of independent outlet Status Coup has had his videos serially removed and suppressed by the platform since he launched the outlet in 2018, a pattern he says is ramping up.
“I think the suppression has gotten worse, and the censorship has gotten worse, specifically after January 6 and COVID,” he says.
Even before the Capitol riot, Chariton says, YouTube had taken down seven or eight videos of himself or his cameraman interviewing Trump supporters and pushing back on their “Stop the Steal” delusions. Then, on January 6, videographer Jon Farina went down to DC to film a livestream of the day’s protest for Status Coup, which proved a major triumph. Live viewers hit thirty thousand, a record for the outlet, and, having captured what would become an iconic clip of a Capitol police officer being jammed against a doorway by protesters, Status Coup licensed their footage to a suite of mainstream foreign and domestic outlets, including ABC, CNN, and NBC, who, as Chariton told Matt Taibbi, used the footage and Farina’s recollections as the basis for their own coverage.
Less than a month later, it was gone.
The footage violated YouTube’s “spam, deceptive practices, and scams policy,” the platform informed Chariton, reminding him that “content that advances false claims that widespread fraud, errors, or glitches changed the outcome of the US 2020 presidential election is not allowed.”
“To add insult to injury, the outlets we licensed it to were able to put it up on YouTube with no problem,” says Chariton. By April 2021, he estimated YouTube had taken down as many as ten Status Coup videos of interviewers pushing back on Trump supporters’ election claims, and warned them that another violation would lead to a weeklong ban. “I genuinely don’t know how much longer Status Coup can survive,” he tweeted at the time, with views and subscriber growth plummeting.
“It seems like it’s a robot algorithm that can’t distinguish between debunking lies and advancing lies,” he says.
Status Coup was the victim of a belated change in policy by the Google-owned tech platform, after YouTube came in for heavy criticism for not following the lead of Twitter and Facebook in limiting the reach of content disputing the election result. The Intercept’s Ryan Grim faced the same problem while he was the designated progressive cohost of Rising, the Hill’s politics morning show, which was suspended on the platform for playing clips of two Trump speeches without the hosts explicitly identifying them as containing false claims about the election — even as they referred to Trump as a “madman.”
“YouTube’s own algorithm has created an entire movement that believes bogus conspiracy theories — but if you interview the actual people they’ve poisoned, push back, and publish the interviews, they take down your channel,” Grim later tweeted. It was far from a new practice from YouTube, which once took down a video criticizing Holocaust revisionism because it mistook scrutiny of the concept for promotion. Worse, it wasn’t even effective: the belief that the 2020 election was stolen actually grew and spread as YouTube and other platforms intensified their censorship efforts, probably because as the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society concluded, the disinformation campaign over the 2020 election was “largely led by political elites and the mass media.”
But election misinformation isn’t the only topic YouTube seems to target.
“When I do anything with Amazon in the headline on a livestream, it generally doesn’t break two hundred live viewers, while other topics are between two hundred fifty and four hundred,” says Chariton. When viewers subscribe to a channel, they’re meant to be notified up to three times a day whenever there’s a new video or livestream, something channel administrators can see on their end. That’s how Chariton knows YouTube has made a habit of not sending notifications about videos on Amazon, Flint, and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
The Serfs, a comedy podcast that covers political news from a left-wing perspective, saw both of its YouTube channels summarily removed without a strike or warning, the first time on that same basis of scams and malpractices, and later, over charges of “harassment, threats, and cyberbullying.” At one point, when the podcast made a sketch about Mark Randazza, a free speech lawyer who represents white supremacists and other far-right figures, thousands of users instantly flagged it as hate speech.
“Both times they were from what I suspect were mass flagging campaigns,” a representative from The Serfs told Jacobin, with YouTube singling out Serfs videos taking aim at Joe Rogan, YouTuber PewDiePie, and Infowars alum Paul Joseph Watson. “Otherwise it’s the very regular demonetization that comes from discussing anything LGBTQIA+ related.”
As with all tech platforms, YouTube’s censorship regime — or “content moderation” as its proponents euphemistically call it — really ramped up in 2016 and beyond. As liberal politicians and media increasingly turned to online misinformation to explain the 2016 election and other political shocks, a series of scandals over extremist and inappropriate children’s content produced a string of advertiser revolts termed the “Adpocalypse.” In response, YouTube issued a sweeping demonetization order against all “not advertiser-friendly” content, a category that included “controversial issues” and “sensitive events.” News and politics channels took an immediate hit.
“I went from making decent money to making zero dollars and zero cents overnight,” Kyle Kulinski, the host of left-wing political talk show Secular Talk, has said.
More scandals over hate speech and extremism followed, and YouTube ramped up its censorship program in response. In 2019, it launched a policy promoting what it called “authoritative voices” on the platform, which chief product officer Neal Mohan defined as “news sources that have a history of credibility and relevance,” a YouTube blog post singling out CNN and Fox as examples. CEO Susan Wojcicki similarly pointed to “anything that would go against World Health Organization recommendations” as an example of what would be removed, a category that, at various times, would have included other authoritative voices, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The result is a confusing and opaque two-tier system of censorship where small, independent outlets have little recourse when mistakes happen, which, as YouTube has itself acknowledged, is on a regular basis.
Having gone from the Hill’s Rising to the listener-funded Breaking Points, Krystal Ball saw firsthand how these dynamics work. Ball is grateful she and cohost Saagar Enjeti were able to “play in the sandbox over at the Hill” and learn which topics get demonetized and which don’t, she says, informing their decision to go with a subscriber-based business model. But the difference in treatment since going independent is palpable.
“Saagar and I are doing the same thing as the Hill, in general our views are about the same or even higher, but we no longer get the super viral segments that we used to get,” she says. “If you’re an independent journalist and don’t have that ‘trusted source’ credential, you get hit. They’ll deny it, but we’ve seen with our own experience the way the content goes one way versus when you’re under the corporate umbrella.”
Moderators “give you a vague or general explanation” for why a video has been censored, she says, while the workings of the algorithm can only be discerned by experience. Occasionally, they’ll get more information from a direct contact they have at YouTube. But even that’s more than most other independent outlets on the platform.
“The checks and balances for smaller channels is abysmal,” says the Serfs representative. “Million-subscriber channels have actual representatives they can contact. But if you’re a small leftist at five-hundred subs, most likely your channel will just get taken down if it gets a few hundred reports because someone posted a link to it on 4chan.”
“They just cite the strike and say it’s election misinformation,” says Chariton. “They don’t tell you where it was in the video, what was said. That’s almost shadow censorship.”
When we spoke, Chariton had recently successfully appealed a “strike” handed down by moderators. But content creators are only given one appeal. And even that one, he suspects, only won out because he kicked up a stink on Twitter, backed up by other left-wing names like Ball and Grim.
The Serfs were not as lucky. When they put out a comedic video at the trucker rally in Vancouver earlier this year, where the Serfs representative says they “screamed a bunch of nonsense” — “things like, ‘Justin Trudeau is putting his semen in the water supply. Don’t drink his cum!’” he says — it was permanently removed from their channel for being medical misinformation, and their appeal was rejected. And while the large channels that had the chance to build their audience and get established before YouTube’s post-2016 changes might be able to weather these issues, it all has a chilling effect on smaller, newer outlets.
“I have to pause sometimes on stories I previously wouldn’t have paused on,” says Chariton. “You don’t even know what it is that you can say or do that you can violate YouTube terms.” Because the algorithm seems to bury actual in-field reporting — the very thing Status Coup prides itself on doing — Chariton says he’s found himself having to “do more topical, clicky stuff to get people through the door.”
“It’s so much harder for new independent voices,” says Ball. “There are a lot of wonderful, intelligent voices who can offer a new challenge to the system that just will never get heard.”
Time to Care
These days, the Left tends be dismissive about the issue of tech censorship. Bringing up concerns like these is most likely to elicit apathy, if not outright support for the policy. After all, the typical rejoinder goes, the centers of power are going to inevitably censor the Left no matter what; so why not go along with it and at least get some noxious, far-right voices removed in the process?
But the people I spoke to saw things differently. “What ends up happening is even if you have the tech giants suppressing the far right, the Left doesn’t have the money behind them, and the Right does. They can start their own platform,” says Khalek. “I understand the inclination, but we don’t live in a country where the Left is in charge. We live in a country where everything on the Internet is owned by billionaires.”
Chariton changed his mind on this very issue after experiencing firsthand the dangers of corporate censorship efforts. After calling for media outlets who promoted Trump’s “Stop the Steal” campaign to be taken off the air in the wake of January 6, Chariton renounced the tweet a month later after his own tussles with YouTube’s censors over his footage of the event. The corporations who control the US press, he wrote, were now working with Silicon Valley to purge what few independent left-wing outlets existed.
“One of the big reasons I stayed on the Flint crisis for years is because mainstream media pushed the lie that it’s over now. I’ve been there over twenty times and it’s just not true,” he says. “One of the reasons the mainstream media is able to declare narratives is because independent media doesn’t have a microphone. And when independent media is censored, you’re having just a bunch of sheep.”
“It’s a dangerous thing to believe in if you have politics that challenges power,” says Ball. “The Left will be more consistently hit because it more consistently challenges power.”
Indeed, right-wing content creators continue to thrive on, and are even favored by, YouTube and other tech platforms, and have drawn on venture capital cash to start their own platforms free of censorship, like the YouTube competitor Rumble. Outside of the Internet, the Right now has the largest owner of local TV stations in the country, and at least three separate cable networks, including, via Fox, several of the highest rated shows on cable news.
It’s also impossible not to notice that in spite of an online censorship regime that’s radically ramped up since 2016, the problems of misinformation and political extremism appear to have only gotten worse. Nor has the US public’s belief in a variety of falsehoods declined. Tech censorship, it seems, has proven an inadequate solution to the very problems that justify its existence. And for the Left, it may reflect or even be contributing to a post-2020 disarray that’s helped feed a disillusionment with the plodding work of persuasion and coalition-building.
“I just think we have to actually believe in democracy and have confidence we can engage, that we can debate, that our arguments are strong enough to win the day,” says Ball. “The minute that you instead go down the pathway of thinking that the problem is individual people who need to be silenced rather than big systems that need to be reformed, it makes it impossible to have solidarity and collective action.”
“It’s a form of anti-politics,” she says.