Should YouTube Have Banned Steven Crowder?

Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

Intelligencer staffers Benjamin Hart, Madison Malone Kircher, and Max Read discuss the latest controversy over hate speech and media platforms.

Ben: YouTube has been accused of being a breeding ground for right-wing extremists for a while now. But it’s on the hotter seat than usual this week, after Carlos Maza, a Vox journalist, tweeted that Steven Crowder, a right-wing personality, had directed anti-gay slurs at Maza on his YouTube channel, which inspired a hateful harassment campaign against Maza by many of Crowder’s fans. Maza accused YouTube of turning a blind eye to anti-LGBTQ hate on its platforms, while talking a good game about equality. YouTube responded at first by claiming that Crowder had not violated any of the company’s policies, even if his speech was offensive. But amid backlash, it announced today that his channel would be demonetized — though re-monetized if he cleans up his behavior. What do you think of this mealymouthed middle ground of a response?

Madison: Can you change the font size in these chats? I want my LOL to be as big as possible.

Ben: Haha.

Madison: This whole thing has played out in a pretty predictable way for Big Tech. YouTube took the gamble and opted for the “do nothing” approach, probably hoping that while people would be upset, this whole thing would die down after it replied to Maza telling him Crowder could stay in the name of free speech. But it didn’t die down, and the blowback appears to have forced YouTube’s hand.

Ben: Do you think that letting the videos stay up but demonetizing them is a reasonable reaction? Carlos Maza doesn’t — his response to this news was: “So the fuck what. Basically all political content gets ‘demonetized.’ Crowder’s revenue stream isn’t from YouTube ads. It’s from selling merch and ‘Socialism Is For Fags’ shirts to millions of loyal customers, that @YouTube continues to drive to his channel. For free.”

Should YouTube have banned Steven Crowder altogether?

Max: I don’t know that I feel super-prepared to judge the “reasonableness” of what YouTube is doing here. Like, the context in which this is taking place — a guy has an audience of millions just for calling a not particularly well-known journalist a “lispy queer” and tacitly encouraging his harassment — already seems so unreasonable to me! I know that’s a bit of a dodge. But I think when we talk about what the “right” or “wrong” or “reasonable” responses are to situations like this with Maza and Crowder, it’s worth taking a step back and thinking about the whole picture here. This is a more or less unprecedented situation that YouTube itself has created; I don’t want to take it as given and suggest that we now proceed with determining how best to adjudicate between an awful bigot and his army of trolls and a guy who makes explainer videos.

Ben: Is it unprecedented? Is it that different from harassment on any other internet platform?

Max: Well, I suppose I mean unprecedented in the long view. Put another way, I’m wary of offering up solutions that accept as given the way that the megaplatforms have been built and currently operate.

Madison: YouTube needs to get a better system for dealing with these instances situationally. This conversation would look different if it hadn’t fired off those first four tweets clearing Crowder while it was still, admittedly, investigating things. Seems like it’d have been better off skipping the first three explaining why Crowder wasn’t in violation (while also making sure to distance itself and claim that keeping his content up isn’t a tacit endorsement) and just saying “We’re still looking into this.”

Ben: YouTube certainly mishandled this situation. But, as always with these kinds of situations, there are some probably impossible-to-solve quandaries here. Is it feasible for YouTube to police its millions or billions or whatever of hours of content for everything that rises to a Crowder-level threshold? (Separately today, by the way, YouTube banned certain genres of hate and conspiracy-theory videos.) Or must we fundamentally rethink everything about these platforms, which I think is what Max is suggesting?

Madison: It’s not possible at this scale right now, no. But we didn’t get here overnight. So it’s going to take rethinking on our part, but also on YouTube’s.

Max: Yeah, I agree with that. I’d add that this isn’t simply (or even necessarily) a problem of insufficient moderation — one thing that the specter of “demonetization” raises (even if it doesn’t apply in a big way to Crowder) is that YouTube vloggers are being paid by YouTube through ad partnership programs. It’s a bit like if you got free cable, with 10 million channels, and there was a ton of awful, vile stuff among those channels, in addition to ESPN and HBO.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think people would spend an enormous amount of time hand-wringing about Cablevision or the free-speech problems of removing one of those 10 million channels in that instance.

Ben: Who decides what’s awful and vile?

Max: I mean, traditionally, the FCC, the cable companies, and the various channels that partner with the cable companies. Because we’ve sort of conditioned ourselves to understand YouTube as an open platform for expressing views (which, sure, it is, in some ways!), I think we have a hard time remembering that it’s much more like a cable company even than something like Facebook.

That’s not a perfect system, obviously, and I’m sympathetic to criticisms of centralized and corporatized media apparatuses. But to me YouTube has pulled off a kind of sleight of hand where it’s managed to supplant a bunch of these broadcasters and still, by appealing to our understanding of free speech and open platforms, avoided any of the regulation or responsibility or accountability that they were obligated to. I know that doesn’t necessarily give us much guidance on the Maza-Crowder stuff, sorry.

Ben: Nah, it’s relevant. As you said, I think it’s mostly about the way in which we view these platforms, and the promise the internet was supposed to represent. This game of Whac-A-Mole, where stuff gets litigated only if the right people raise a fuss about it, and only after tons of hemming and hawing on the platforms’ part, does not feel like the correct way of going about things for anyone. But I’m just trying to imagine what a better alternative would be, and it’s hard to do that.

Madison: Look, I’m sorry, but it’s June and gay rights say I don’t have to talk about this anymore.

Max: I think I was going to say that in this case, one thing YouTube needs to think about is why it’s putting together its rules in the first place. It is really reliant on this empty legalism (like claiming that because Crowder has not explicitly called for harassment, he can’t be held responsible), which is why it keeps tying itself in knots on stuff like Crowder. To me, it falls into the rabbit hole of endless literalist interpretation of its own rules because it doesn’t know why those rules exist in the first place — it has to follow the letter of the law because the law has no spirit, you might say. (Or really, the law has a “spirit,” YouTube just can’t admit that the “spirit” of the law is “Don’t piss off advertisers.”)

To me, this is ultimately a structural problem: For-profit businesses do not mesh well with liberal rights or deliberative judicial processes. But if YouTube was able to invest its regulations with some values — any values, really! — it might be able to regulate with a surer hand, at the very least.

Should YouTube Have Banned Steven Crowder?