Demonetization on YouTube has, within the past two years, become a widely-talked about issue, especially in the YouTube community. Since the “Adpocalypse,” wherein YouTube began monitoring videos much more closely to ensure that only ad-friendly content receives ads and therefore revenue, more and more, generally advertiser-friendly, YouTubers have discovered their income dwindling and barely-sensitive content being deemed un-advertiser friendly. In this paper, I will discuss YouTube demonetization, censorship, and the Internet, and how demonetization has created an entirely new, and far more insidious, method of censorship on the Internet.
A (very brief) history of U.S. censorship
The Oxford Dictionary defines censorship as “The suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news, etc. that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security.” Although the First Amendment technically prohibits the U.S. government from censoring the people, exceptions have legally been made throughout history, generally during wars to protect national security, and often through the restriction of printed material, such as book banning and the restriction of the press. There are, of course, a few other ways in which the proliferation of thought have been restricted by the government: a person cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theater, for example.
Additionally, censorship is not something that is unique to governments. Corporations have literally no restrictions on what they can and cannot censor. The fact that social media sites are private corporations means that “free speech” as a concept does not exist on them, which is especially chilling considering that social media is the fastest and most efficient way of spreading information in these modern Internet times.
Censorship in modern times
The recent repeal of net neutrality throws somewhat of a wrench into the idea of the Internet as a free and open source of information; Internet providers are now able to charge more for certain websites or content to load. This creates another easy, if not entirely effective form of censorship, in that fewer people will be willing or able to pay for consistently high Internet speeds, which can be, and in fact have been, leveraged for political gain.
Even before the repeal of net neutrality, censorship of the Internet has always been prevalent. China is one of the first countries to come to mind; the firewall that blocks most social media and highly trafficked sites, such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, has never been a secret. China, however, is not the only country to attempt to censor the Internet. A transparency report by Google shows a fluctuating but overall increasing number of requests for removal of items by the U.S. government since 2009. However, due to the increase speed at which information travels, old methods of censorship are no longer effective. Images and videos on the Internet can be accessed by almost everyone, and spread incredibly quickly. Additionally, once something is put on the Internet, it can never truly be deleted; viral videos and images are downloaded hundreds, thousands, even millions of times, so that each time that image or video is taken down, that same image or video can be posted from another source.
This change in the way audiences consume media means that censorship must take place incredibly quickly or incredibly effectively, even off of the Internet; one of the best ways to censor media is for companies, instead of governments, to do so. If companies restrict content, instead of the government, then the information is restricted at the source, instead of trying to contain information after it has already begun to proliferate, as would be the case in purely government intervention. Hypothetically, for example, YouTube setting up an algorithm that stops any videos containing the word “cat” or any images of a cat would be infinitely more effective than the government or a third party deleting any videos of or about cats that came to their attention.
What is demonetization?
AdSense is a form of revenue that YouTubers receive. Advertisers pay YouTube to have their advertisements in front of videos; in turn, YouTube pays creators for the videos that they put ads in front of. However, after a few scandals which revealed to many advertisers that their products appeared on or next to non-advertiser friendly content, YouTube began removing ads from videos that it deemed possibly un-advertiser friendly, which had the inadvertent effect of punishing many channels that simply addressed political issues.
How demonetization can become censorship
The general image of censorship is a government or organization that directly removes content from circulation or blocks content after it has already been distributed. For YouTube, however, this is not necessarily the case. True, YouTube has the ability to remove disturbing or violent videos that violate its rules and guidelines, but there is another layer to content creation on YouTube. YouTube is a somewhat unique form of social media in that creators who make income from the site receive that income directly from the site, although some do supplement that income with merchandise or outside sponsorship. Many YouTubers rely on YouTube at the AdSense revenue they receive from videos as their primary or even only source of income. Although there are a few other ways that YouTubers receive income from their audience, such as sponsorships, merchandise, and sites like Patreon, ad revenue is still the primary way YouTubers make a livelihood on the site. Demonetization is often a larger issue for creators with smaller audiences, and ones that cannot be relied on to donate or purchase merchandise; the larger impact of this, however, is that only those creators that are already established can rely on YouTube to consistently make a living. Most obviously, those YouTubers that are smaller or just starting out may be discouraged from continuing with YouTube as a career, allowing YouTube to thin out creators by simply using the incredibly vague suggestions it makes to ensure “advertisement-friendly content” to take away the wages, essentially, of its creators.
Outside of smaller YouTubers, however, even the future of larger, more established creators is threatened by the widespread demonetization on YouTube. The DeFranco show, an indie news show hosted by Philip DeFranco has seen a significant decrease in the AdSense revenue it receives from YouTube, dropping as much as 80% at the beginning of the “Adpocalypse” before stabilizing to a drop of around 30%. In DeFranco’s case, the videos were demonetized for a wide variety of reasons. One of those reasons is language; DeFranco opens his videos by greeting his audience, which he calls “beautiful bastards.” Another of those reasons is content: in 2017, for example, a video of his was demonetized for discussing a terror attack in London. Other channels have discussed their concerns about demonetization: h3h3 and CaseyNeistat come to mind, among others.
Why demonetization as a form of censorship matters
At this point in time, demonetization is a widespread but untargeted issue. It seems as if programs and filters designed to mainly appease large advertisers is inadvertently catching too many videos, and unintentionally harming creators in the process. This, in and of itself, does not seem like it is much of a problem; after all, in order to pay creators, YouTube must receive revenue from advertisers, and if enough advertisers are unhappy and decide to stop paying YouTube, both YouTube and its creators suffer. This idea is not necessarily new, either; the pursuit of advertising, after all, is also what holds mainstream media back from showing risky or overly progressive content. The main concern most creators and audiences have is YouTube’s vagueness and lack of communication. The terms and conditions set by the website essentially mean that it is allowed to demonetize anything that it deems fit, and YouTube is notoriously bad at communicating expectations and further steps to both its creators and audiences.
Social media is an incredibly prolific way of spreading information, and arguably the most popular way of spreading information in the modern world, particularly among younger generations. With many social media sites, revenue is generated from third parties: the audience directly or sponsorships. Thus, the site’s only way to control content is by directly removing the content, which inspires far more outrage than simply trying to starve creators out. Additionally, YouTube is a uniquely work-heavy form of social media. If a lengthy Facebook post is removed by the site it can simply be reposted, even by dummy accounts if Facebook chooses to delete the account it is posted on. If a YouTube video is demonetized, however, especially if that YouTuber relies on YouTube for an income, then simply reposting the video will not change that YouTuber’s situation. Thus, demonetization as a targeted tool would be even more sinister than outright censorship, as it would likely force many YouTubers to stop creating content and spreading information of their own free will, leaving only the most extreme and passionate creators on the site. As it is, many YouTubers find themselves scrambling for alternative methods of income in order to continue delivering the content that their audiences expect from them, but cannot do much else to protest YouTube’s widespread demonetization without risking their own careers and livelihoods. After all, to remove videos entirely from YouTube for containing sensitive content creates a martyr and destroys the illusion of free speech on the site; to demonetize those videos creates just another failed YouTuber.
Crick, Matthew. Power, Surveillance, and Culture in YouTube‘s Digital Sphere. Information Science Reference, 2016.