A (very brief) history of U.S. censorship
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 the ways 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 the age of the Internet
The introduction of the Internet, which facilitated free thought and the communication of ideas globally, did not stop the U.S.’s attempts at censorship. 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; one of the best ways to censor media is for companies, instead of governments, to do so. Hypothetically, 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
Generally, we think of “censorship” as the government or a corporation outright removing content from the site or from circulation. In the case of YouTube, however, this is not necessarily the case. 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. 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. Those who 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.
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 “Adpocolypse” 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.
Why demonetization as a form of censorship matters
Social media is a prolific way of spreading information, arguably the most popular 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 target tool would be even more sinister than outright censorship, as it would 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.