In the middle of 2017, Philip DeFranco, host of the popular DeFranco Show on YouTube, noticed something strange with one of his videos. This video covered a few things from the news cycle: CNN and fake news, the President, and a terror attack in London, where both a car and a knife were used to injure 48 and kill seven. The video, seemingly of great interest to many YouTube viewers, found itself in the number one spot on YouTube’s Top Trending page, before being demonetized and therefore removed from said page. According to DeFranco, that video was demonetized because it mentioned a stabbing of a police officer during the London terror attack, which allowed YouTube to demonetize the video as its discussion of a recent tragedy made it unfriendly to advertisers.
As a self-contained story, this bit of demonetization seems pretty fair. Until, that is, it is compared to other instances of demonetization.
At the very end of 2017, Logan Paul, one of YouTube’s largest creators, had a similar story: a video with sensitive content that was removed off of Top Trending after a while. The key difference in Logan Paul’s case, however, is the content he was removed off of Top Trending for. In the video, entitled, “We Found a Dead Body in the Japanese Suicide Forest…”, he showcases a suicide victim, whose body is shown hanging from a tree in real-time, fingers purpling, as Logan Paul and his crew crowd around and make jokes. The video was only removed after being flagged countless times by viewers, and and online outrage arose over the video’s continued existence on YouTube.
YouTube’s response to the Logan Paul situation? Vague generalities, with no explanation for the length of time that passed before the, frankly offensive video was removed, or any outlined steps moving forward to fairly enforce its community guidelines in a timely manner.
These two situations highlight a big issue with YouTube (and the greater Internet landscape): their complete and total control over the platform. There seems to be very little internal consistency in how YouTube deals with videos containing sensitive content, which makes both users and audiences frustrated. YouTubers and YouTube viewers often look at YouTube as a traditional company, one that caters entirely to the users. When things then become unfair on the platform, users then get confused. What happened to the freedom of speech? What happened to “the customer is always right?”
In answer to the first question – as a private company, YouTube is freer to censor thought than the U.S. government has ever been.
In answer to the second – it is true that YouTube relies on its viewers in order to sustain itself. Unfortunately for viewers, however, YouTube is free. This means that as long as people simply continue to use YouTube, it is not beholden to any of them. After all, it is funded almost entirely through ads – and as long as eyes continue watching those ads, advertisers could not care less what those eyes think of the platform they advertise on. And the creators of YouTube aren’t customers at all – they’re employees, many of whom cannot boycott or abandon the site if they want to continue making a living.
So what’s the solution to the issue of unfairness in demonetization on YouTube? Unfortunately, there isn’t one. At least, there isn’t one that can be reached if YouTube continues to hold all the power in the provider-consumer relationship. YouTube, and other social media sites, are driven solely by self-interest, and really only pay lip service to the people who use them. The only way this can change is if we as a public stop thinking about YouTube as a benevolent company simply trying to spread the ideas of the people into the world, and start recognizing it for what it is: a private company that has massive amounts of control over the cultural zeitgeist, and, more importantly, absolutely no stake in the impartial spread of free speech.