Saturday, March 02, 2019

Latest YouTube controversy: Justified or over reaction?

YouTube is mired in controversy and trouble once again, this time not about videos on the platform, but about comments left on some videos. As in previous controversies, advertisers are abandoning YouTube. But is this a justified or over-reaction? Do they have a point, or is it just grandstanding?

The controversy is over comments left by pedophiles on YouTube videos featuring children and very young teens, mostly girls. In many cases, the videos were innocently posted by parents or as vlogs by young teens, but pedophiles flocked to them to leave comments including timestamps of their favourite parts, promising to trade more explicit videos privately, etc. Assuming they’re all real, which they probably are, and if media reports are accurate, which they probably are, they’re at best crude and inappropriate, and at worst they’re veering toward criminality.

The response of advertisers has been to suspend their campaigns. This included major international corporations, online companies, and even the New Zealand Government. The question here though is, why didn’t the advertisers already know this was going on?

As Patricio Robles put it on Econsultancy:
…the fact that advertisers are apparently only now learning that they’re buying inventory associated with such videos raises many questions about how they create and manage their advertising campaigns.

In short, if YouTube is incapable of or not sufficiently motivated to police its content, advertisers are just as responsible for the ill-effects because they are clearly incapable of – or perhaps too lazy to – keep a close eye on their campaigns.
That seems like a reasonable point. It’s all well and good to be outraged when this was discovered, but shouldn’t they have been monitoring their ad buys all along?

Despite the horrific nature of the comments at the heart of this controversy, one has to feel some sympathy for YouTube. By most estimates, there are 300 hours of video content uploaded to YouTube every minute, which amounts to 18,000 hours uploaded every hour. No matter how good their internal checks and review processes, no matter how well-rafted their algorithms, some bad videos, and bad comments on them, will slip through. And considering the millions of comments posted on YouTube, it seems unlikely that YouTube can possibly ban all bad people or their comments.

Partly because of that, a few days ago YouTube disabled comments on “tens of millions of videos that could be subject to predatory behavior,” as they put it on their Creator Blog. They continued, “While we have been removing hundreds of millions of comments for violating our policies, we had been working on an even more effective classifier [meaning, their algorithms] that will identify and remove predatory comments… We accelerated its launch and now have a new comments classifier in place that is more sweeping in scope, and will detect and remove 2X more individual comments.”

All of which is a good thing. They’re moving to address a problem that, unlike allowing inappropriate videos to be uploaded and/or monetised, isn’t of their making. There’s also something easy that YouTube users can do to help. As popular YouTuber Philip DeFranco said on one of his recent videos [WATCH – link is queued to when he talks about all this], we call all help YouTube in this process of cleaning up comments by reporting any inappropriate ones we see. As Phil put it, we can “help YouTube to take out the trash.” That’s both a good idea, and a good way of describing it. The users themselves can help to clean up the problem.

At the same time, advertisers could be better about managing their own ad campaigns to find and deal to problems quickly, rather than having to be shamed into withdrawing all advertising. If they do that, and if users help police comments, that will help fill in the gaps that YouTube may never be able to close themselves.

Why all this matters is simple: Money. Sure, that means profits for YouTube, but those profits make it possible for individuals, companies, non-profits, and governments to share videos widely and easily, and all for free. The ads are the price we all pay for being able to make, share, and watch videos without paying to do so.

The other aspect is that some video makers get a share of the advertising revenue. Although YouTube has steadily raised the bar for monetisation to make it all but impossible for small video makers to get any money, it’s still at least theoretically possible to make money from one’s videos. But previous controversies and advertiser boycotts have led YouTube to be overly zealous in de-monetising videos that are even mildly controversial (including some that no reasonable person would call “controversial”). So every time advertisers walk, it potentially costs small, independent video makers money because of something that they’re powerless to fix.

Because of the fact that advertisers, too, have a responsibility to monitor their ad campaigns, and because YouTube is moving to do what it can to reduce the risk to minors, it does seem to me that advertisers are over-reacting. By all means, let’s “take out the trash”, but let’s be sure that what we do directly addresses the problem and isn’t mere grandstanding to appear responsible and responsive—if they had actually been so they would have discovered the problems themselves.

This isn’t a particularly popular viewpoint in the midst of the latest anti-YouTube frenzy, I know. But I can’t see the sense or justice in attacking YouTube alone while letting advertisers—and even users—completely off the hook, allowing them to shirk their responsibility to be good citizens.

This much we know for certain: The current controversy will end, and there will be another one sooner or later. We may come to believe that, ultimately, YouTube simply cannot be controlled by the company, and, if so, that will reinforce the responsibility of everyone to do their part. We really can “help YouTube to take out the trash.”

Further reading:

YouTube has a pedophilia problem, and its advertisers are jumping ship – Vox

YouTube is disabling comments on videos with minors after advertisers back out over abuse – CNBC

Advertisers Boycott YouTube — And If History Is A Guide, They'll Be Back Soon – Forbes


rogerogreen said...

Yes, the advertisers WILL be back. There's a LOT of "OMG" for show, then back to business as usual.

Arthur Schenck (AmeriNZ) said...