This weekend, Google CEO Sundar Pichai had an hour-long interview with CNN, which featured recent changes to YouTube’s “hate-speech policies.” Pichai said YouTube is “very focused on removing harmful content,” and his thoughts on free speech were quite alarming.
The CEO bragged that YouTube had taken down 9 million videos that violated its policies, adding that YouTube is aiming to correctly draw the line between free speech and hate speech “over 99% of the time.”
Even if YouTube did draw the line at the right place, this 1% margin of error would imply that 90,000 perfectly acceptable videos would be deleted wrongly. But there is no reason for us to trust YouTube to draw this line at the correct place. YouTube’s censorship and demonetization of Steven Crowder, Prager U, and other conservative figures is proof of this.
Moreover, YouTube has now shown with its actions, and even said specifically, that its guidelines don’t matter. Content does not need to violate its speech policies to be demonetized, it simply needs to be deemed politically incorrect. This was the response given to Crowder, who was demonetized for “egregious actions.” In addition to the 9 million videos YouTube has deleted, countless others are being demonetized, just like Crowder’s.
In the CNN Interview, Pichai defended YouTube’s decision to demonetize Crowder. “Facing harassment online, just based on your identity or your sexual orientation, is just extraordinarily wrong,” he said. Part of Crowder’s demonetization was due to his shirts that say, “Socialism is for figs,” in which the letter “i” is replaced by a picture of a fig that could easily be confused for a letter “a.”
As a comedian, Crowder certainly makes comments that are not politically correct — sometimes remarkably so. I wouldn’t personally defend many things that Crowder has said. However, this is still a terrible an answer from YouTube, as prominent liberal comedians who have YouTube channels, and who say even more offensive things than Crowder, have faced no threats or censorship at all.
Just last week, John Oliver invoked Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and joked that “even the dirty Catholics” deserved to be judged by the content of their character, which, to someone less hostile toward religion than Google, might be considered harassment based on religion. Stephen Colbert has called President Trump’s mouth a “c–k holster” for Vladimir Putin. Chelsea Handler has called Ivanka Trump a “feckless c—.” Bill Maher made racist comments about African Americans earlier this year, and he has a long history of making anti-Catholic jokes. Trevor Noah mocked Indians in one of his monologues.
I could list examples like this all day, but it should already be obvious that it takes a conservative comedian to get banned. The point is, if YouTube can’t let comedians be comedians, it should at least apply a consistent set of standards for banning and demonetizing content creators. Comedians are going to make jokes that offend people they don’t like, and that’s something Google must accept or at least apply meaningfully consistent guidelines that don’t flagrantly discriminate against one mainstream point of view.