To understand the socio-political effect YouTube has on the world in 2018, you first have to ask: What is YouTube?
There’s a divide between how a large portion of the general public views YouTube — as an open platform where almost any ideology can live — and how YouTube executives seem to regard their company — as a stage for encouraging social change. That dichotomy led to the alleged “YouTube Purge” this past week, a term coined by predominantly right-wing voices that say YouTube is trying to remove their content from the site and censor free speech.
It all came to a head on March 3, when Alex Jones, a conspiracy theorist who owns and hosts on the right-wing network Infowars, said that YouTube was going to delete his personal channel and all of his videos on March 4.
“The Alex Jones channel with billions of views is frozen,” he tweeted. “We have been told it will be deleted tomorrow and all 33 thousands (sic) videos will be erased. We just set up this new page subscribe if you want to see what the SPLC wants censored.”
Except that didn’t happen. A YouTube rep confirmed to Polygon that Jones’ channel wasn’t going to be deleted, and that the company doesn’t usually give warnings about a channel’s removal ahead of time. Jones is safe for the time being, but advertisers asked YouTube to not place their ads on his content, which the company parlayed to Jones. 20th Century Fox and Paramount Networks are two of the biggest companies who reportedly asked YouTube to exclude their ads from his channel.
Part of the YouTube Purge accusations stem from Jones’ claim that YouTube was trying to kick him off the platform. Jones received two community guideline strikes against his channel over the past weeks, following videos where he alleged that survivors of the Parkland school shooting in Florida were crisis actors.
YouTube declared these videos “personal attacks,” a violation of the company’s community guidelines regarding bullying. The notice that Jones received for his second strike says that, “YouTube is not a platform for predatory behavior, stalking, threats, harassment, bullying, or intimidation,” as seen in the tweet below.
InfoWars got another strike on their YouTube account for a Florida shooting video, now one strike left before they get banned. pic.twitter.com/onfHR4vIOO— Will Sommer (@willsommer) February 27, 2018
The first video that Jones received a strike for on Feb. 23 was called “David Hogg Can’t Remember His Lines In TV Interview,” referring to one of the Parkland school shooting survivors who gained recognition for his outspoken stance on gun control. YouTube reps confirmed it violated the company’s section on bullying and harassment.
Jones acknowledged that with two strikes under his belt, it would only take one more for YouTube to have reason to remove his channel.
How does the YouTube strike system work?
YouTube uses a very specific method of applying strikes to channels.
YouTube doesn’t provide warning that it’s going to remove a channel beyond the notice it sends to creators who receive strikes. The company relies on an appeal process for the strike system. That’s why people were somewhat confused by Jones’ tweet, leading many to question how the removal process works.
There are two types of strikes: community guideline and copyright strikes. The former refers to any violation of the rules YouTube sets for creators, while the latter refers to any type of copyright infringement that results when a content owner issues a DMCA takedown notice.
Here’s a video that goes through everything with some more clarity.
Technically, Jones’ second strike should have resulted in a two-week freeze on his channel, preventing him from uploading new content. That freeze never went into effect. Jones uploaded new videos soon after strike two. The host began sounding the alarms about the company’s attempt to censor his voice, along with others, and detail the events of an incoming “YouTube Purge.”
None of this has been proven
Another FAQ page for channel termination further explains that when YouTube channels are terminated, “the account owner receives an email detailing the reason for the termination” — not before, like Jones suggested in his tweet.
If Jones received a third strike and YouTube planned to take acton, as he suggested, he wouldn’t have been able to make his newest account, InfoWars Censored. YouTube’s rules clearly state that creators who have been banned from the platform “are prohibited from accessing, possessing, or creating” new accounts.
InfoWars Censored is dedicated to content that Jones believes should be allowed on YouTube, even if the company disagrees. This is why YouTube relies heavily on an appeals process, another facet of its moderation practice that has come under fire recently. When pro-firearms channels and notable conservative personalities (like Jones) claimed that YouTube was trying to kick them off the site, the company told Bloomberg that some of its moderators mistakenly issued strikes. YouTube was working on rectifying the situation, the company said.
There are reasons for heavy moderation. YouTube is attempting to crack down on conspiracy videos in the wake of the Parkland shooting and disturbing content making its way into recommendations and the top of YouTube’s trending list. Jonathan Albright, research director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, compiled data to display just how harmful conspiracy content was on the platform — and how much of that content led back to Jones’ Infowars channels. Albright wrote:
From my experience, in the disinformation space, all roads seem to eventually lead to YouTube. This exacerbates all of the other problems, because it allows content creators to monetize potentially harmful material while benefiting from the visibility provided by what’s arguably the best recommendation system in the world.
While they don’t need to outright censor it, there must — at the very least — be policies put in place that include optional filters and human moderators to help protect children and other vulnerable people from this material.
With critics drawing so much attention to Jones’ channel, it’s no surprise that users are flagging his videos. All of this leads back to the original point: Even if Jones received a third strike on his channel, there’s a chance that YouTube could have seen his appeal and decided that his video didn’t violate the company’s community guidelines — hence why his channel remains active.
There’s also a very good chance that Jones didn’t receive a third strike at all.
If Jones’ channel was going to be deleted, the company would have just removed it, not allowed him to create another channel. There would have also been a lengthy explanation as to why the account was being taken down. None of this came to pass. The only thing that happened is that people strongly believe that YouTube is trying to limit free speech on its platform in order to please advertisers. Anti-YouTube protests are planned for next week’s South by Southwest event in Austin, Texas, because of this perceived threat to channels.
What’s important to keep in mind — and repeatedly ask for — are records of proof, or lack thereof. Both Jones’ primary and secondary channels are still active. There’s a chance that Jones could say or do something that results in a third strike or a removal, but for now, his accounts stand.