How a YouTube error shows its power over the media

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Novara had spent years using YouTube to attract more than 170,000 subscribers for its left-wing coverage of issues such as climate change, capitalism and social policy. Suddenly, and without warning, this powerful distribution tool was zapped, leaving people in the newsroom wondering how the organization could survive.

“We had this ambient awareness of our addiction to these Big Tech platforms,” said Ash Sarkar, an editor, in an office interview from a Novara room inside a converted cookie factory. . “But there’s nothing like having your livelihood ripped off to make you feel truly helpless.” “

Every hour, YouTube removes nearly 2,000 channels. The removals are meant to prevent spam, misinformation, financial scams, nudity, hate speech and any other content that it says violates its policies.

But the rules are opaque and sometimes applied arbitrarily – or by mistake, in Novara’s case. Political experts say Novara’s experience is indicative of the thorny free speech issues YouTube faces as the world’s largest online video service.

The guardian role leads to criticism from several directions. Many to the right of the political spectrum in the United States and Europe say that YouTube is blocking them unfairly. Some civil society groups say YouTube should do more to stop the spread of illegal content and disinformation.

Sometimes that leaves organizations like Novara in the middle.

After an outcry online, YouTube restored Novara’s channel within hours, claiming it had been mistakenly deleted. But other journalists, activists and independent creators on YouTube often do not have the same success, especially in countries like Belarus, Russia and Turkey, where YouTube is under pressure from the authorities to remove content from it. opposition and where the company does not have as much language. or cultural expertise. Around 500 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute around the world in different languages.

“It’s impossible to get any idea of ​​what it means to try to rule this kind of volume of content,” said Evelyn Douek, senior researcher at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University in New York City. “YouTube is a behemoth, by some metrics as big or bigger than Facebook.”

In its email Tuesday morning, YouTube said Novara was guilty of “repeated violations” of YouTube community guidelines, without giving further details. Novara staff must have guessed what caused the problem.

YouTube generally has a policy of three warnings before deleting a channel. He had only penalized Novara once before, after a report with scenes from an anti-vaccination rally, and YouTube later reversed that decision. The last Novara show released before the deletion was about wastewater policy, which hardly seemed worthy of YouTube’s attention.

One of the organization’s few previous interactions with YouTube was when the video service sent Novara a silver plaque for reaching 100,000 subscribers.

After Novara received the email stating that her channel had been deleted, her internal Slack email channel was inundated with panic messages about what to do next. Staff were concerned that this was a coordinated campaign by critics of their coverage to file complaints with YouTube, triggering their channel to be blocked by its software, a tactic sometimes used by right-wing groups to s ‘take it out on opponents. Sarkar, who has more than 350,000 Twitter followers, is often the target of racist and misogynistic abuse online.

An editor, Gary McQuiggin, completed YouTube’s online appeal form. He then tried using YouTube’s chat bot, speaking with a woman named “Rose,” who said, “I know this is important,” before the conversation broke off.

Angry and frustrated, Novara posted a statement on Twitter and other social media services about the removal. “We call on YouTube to immediately restore our account,” he said. The message caught the attention of the British press and Members of Parliament.

Within hours, the Novara Canal had been reestablished.

YouTube later said Novara was mistakenly flagged as spam, without providing further details. “We are working quickly to review all reported content, but with millions of hours of video uploaded to YouTube every day, sometimes we make the wrong call,” YouTube said in a statement.

Novara editors said they were careful not to break YouTube’s rules. He relied on the platform to post all of his videos and occasionally used the YouTube studio in London to film. Staff tapped Google’s analytics tools to find ways to find new viewers. About 92% of Novara’s budget comes from individual donors, many of whom found out through YouTube.

“They are a monopoly. There is no alternative, ”said Michael Walker, who hosts Novara’s“ TyskySour ”show. “If we switch to Vimeo or any other platform, we won’t get viewers.”

In Britain, where newspapers such as Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun lean heavily to the right, Novara’s coverage has stood out on the other side of the political spectrum. Subscribers to his YouTube channel have grown over the past two years, helped by his critical coverage of the UK government’s handling of the pandemic.

Novara’s broadcasts are shaky, sometimes conflicting and resolutely leftist. “Luxury Communism,” as Sarkar describes it in his Twitter bio.

Everyone at Novara gets the same pay, £ 16.50 an hour ($ 22.75 an hour), regardless of rank.

Ed Procter, CEO of the Independent Monitor for the Press, the body Novara voluntarily uses as a regulator in Britain, said it was at least the fifth time that a media outlet has had material removed by YouTube, Facebook or Twitter without warning. Often no reason is given to remove the content, he said.

“We have real concerns about platforms acting arbitrarily as regulators by default,” said Procter. He said the regulator had never received a complaint about Novara. “What you saw in the Novara Media situation is something that we can see becoming a regular occurrence.”

Procter and others have said the volume of unwarranted withdrawals is likely to increase as internet platforms face pressure from policymakers around the world to do more to stop the spread of disinformation, racism and misinformation. illegal content.

Under a bill in Britain, companies could face billions of dollars in fines for failing to remove content deemed “legal but harmful”, a classification many critics consider too broad and that will give businesses even more leeway over acceptable content. The law includes provisions to protect the media, but there are disagreements over who is eligible.

Sarah Clarke, Europe and Central Asia head of Article 19, a group that defends free speech, said Novara was lucky.

“What was so frustrating is that in a powerful English-speaking country like the UK, when there is an uproar, YouTube pays attention and reverses its decision,” Clarke said. “We rarely see this in other non-English speaking countries.”

In Novara, the team turned the experience into new content, hosting a live special at 5 p.m. on Tuesday.

“We are back!” exclaimed Walker.

The next morning, McQuiggin informed his colleagues that another message had come from YouTube.

“They would like to apologize,” he said.

© 2021 The New York Times Company


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