A YouTuber posted alleged homophobic slurs against a journalist and people weren’t happy with the platform’s response. Could it have done something different?
People shouldn’t be homophobic or enable others to spread hate. But some feel like YouTube failed recognise this after right-wing vlogger Steven Crowder bullied gay hispanic Vox journalist Carlos Maza, originally stating that Crowder’s frequent use of derogatory slurs to describe Maza didn’t break YouTube’s policies. Since then the argument has only intensified with YouTube being critisised by everyone from far-right figures and conservative senators to leftist types and even Google’s own employees. So we asked experts whether the video-streaming platform could’ve done something different to avoid the backlash.
To answer that we better give you the full backstory. On Monday May 30 Vox journalist Maza tweeted a viral thread highlighting the homophobic abuse he'd faced over the past two years by Crowder and his subscribers. Among other things, the vlogger referred to the reporter as a“lispy queer,” “token Vox gay atheist sprite” and a “gay Mexican” in his videos. The Google-owned company replied by saying Crowder’s bullying didn’t violate the platform’s policies and that his videos weren’t offensive enough to penalise him.
Frustrated, Maza replied: “To be crystal clear: YouTube has decided that targeted racist and homophobic harassment does not violate its policies against hate speech or harassment. That’s an absolutely batshit policy that gives bigots free license.”
The response YouTube gave was received with much backlash from users as well as a cadre of Google employees who then began a social media protest by adding #NoPrideInYT in their tweets to express their agony. Some even threatened to boycott YouTube and criticised the company for publicly celebrating Pride Month with rainbow flags while also defending the offensive videos.
Moreover, several LGBTQ organisations were critical against the Alphabet-owned company. For instance, Pride Foundation Of Maryland among others blacklisted YouTube altogether and at a meeting with the San Francisco Pride committee meeting on Wednesday June 5, LGBTQ activists and former Google employees urged the board to exclude Google from the upcoming parade, Hoodline reported. While no decision has been made yet, it would be the first time a big player like Google would be excluded from the event completely. Facebook faced a similar threat in 2015 after the real-name policy controversy, which affected transgender people among others.
However, some, like conservative senator Ted Cruz defended Crowder, saying it was “ridiculous” and that YouTube should “stop playing God [and] silencing those voices you disagree with.”
Subsequently, YouTube published a blog post detailing plans to crack down on inappropriate content which promote discrimination based on traits like sexual orientation, race and gender. “Channels that repeatedly brush up against our hate speech policies will be suspended from the YouTube Partner programme, meaning they can’t run ads on their channel or use other monetisation features like Super Chat,” the blog post read. The platform also decided to demonetise Crowder’s channel and demanded for the links to homophobic merchandise to be removed. This response came six days after Maza flagged the harassment to the platform.
This decisions angered just about everyone – the people supporting Maza thought it was a too little, too late as the conservative figure’s videos were still hosted on YouTube whilst Crowder and his supporters argued that this was a flagrant attempt to silence conservative voices.
This begs the question of if and how YouTube could’ve handled the situation better. “Their first mistake was in their delay [to respond],” says Anthony Burr, founder of Burr Media, the PR and marketing agency. “One of the golden rules of crisis management in PR is the early recognition that an event has the potential to become a crisis and then to act swiftly.” And, responding initially by saying Crowder’s videos didn’t violate their policies caused damage to the brand. “Confused customers leads to the destruction of brand loyalty and that is a public relations nadir,” he adds.
For YouTube, it’s yet another controversy in a long series of problems it has faced in trying to balance an open platform with the need to curb malicious content, misinformation and other abuse. In the past, vloggers such as PewDiePie and Logan Paul have faced consequences for posting antisemitic and questionable content. The Google-owned company ensured their videos were taken down immediately. But things were dealt differently in Crowder’s case. “In this case, YouTube had the chance to prove its commitment to inclusivity and diversity,” argues Ben Wilson, CEO of professional services firm Grovelands. “However, by not taking a clear stance against the harassment, many will now only see YouTube as not having a culture of inclusivity. This was an opportunity for YouTube to reflect on what type of organisation they are and want to be in the future. Culture is more than words but rather practising what you preach.”
Stuart Miles, broadcaster and producer at Wilson Worldwide Productions believes given that Crowder’s four million subscribers got an opportunity to bully Maza is exactly why YouTube should’ve banned his channel sooner. “Crowder is basically giving people permission to vent their bigoted views and this is where it becomes intolerable for the person concerned,” says Miles adding that it’s essential to be aware of the content one publishes on a public channel. “As a YouTube broadcaster you must take responsibility for your actions but if that doesn’t happen then sadly a zero tolerance position must be taken by YouTube on comments like this or we encourage bullying, whatever your race, sexuality or religion.”
Indeed, this imbroglio with Crowder is an example of how the major social tech platforms struggle to identify and enforce what is permissible and what is not and how to develop rigid policies that might backfire if they don’t evolve with the times. “A business is as much about what you believe is as the products or service that you sell and hiding behind policy is no excuse, it’s lazy box ticking,” argues Jevz Nair, co-founder and head of technology at fashion retailer The Cherry Moon. “We all need to take responsibility to engage in a wider perspective to make sure that the policy actually delivers what it is set up to do.”
While it’s easy to say to completely ignore policies, it leads to the question of how far one can go when doing so and how practical it would be. However, it’s in the hands of the senior executives to ensure regulations are followed and if the need arises to be harsh with the ones who are a liability to your brand. “You need to start at the top of the chain to create internal change and if you want that to be effective and with meaning – that begins with looking out for potentially vulnerable people on the ground floor,” Nair continues. “Whilst issues over gender, sexuality or colour have absolutely no place in any business or. indeed, in modern society, the responsibility lies with the employer to make sure that any issue is dealt with immediately.”
To him, the lesson in the controversy is that whether a company is a big business or a startup, inclusivity is of paramount importance which must be prioritised no matter what. “The Maza case and Pride month are perfectly timed to focus attention,” Nair says. “Absolutely support Pride, have some fun doing so but remember that there are 11 other months in the year.” While the Maza-Crowder uproar prompted YouTube to review its harassment policies, Nair believes it should’ve been done much earlier. “The first whisper of a problem should always be enough to act on and do it because it’s the right thing to do and not because a hashtag forces your hand,” he adds.
Nair isn’t alone in thinking so. Kate Hartley, co-founder of Polpeo, the media consultancy, believes diversity is important and must be more than a box ticking exercise. “If you say you’re inclusive, you have to be inclusive,” she says. “It’s no good painting rainbows over your logo to show your support for Pride and then behaving in a way that allows homophobia to thrive.” Indeed, while the Californian company was refusing to take action against Crowder initially, it was also promoting the LGBTQ Pride month with rainbow-themed logos. And Hartley believes brands must think more about how its actions can affect its reputation than update its marketing. “Take a step back from the legal detail of your policies – how do you want people to feel when they come into contact with your brand?” she adds.
However, being discriminating on the basis of sexuality and gender isn’t the only issue the tech titan has to address. In November 2018, more than 20,000 Google employees participated in a global walkout to protest against perceived sexual harassment and an alleged sexist culture. While one would expect Google to have treated the concern with upmost priority, it seems like it did the opposite. The two employees who helped organise the walkout – Meredith Whittaker and Claire Stapleton – started facing demotion and experiencing a hostile environment at work, according to emails published by Wired.
In fact, Stapleton quit the company due to the ill behaviour of her boss. “I made the choice after the heads of my department branded me with a kind of scarlet letter that makes it difficult to do my job or find another one,” wrote Stapleton in a note published on Medium. “If I stayed, I didn’t just worry that there’d be more public flogging, shunning and stress, I expected it.”
According to the experts we spoke to, YouTube failed to live up to the standards expected by a modern company by simply not responding forcefully enough against Crowder’s videos. Although, we’re certain his followers would disagree with that sentiment.