Not everybody who faces abuse on social media platforms has a powerful voice, but Carlos Maza is a journalist with a large Twitter following who is well-known for his political and media analysis on Vox’s YouTube channel. So people took notice when Maza called out YouTube last week over years of racist, homophobic mockery from Steven Crowder, a popular right-wing YouTuber.
“I’m f---ing pissed at @YouTube,” Maza wrote, “which claims to support its LGBT creators, and has explicit policies against harassment and bullying.”
While he waited for YouTube to respond, the abuse continued. Crowder kept attacking Maza on his YouTube channel, accusing the journalist of being part of a “giant corporate media entity trying to silence voices they don’t like.” Maza’s Twitter DMs filled with “hundreds of messages saying I should kill myself, or that they will kill me,” he told The Washington Post.
Finally, after nearly a week, YouTube addressed Maza’s complaint, saying Crowder had not violated its policies.
The company’s response highlighted a regular criticism of the platform: YouTube promotes itself as a supportive space where anyone can have a voice, and yet the platform makes it easy for creators to profit from bigoted speech while appearing hesitant to meaningfully support vulnerable creators who bear the brunt of those attacks.
“YouTube uses its LGBT creators to sell the idea of YouTube as an inclusive powerful platform that has liberated LGBT people and empowered them to speak. And that is incredibly true,” said Kat Blaque, a trans creator who has been vlogging about social issues and politics on YouTube for more than a decade. “However, their support of us, or lack thereof, is truly seen in how they decide to continue to host content that actively attacks people in the community.”
Crowder’s attacks on Maza were not subtle. The right-wing YouTuber, who has 3 million subscribers, mocked the journalist as “an angry little queer,” a “gay Mexican,” a “lispy sprite” and the “Mr. Lispy queer from Vox.” He made money off those videos from advertisements.
“I think that if we were on a playground, Crowder calling Maza a ‘lispy queer’ would be enough to get people to see that he is bullying,” Blaque said. “But we debate about it when it’s YouTube."
In its initial assessment, YouTube said: “While we found language that was clearly hurtful, the videos as posted don’t violate our policies."
That was the first of a confusing thread of statements, clarifications and policy announcements. The next day, YouTube said it has suspended Crowder’s ability to make money on the platform through Google’s ad services. And then in another clarification, YouTube said Crowder’s moneymaking privileges would be reinstated as soon as he removed a link to a homophobic T-shirt he sells online. And then YouTube once more clarified that Crowder’s demonetization was the result of a “pattern” of behavior and not just the T-shirt:
Update on our continued review–we have suspended this channel’s monetization. We came to this decision because a pattern of egregious actions has harmed the broader community and is against our YouTube Partner Program policies. More here: https://t.co/VmOce5nbGy— TeamYouTube (@TeamYouTube) June 5, 2019
In a statement to Gizmodo, YouTube indicated that Crowder’s homophobic insults didn’t violate its policies banning “stereotypes that incite or promote hatred,” because the “main point of these videos was not to harass or threaten, but rather to respond” to Maza.
Then YouTube’s communications head, Chris Dale, released a statement saying YouTube would reconsider its harassment policies in the coming months. The statement also defended YouTube’s initial decision not to take action against Crowder: “If we were to take all potentially offensive content down, we’d be losing valuable speech — speech that allows people everywhere to raise their voices, tell their stories, question those in power, and participate in the critical cultural and political conversations of our day,” Dale wrote.
As all this played out, YouTube’s main Twitter account remained rainbow-colored in honor of LGBT Pride Month. Now, LGBT creators and fans who have been frustrated by YouTube’s standards enforcement when it comes to protecting marginalized voices have cited the Maza saga as an example of why YouTube hasn’t earned the right to deck itself in rainbow pride.
Maza has accused YouTube of viewing LGBT creators as “props” in its effort to appear tolerant and sensitive. “To me, it feels like active exploitation,” he told The Post. “It’s not hypocrisy; it’s depravity.”
It’s not just a matter of protection from bullying. LGBT creators have long battled YouTube’s enforcement of policies that have restricted the content of their videos and made it harder to make money on the platform. “YouTube has profited off this idea that it’s a platform that gives voice to the voiceless,” Maza said, when in fact, “queer creators get punished if they talk about being queer too much.”
In 2017, some creators discovered that YouTube’s “restricted mode,” which is meant to filter out “inappropriate content” for families using YouTube, was hiding videos that included a same-sex couple reading their wedding vows, a trans woman’s makeup tutorial, and one of YouTube’s own videos celebrating Pride. (YouTube eventually said that the restrictions were because “systems were not working as intended” and that “Restricted Mode should not filter out content belonging to individuals or groups based on certain attributes like gender, gender identity, political viewpoints, race, religion or sexual orientation.”) During 2018′s Pride Month, creators again found that YouTube was still inappropriately restricting LGBT content, which YouTube once again attributed to a mistake in its systems. In some cases, explicitly anti-LGBT ads were running before videos by LGBT creators.
Fiona Morgan, who is on YouTube as NeonFiona, was one of the YouTubers who initially called out the platform’s restriction of LGBT content in 2017 and said she wasn’t surprised by YouTube’s response to Maza. “I absolutely do not trust YouTube to care about my safety,” she said in an email. “On several occasions my safety has been threatened online and their response is always something along the lines of ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.”
“Queer creators deserve better,” tweeted Tyler Oakley, one of the first LGBT YouTube stars to gain widespread fame, “Shame on you, @YouTube.”
“They will put rainbow flags on things; they will have initiatives,” Blaque said. “They will call me in for every diversity meeting, but they will never draw that line in the sand.”
BuzzFeed News, speaking to an anonymous Google employee, reported that some LGBT workers at the company that owns YouTube were discussing ways to protest. Creators like Blaque noted that YouTube has many employees who are supportive of the LGBTQ community on the platform. But the way the company as a whole handles instances like this one effectively cancels out that support.
YouTube has a history of enforcing its policies on a case-by-case basis, said Rebecca Lewis, a Stanford University doctoral student who researches the far right on YouTube. “When you have these vague policies,” she said, “it’s the more vulnerable creators who bear the brunt of that."
Meanwhile, far-right creators have attracted millions of subscribers on YouTube. In the attention economy that drives success on YouTube, creators are constantly chasing content that generates as many clicks as possible. “Something that generates clicks is hateful content,” Lewis said.
On Wednesday, YouTube announced a policy change widening the scope of white-supremacist content that is not allowed on YouTube, a move that YouTube guessed would lead to the removal of videos on thousands of channels. The change did not appear to be related to Maza — it had been planned for a while — but the Vox journalist said the timing put him “in the center of an additional firestorm,” wrongly fueled by the assumption that he was to blame for the fallout for YouTube’s enforcement of the new policy. (Curiously, the company’s sweep also took down a history teacher’s archival Nazi footage and some videos by creators who were challenging or debunking white-nationalist propaganda.)
Crowder was not among those who lost his YouTube channel, but conservatives have rallied around the idea that he, too, was being “silenced,” apparently referring to the company’s temporary suspension of Crowder’s ability to make money off his videos (he can still freely post to his YouTube channel). Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) even tweeted about it with a #LouderWithCrowder hashtag.
As Crowder becomes the latest right-wing figure to trigger a wave of claims that social media platforms are censoring conservatives, LGBT creators are once again dealing with the reality of being a marginalized voice on YouTube.
For Maza, the episode has underscored the fact that YouTube’s decisions around standards and enforcement have put LGBT creators in an “impossible position”: They can either choose to stay on the platform that gave them an audience, and tolerate the slurs and abuse; or they can silence themselves and “leave the place where we have a voice.”