The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

YouTube remains rife with misogyny and harassment, creators say

YouTube creators who sounded the alarm years ago say the company still has a problem

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki at the introduction of YouTube TV in 2017. (Reed Saxon/AP)

LOS ANGELES — In April 2016, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki took the stage in front of rows of creators at the company’s second ever “Creator Summit” in Los Angeles. The event was a gathering of some of the internet’s biggest stars, and Wojcicki was there to listen to their concerns and feedback.

She began by touting YouTube’s ad growth and the company’s plans to expand its original programming. But when she opened the floor for questions, she was faced with a barrage of criticism from female creators.

Women creators weren’t doing well, according to an account of the meeting in a new book, “Like, Comment, Subscribe: Inside YouTube’s Chaotic Rise to World Domination” by Bloomberg technology reporter Mark Bergen. Many were dealing with vicious harassment, bullying, and stalking, he recounts. The toxicity on the platform was escalating, they said, and the networked attacks they faced online were growing more threatening.

Bergen’s book details how one female creator called out the rampant bullying and explained that she was terrified after a fellow YouTuber made hostile videos about her, “doxed” her (posted her personal information online), and sent waves of angry followers to attack. Another female creator took the mic and said she was dealing with similar issues.

Ingrid Nilsen, a popular beauty vlogger, was dismayed when Wojcicki offered what she felt was empty sympathy with no commitments to fix the problem, according to Bergen. “YouTube just didn’t have an answer,” Bergen quotes her as saying. “They knew the mess was a really big one.”

In interviews with The Washington Post, creators and experts say that those problems are still an issue, despite updated harassment policies rolled out in 2019.

A report issued last month by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a British nonprofit, declared that harassment against women is flourishing on YouTube. Though the platform recently banned the online men’s rights influencer Andrew Tate (after he amassed millions in ad revenue), other channels espousing similar ideology are posting regularly and using the platform to grow their audience, the report concluded. Some channels also are still uploading Tate’s content to YouTube shorts, YouTube’s answer to TikTok.

“Misogyny is alive and well on YouTube,” the center’s report found. “Videos pushing misinformation, hate and outright conspiracies targeting women are often monetized.”

Wojcicki declined to comment. YouTube spokesman Jack Malon said the platform is dedicated to keeping itself free of harassment.

“Harassment and cyberbullying are not allowed on YouTube, and we have clear policies that prohibit targeting an individual with threats or prolonged and malicious insults based on attributes like their gender identity and expression,” he said. “We’re committed to rigorously enforcing these policies equally for all creators, and encourage any user to flag content they believe violates our Community Guidelines.”

But in interviews with The Post, seven creators detailed how misogynist creators mobilize their audiences to attack certain women creators. If a woman creator goes viral, they said, she will undoubtedly be subject to a waterfall of hateful comments. Posting on YouTube as a female creator can feel like walking across a minefield, the influencers told The Post.

“YouTube will turn a blind eye to anything that brings a lot of viewers to the platform,” said Abelina Sabrina Rios, a political comedy YouTuber in Los Angeles. “They’re aware that people on their platform will blatantly spew sexist and misogynistic stuff and it becomes a breeding ground and they’re totally okay with it because they bring in lots of viewers.”

Creators said that the Amber Heard vs. Johnny Depp defamation trial was a pivotal moment in the online harassment landscape, emboldening misogynistic YouTubers and allowing them to collectively amass millions of followers. Depp won his lawsuit against Heard. Creators said the trial and the verdict normalized a level of hate that has become commonplace on the platform.

“I was getting called Amber Heard a lot during the trial,” said Rios. “I had people tell me they wish I died. It’s constant. I’m always adding new filters to my comments, because that’s the only thing I can do.”

Creators who leaned hard into anti-Amber Heard content saw their followings skyrocket through posting videos that experts say are misogynistic, amassing money from merchandise sales and ad revenue in the process.

Matthew Lewis, a YouTuber in Tennessee known online as ThatUmbrellaGuy, has grown his following to more than 400,000 subscribers, largely by posting anti-Amber Heard content. Depp’s lawyer said he’d been in communication with several YouTubers, including Lewis.

“YouTube channels like ThatUmbrellaGuy are not an exception to the rule; they are the rule,” said Christopher Bouzy, founder and CEO of Bot Sentinel, a research firm specializing in disinformation. “YouTube is telling women it’s ok for men to publish and monetize videos insulting and demeaning women. ThatUmbrellaGuy’s YouTube videos have received over 116 million views, and YouTube has refused to take action.”

Lewis did not respond directly to a request for comment. He later published a video saying that in years past he had not exclusively posted Amber Heard-related content, but that he had published content about comics. In a tweet after The Post sent him questions, he acknowledged his role as a leader of Comicsgate, a campaign beginning in 2018 that opposed diversity in the comic book world.

Many of Lewis’s earlier titles include attacks on “social justice warriors” and “woke” culture, such as “SJWs ruin comics: Comic Industry 2019 Numbers REVEAL There’s NO coming back from WOKENESS!” and “SJWs never learn: SJWs take WRONG LESSON from Study, Hilariously Missing THEY’RE the BAD GUYS!”

High profile women who speak up about sexism or who are perceived as too progressive are frequent targets of misogynistic YouTubers. Earlier this year, after public outcry and a report by Bot Sentinel, YouTube began de-ranking anti-Meghan Markle channels and videos dedicated to misogynistic commentary on Markle, who has been the subject of much negative discussion in the British press as well as on the web since she married Prince Harry.

Women creators said they’re frustrated that YouTube hasn’t done more. They say the company dismisses harassment and hate campaigns as “drama.”

“YouTube turns a blind eye when some of their larger creators spew misogyny,” Rios said. “So people in their comments really take hold of that messaging and go out and harass female creators, or they inspire smaller creators and those smaller creators go on to harass women and the cycle continues.”

Alivia D’Andrea, a wellness and self improvement YouTube star in Los Angeles with over 2.3 million followers, echoed those frustrations. Some “commentary” channels, where YouTubers give their opinion or analysis on a variety of topics, are particularly troubling, she said. “Commentary YouTube channels, especially the fitness ones, will comment on my videos and react and analyze what exactly was wrong with me,” she said. The critiques of her body are hurtful, she said.

People in D’Andrea’s comment section become emboldened by these videos. D’Andrea said that YouTube commenters once used a screenshot of her feet on an airplane to figure out what airline she was flying on what date, then used that information to locate her school and called the school to get her class schedule. “I do sometimes fear, I hope no one finds out where I live,” she said.

Akilah Hughes started making videos on YouTube in 2007 but quit the platform, partially, she said, because of the racist and misogynistic attacks she endured. She attended the meetings with Wojcicki in 2016, and is dismayed by the platform’s lack of progress.

Hughes and other creators said that YouTube could do several things to make it a safer platform for women, such as adding more robust controls to the comment section, banning certain bad actors and those whose channels are dedicated solely to attacking specific women, down-ranking misogynistic content, and providing more resources for female YouTubers suffering from online harassment.

“The fact is that success on YouTube for women is not the same as it is for men,” she said, “It’s a target on your back the moment you become successful on YouTube as a woman. YouTube wants you to post all the time, they want you to find success but they’re not going to protect you once you have it.”