- YouTube has cracked down on misinformation during the pandemic, but its automated flagging system has wrongfully removed videos from creators who attempt to debunk that misinformation.
- One creator had a video debunking COVID-19 conspiracy theories removed, and his appeal was denied. YouTube told Insider that decision was a mistake.
- “That’s a crazy situation to be in, to be afraid to upload videos getting out the correct information,” the creator said.
- Another creator had four videos removed because of mistaken enforcement of YouTube’s new COVID-19 misinformation policy.
- A YouTube spokesperson said the platform was making more mistakes because of increased reliance on automation.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Chris Boutté was worried about his friend.
He said she’d been hearing so much “nonsense” about the novel coronavirus that she was skeptical of any vaccine rolled out in the US to curb the spread of the pandemic.
He noticed that one of the popular sources of misinformation related to the virus came from the YouTuber Jordan Sather, who has urged viewers of his channel “Destroying the Illusion” to ignore public-health guidance, including wearing masks.
Boutté felt something had to be done.
And so the 35-year-old YouTuber, whose videos focus on psychology and news analysis, decided to make a video debunking COVID-19 misinformation spread by Sather and other QAnon believers.
On August 19, Boutté published a video called “Debunking Insane QAnon COVID Conspiracy Theories.” He discussed his concerns about QAnon and how the movement has inspired real-life violence, and told his followers to practice critical thinking when encountering misleading content online.
Just over a week later, on August 27, YouTube removed Boutté’s video, citing impersonation and the platform’s new COVID-19 Medical Misinformation Policy. YouTube told Insider an internal glitch made the COVID-19 policy appear as “impersonation” on some creator dashboards.
The COVID-19 policy doesn’t allow creators to upload content that “spreads medical misinformation that contradicts the World Health Organization (WHO) or local health authorities’ medical information about COVID-19.”
But Boutté wasn’t spreading medical misinformation — he was debunking it. He appealed the decision to remove his video, which came with a strike on his channel, but was denied.
“I’m afraid to do more videos debunking COVID conspiracies because if you get three strikes, your channel is deleted,” he said. “That’s a crazy situation to be in, to be afraid to upload videos getting out the correct information.”
The video strike didn’t demonetize Boutté’s entire channel, so he was able to continue making income from his other videos. Still, Boutté said, he undoubtedly lost income from the removed video.
Meanwhile, Sather’s video — which actually spread advice that went against WHO guidelines — remained on the platform. After Insider reached out to YouTube for this article, it restored Boutté’s video to the platform and removed his strike. The next day, the platform removed Sather’s video that Boutté had debunked.
Boutté, whose channel, TheRewiredSoul, has 81,000 subscribers, wasn’t alone in the mistaken removal of his video.
Two other creators spoke with Insider about the platform taking down their content for reasons they dispute, while letting videos like Sather’s, that actually violated community guidelines, stay up.
YouTube told Insider that the platform’s reliance on bots and automation led to enforcement errors
While all social-media platforms face the challenge of enacting policies to prevent misinformation and hate speech, YouTube in particular has become a breeding ground for conspiracy theories, white supremacy, and other forms of extremism.
In a September 2018 report, the independent research organization Data and Society said that YouTube had become “the single most important hub by which an extensive network of far-right influencers profit from broadcasting propaganda to young viewers.”
After years of facing criticism for allowing far-right personalities to flourish on its site, YouTube announced in June that it had removed the channels of three top creators who have promoted white-supremacist beliefs. Richard Spencer, David Duke, and Stefan Molyneux were barred from the platform for violating YouTube’s hate-speech policies, the company told Insider at the time.
It said its commitment to the responsibility of content moderation led to newfound reliance on automated practices for flagging content that violates YouTube’s rules during the coronavirus pandemic. Not only is YouTube reviewing videos that may breach its policies on sexual content, violent content, harassment, and hate speech, but it’s now seeking to quell content that may promote harmful, false, and misleading information about COVID-19.
YouTube creators have long struggled with the frustrating process of getting accidentally demonetized or penalized. But when the pandemic hit, it sent a vast number of its content reviewers home, where, the company says, employees couldn’t do the same work because of privacy and work-life-balance concerns. YouTube began relying more on bots.
In its second-quarter 2020 transparency report, YouTube reported that it received over 325,000 appeals — its highest quarterly number ever — from creators who believed a disciplinary action taken by the company against them was wrong.
YouTube said it typically upholds 75% of disciplinary decisions that are appealed, which include strikes, channel terminations, and copyright-infringement claims.
In the second quarter of 2020, the platform upheld its decisions only half the time, which the company said it attributed to errors made by its automated systems.
YouTube said ‘automated flagging’ identified 95% of 2nd-quarter moderated videos
When a video or channel is flagged, either by a bot or a human, and the creator requests to appeal the decision, YouTube says a human always does the second review. But those humans can make mistakes, and they do.
When human reviewers make mistakes, it’s significantly more difficult for creators to get YouTube to understand what went wrong. Creators whom Insider spoke with found long waits, unhelpful emails from the platform, an inability to email the platform, and responses from YouTube that contradicted what was happening on their channels.
Alex Joseph, a YouTube spokesman, told Insider that two of the creators Insider spoke with were mistakenly penalized because YouTube determined the videos were in violation of the COVID-19 medical-misinformation policy when they weren’t, while the third was wrongfully penalized under sexual content guidelines.
“Earlier this year we introduced a policy prohibiting COVID-19 misinformation and we aggressively enforce it to quickly remove harmful content from YouTube,” Joseph told Insider in a statement.
“No system is perfect, and our automated systems and review teams may mistakenly remove videos discussing harmful misinformation while not outright promoting it. Recognizing this, we allow uploaders to easily appeal video removals on YouTube or by reaching out to the @TeamYouTube handle on Twitter.”
Boutté — who unsuccessfully tried to get his strike reversed by appealing the decision and reaching out to Team YouTube — told Insider that after his video was reinstated, he believed it must’ve been related to the media’s pressure on the platform.
Another YouTuber who made videos debunking COVID-19 conspiracies faced repeated mistaken flags
Phil Mason is a British chemist and YouTuber whose channel Thunderf00t has nearly 960,000 subscribers. Mason has been creating videos since 2006, and he makes a lot of content debunking pseudoscientific “scams,” like products that claim to help you breathe underwater.
Mason estimates he’s been involved in 20 disciplinary actions over the course of his channel’s history, including copyright violations and community-guidelines strikes, although “none of them have ever stuck,” he told Insider.
Typically, when Mason has appealed decisions, YouTube has reversed them, he said. “It always drags on for days, weeks, and sometimes months,” he added, but this most recent time was different.
On July 6, Mason uploaded “Nino Vitale: BUSTED.” In it, he critiqued and mocked Vitale, a member of the Ohio House of Representatives, who touted the disproven medical claim that wearing a mask depletes oxygen levels in the air inside.
About 35 minutes after uploading the 41-minute video, Mason says it was taken down by YouTube, and he received an email that said his video violated community guidelines. The policy cited in the email was the one against promoting “violent or dangerous acts” on YouTube.
—thunderf00t (@thunderf00t) July 6, 2020
Mason assumed the takedown was “just some bot misfiring,” so he reedited the video and uploaded it again on July 10 with the title “*BANNED* BUSTED video!“
This time, the email he received referenced the COVID-19 medical misinformation policy, the same one it used to strike Boutté. Mason says he appealed the decision and YouTube upheld it.
Mason, who is financially supported through ads on his videos as part of the YouTube Partner Program, then began emailing the YouTube Partner Support email and tweeting to his 75,000 followers about the wrongful enforcement of the policy. Mason said nearly all of his COVID-related videos have been “demonetized at some point or another,” causing him to lose roughly half his typical ad revenue for those videos.
Taking those routes, Mason met more dead ends and more frustrating video removals.
Small creators have found it difficult to have productive conversations with YouTube
Creators like Boutté and Mason were penalized after being mistakenly identified as violating YouTube’s COVID-19 policy. But as YouTube moved to rely more on automation, other mistakes that were not related to the coronavirus policy also occurred.
Nadia Bokody, an Australian columnist, runs a self-titled sex-education channel with about a quarter million subscribers. She estimates that YouTube generates about 95% of her income through ads on her videos as well as sponsorships and other branded partnerships. On July 22 Bokody’s channel disappeared.
She received an email that said her channel had been terminated. Typically, YouTube operates on a three-strike system, and after three community-guidelines strikes, as well as other disciplinary actions, it will terminate a channel.
But if a channel exists solely for a purpose that’s in opposition to YouTube’s community guidelines, it can be terminated instantly.
That’s what mistakenly occurred to Bokody’s channel, when a human reviewer wrongfully thought her channel as a whole violated sexual content policies, YouTube told Insider.
Her channel was reinstated on August 21, and Bokody says she lost thousands of dollars in the interim. And YouTube does not reimburse.
YouTube says Bokody didn’t appeal the decision herself and said it took the company longer to restore her channel because of that, but Bokody says she did appeal the decision right away and was ignored.
All three creators Insider interviewed also reached out to @TeamYouTube on Twitter to discuss their concerns over wrongful video bans.
The @TeamYouTube account, which functions as a customer-service “conductor,” responds to creator inquiries on Twitter at a rate of 25,000 tweets a month, YouTube told Insider. The account simply repeated the original YouTube mistake back to Mason when he reached out.
—thunderf00t (@thunderf00t) July 7, 2020
On July 6, after “Nino Vitale: BUSTED” was taken down the first time, Mason tweeted there was “no TOS violation” and it was “important that this disinformation is debunked.”
YouTube responded: “Thanks for your patience, our policy team reviewed the video and confirmed it’s the correct decision. YouTube doesn’t allow content about COVID-19 that poses a serious risk of egregious harm.”
On July 14, a third video was removed from his channel, one that debunked a doctor spreading COVID-19 misinformation.
—TeamYouTube (@TeamYouTube) July 14, 2020
Mason then continued correspondence with the YouTube Twitter account over the course of several weeks. @TeamYouTube continued to mistakenly tell Mason that his videos were in violation of the platform’s rules.
On September 7, YouTube removed a fourth video on Mason’s side channel called VoiceOfThunder.
Again Mason’s appeals were denied and correspondence with @TeamYouTube proved unhelpful, he said. Emailing YouTube directly didn’t work either. Emails between Mason and the YouTube Partner Support email account, which Insider reviewed, were also unsuccessful in reinstating the videos.
On the same day his VoiceOfThunder video was removed, September 7, the three videos on Mason’s main channel were restored without explanation.
YouTube confirmed to Insider that they’d been removed by accidental enforcement of the COVID-19 policy. The platform later restored the video on Mason’s second channel, telling Insider it had also been taken down in error.
YouTube told Insider its emails and tweets were not written by bots, but rather by humans who often select prewritten responses from a list to fit the sender’s question.
When Mason emailed YouTube’s partner-support email address, he began corresponding with someone who signed emails as “Peter.” Trying to confirm whether Peter was a human or a bot, Mason asked the sender to use the word “buttercup” in their following note.
Peter’s response did not include the word “buttercup.” Later, after the videos had been reinstated, Mason received a follow-up email from a sender named “Dawn.” Dawn reiterated that YouTube’s decision, which had already been reversed, was final.
She apologized for the inconvenience.