The closing of Palestinian Media Watch channel is one example of how the website’s policies are inconsistent and only selectively enforced.
Justice Louis Brandeis of the US Supreme Court once said “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
This is often used to justify “more speech” as the only solution to “hate speech.”
In November, as parliamentarians and experts from over 40 countries gathered in Canada for the second meeting of the Interparliamentary Coalition for Combatting Anti-Semitism, there was a growing concern at rising anti-Semitism, and an increased acceptance that more than sunlight was needed in response.
At the gathering, I presented as part of an experts panel on hate speech online. One point I raised was the problem of YouTube videos that do not by themselves constitute hate, but which attract hateful comments.
An example I gave was a YouTube clip of Sacha Baron Cohen’s song “Throw the Jew Down the Well.”
The most popular comment on the video the morning I presented, as voted by YouTube viewers, read: “Lets [sic] genocide them by burning them! But this time, lets [sic] actually do it.”
Should Sacha Baron Cohen or YouTube take this clip down if this is what it inspires? Should the comments be closed to viewers? The answer is unclear, but allowing this to continue is not a good thing and seeing how popular it is leaves me feeling very uncomfortable.
THERE IS also a clear problem with hate groups, such as “theytnazism” on YouTube.
I reported this to YouTube in February, and on November 22 – 10 months later – it was still active. The group includes a “list of people we hate and we want to kill.” It was a short list of “1. Blacks, 2. Jews, 3. Indians.”
I then included it in a set of slides for a conference on anti-Semitism run by the World Zionist Organisation in France earlier this month and suddenly the group was gone. I doubt that was a coincidence, especially as the rest of my collection of similar groups (reported at the same time) are still active. One of these, with giant swastikas in the background, declares it is God’s will to murder all non-Aryans.
The problem is not that YouTube never steps in. The problem is they are liable to step in only when there is public exposure of content they wrongly ignored, or when political pressure is applied.
YouTube also seems to have started giving in to pressure to remove videos and channels that expose and educate against hate.
A few months ago, for example, efforts were made to shut down the YouTube presence of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). The institute provides the English-speaking world with insight into the Mideast media. Some of the exposure is not welcome by those who say one thing in English to a Western audience and another thing at home.
The MEMRI debacle seems to have been resolved, but YouTube is now going after Palestinian Media Watch (PMW) which fulfills a similar role, focused exclusively on the Palestinian media.
PMW monitors, translates and shares examples of incitement. It was PMW that exposed the use of a Mickey Mouse character inciting hate and violence on the Hamas TV children’s show “The Pioneers of Tomorrow.”
That story created shock waves around the world, leading to discussions in the Western mainstream media and at the UN of the link between incitement in the media and terrorism.
PMW’s violation appears to be that it was posting “hate material.”
There is no doubt that it was. However, like MEMRI, that material was not shared for the purpose of incitement, but to expose and counter the spread of hate. Some commentators have speculated that it is not the hate against Jews, Israelis and Americans – as shown in MEMRI and PMW videos – that is the problem, but rather the fact that the videos might cause a backlash against those promoting such hate.
Any argument that uses free speech to prevent the exposure of hate speech is inherently deeply flawed.
YouTube needs to get its act together.
What it has created is a haven for hate, devoid of sunlight. Its policy seems inconsistent, ineffective and only selectively enforced. It is working against community expectations and the public interest. Ignoring illegal content, while removing the very sunlight needed to expose those spreading hate, creates a volatile environment.
Social media is built on concepts of security and trust. When these start to go, opportunities for competitors are created. It may be too early to call this the beginning of the end for YouTube, but unless it gets its policies right, and properly enforces them, we may well see this megalith begin to slide downhill.
The writer is an expert in social media and online hate. He is director of the Community Internet Engagement Project and Co-Chair of the Online Anti-Semitism working group for the Global Forum to Combat Anti-Semitism.