YouTube is facing a new wave of criticism after their updated hate speech rules banning videos that promote Nazi ideology or Holocaust denial were put into effect in a way that resulted in educational videos about World War II and the Holocaust being blocked as well.
A report by The Guardian interviewed several British history teachers who had seen their video channels featuring archival films from the WWII period deleted, and attempts to upload new content blocked. As The Guardian noted, in previous generations, teachers would often show VHS tapes in their classrooms, but most now rely on online content like YouTube for supplemental material.
Scott Allsop, a teacher at an international school in Romania, had his entire YouTube channel with hundreds of clips on European history from the Norman conquest to the Cold War taken down. Many of the clips were originally featured in BBC documentaries that are no longer easily available, and original archival videos of speeches by Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, and other well-known Nazi officials.
YouTube, which is owned by Google, sent Allsop an automated email saying his channel had been deleted because it included “content that promotes hatred or violence against members of a protected group.”
“It’s absolutely vital that YouTube work to undo the damage caused by their indiscriminate implementation as soon as possible,” Allsop told The Guardian. “Access to important material is being denied wholesale as many other channels are left branded as promoting hate when they do nothing of the sort.”
After an appeal, Allsop was fortunately able to get his channel reinstated, but found the way YouTube’s automated process originally struck him down very frustrating, and contrary to YouTube’s stated goals for their anti-hate speech policies. YouTube’s appeals process is notoriously opaque, and users have a limited time to initiate an appeal or see their content permanently deleted.
“I fully support YouTube’s increased efforts to curb hate speech,” said Allsop, “but also feel that silencing the very people who seek to teach about its dangers could be counter-productive to YouTube’s intended goal.”
The MIT Technology Review reported on the controversy as well, noting that big tech companies have immense power as the “gatekeepers of material we consume online,” and the balance between allowing content and not promoting hate speech is a “fraught and complex” balance, with a very real “risk of unintended consequences when policies and algorithms are tweaked.”
Nonetheless, “[t]his complexity doesn’t excuse YouTube, which is owned by Google, of its responsibilities.”
As I wrote earlier this week, YouTube’s algorithm that recommends which videos you watch next has some critical vulnerabilities that cater to the prurient interests of pedophiles. It’s troubling that YouTube so far has refused to remedy some of the main issues, because to do so would likely impact their revenue.
It all comes back to the key point that these behemoth social media platforms have an enormous influence on the news, entertainment, and even educational content that we consume. My general tendency towards free market libertarianism recognizes YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc. are private companies, but the ongoing lack of transparency and clarity regarding their rules, and the impersonal, heavy-handed enforcement mechanisms that often operate using automated, difficult-if-not-impossible-to-appeal methods, is a growing problem that these companies have a moral duty to address.
For example, regarding YouTube, most social media platforms have ways to verify the identity of users. Allowing educators and students to verify their identities as associated with a college or school, perhaps through their institutional .edu email address, might be a solution that would clarify that a video of a Hitler speech is intended for educational purposes.
There is no way to purge Nazis from the internet entirely — Richard Jones-Nerzic, another history teacher quoted in The Guardian article noted that the comments sections of his videos were sometimes “hijacked by neo-fascists” — but purging the educational content that allows future generations to learn about the Holocaust is not the answer either. If we are serious about our commitment to the principle of “Never Again,” continuing to teach these historical periods is our solemn duty.
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Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter: @rumpfshaker.