Why YouTube Keeps Demonetizing Videos of the Hong Kong Protests

The platform’s ‘advertising-friendly’ content rules are hurting creators trying to cover important global events

Credit: Vivek Prakash/Getty Images

AsAs protests rage in Hong Kong, news coverage and video footage of the demonstrations have been heavily censored in mainland China, as you might expect from an authoritarian state that tightly controls its media. But some footage of the protests has also been deemed sensitive by a more surprising source: Google-owned YouTube.

Creators of at least two Hong Kong-based YouTube channels covering the demonstrations say that videos, and even whole channels, have been “demonetized” by the tech platform. That means YouTube won’t run ads next to their content, and thus the creators can’t make money from its advertising program.

Demonetization is notably the same step that YouTube took against right-wing comedian Stephen Crowder last month in response to a backlash against his homophobic comments about a gay Vox employee, Carlos Maza. While it isn’t always intended as punishment, it can certainly feel like that to creators who depend on the platform for revenue, and YouTube itself seems to have used it in that way in a June 5 announcement about its plan to tackle hate speech.

Two channels that have been affected, according to their creators, are China Uncensored and Hong Kong Free Press, both of which have been regularly posting videos of the protests, alongside other news coverage and commentary. Both have since had monetization reinstated on some or all of their content, with some of the changes coming shortly after inquiries to YouTube from OneZero.

That YouTube is limiting videos publicizing Hong Kong’s historic protest movement might sound like a nefarious conspiracy, given China’s anger at the protests and Google’s recent efforts to reenter the Chinese market. (Google had shut down its censored Chinese search engine in 2010 in response to cyberattacks and hacks of Chinese human rights activists’ Gmail accounts.) In fact, it’s something more complex: an example of how YouTube’s efforts to please advertisers can end up disincentivizing the creation of videos that tackle important news events.

First, to put the obvious conspiracy theory aside: There’s zero evidence and no good reason to believe that Google is somehow trying to appease China by intentionally suppressing coverage of the protests. A search for “Hong Kong protest” on YouTube yields plenty of results, including both live and professionally produced videos by major news publishers, some of which include advertisements from corporate brands such as Revlon. Even the creators who spoke with OneZero said they don’t believe YouTube is demonetizing their videos for political reasons.

Rather, it appears that YouTube’s automated systems for determining which content is “advertiser-friendly” are prone to flagging certain videos related to the Hong Kong protests, for reasons that might seem obvious but on closer inspection are hard to pin down.

Shelley Zhang is a co-host and writer for the New York-based YouTube channel China Uncensored, which uses news satire (think: Daily Show) to both publicize and criticize the actions of the Chinese government. (The show’s main host is Chris Chappell.) Zhang said the channel, which launched in 2012, gets about 5 million views per month on YouTube, accounting for the bulk of its audience. China Uncensored also produces a 30-minute TV show for the New York City-based network New Tang Dynasty Television (NTD TV), which was founded by practitioners of Falun Gong, a spiritual sect that has been banned in mainland China and persecuted by Beijing. (Falun Gong is heavily critical of the Chinese government — the ultimate target of the Hong Kong protests — but Zhang says China Uncensored is independent and not funded by NTD TV. Rather, it makes money from Patreon and YouTube ads.)

Read literally, the company’s guidelines would seem to rule out ads on huge swaths of what is generally considered mainstream news coverage.

China Uncensored has been on the front lines of the Hong Kong protests, streaming live video such as “Live in Hong Kong 9: Police vs. Protesters” as well as produced segments such as “Police Crack Down on Un-Independence Day” and “The Fight for Hong Kong: Emily Lau.” Zhang told me that YouTube initially seemed like the perfect platform for the venture, giving it the ability to reach a broad audience without being beholden to a major media company. “It allowed us to determine what we thought was important to cover without worrying about whether certain issues, for example, human rights issues, were too sensitive to talk about,” she said.

That changed after a 2017 YouTube policy shift that was known to creators as the “Adpocalypse.” Facing a boycott from brands upset about their ads running against edgy or even abhorrent videos, YouTube enacted wide-ranging restrictions on the types of content that could be monetized. Some categories would be limited to ads from advertisers who had opted into edgy content, while others would be ineligible for advertising altogether.

Read literally, however, the company’s guidelines would seem to rule out ads on huge swaths of what is generally considered mainstream news coverage. Imagine your evening newscast stripped of any story whose topic includes “violence,” “harmful or dangerous acts,” “tobacco,” “firearms,” or “controversial issues and sensitive events.” Note further that YouTube’s explanation of that last category includes “war,” “death and tragedies,” “political conflicts,” “terrorism or extremism,” and “sexual abuse.” You’d be left with the local sports roundup, the winning lotto numbers, and weather report — assuming, one supposes, the weather isn’t causing any deaths or tragedies.

In practice, it’s clear that YouTube makes plenty of exceptions for news coverage. You can find ads on segments about ethnic cleansing in Myanmar to clashes between Israel and Hamas in the West Bank. But when pressed by OneZero to explain on what basis it makes those exceptions, YouTube declined to elaborate, except to clarify that videos of political protests are eligible for ads unless those protests include violence. That’s a tricky stance, given that many protest movements start off peaceful but escalate to include incidents of violence — as has happened in Hong Kong.

On June 16, China Uncensored posted a video called “Biggest Protest in Hong Kong’s History,” chronicling the massive demonstrations of the day before. It was quickly marked by YouTube with a yellow monetization icon, indicating that it was eligible for “limited or no ads.” (YouTube later clarified to me that it was eligible for limited ads, not fully demonetized.) Oddly, an earlier China Uncensored video featuring an interview with the Hong Kong pop star and pro-democracy activist Denise Ho was also demonetized by human review on the same day. While YouTube encourages creators to appeal automated demonetizations, spurring a human review, the decisions of its human review team are final and cannot be appealed.

Zhang tweeted her frustration:

I emailed Google public relations on June 17, asking why the videos had been demonetized. Google didn’t initially reply to me, but the next day Zhang heard back from YouTube saying that it had reversed its decision on the Denise Ho video. The Hong Kong protest video remained ad-limited, with YouTube citing its “sensitive events” policy. YouTube later reinstated that video to full monetization, as well.

Yet other videos by China Uncensored have continued to be demonetized or ad-limited shortly after they’re posted, Zhang said. Some of those have been reinstated on appeal, while others have not. One that Zhang said was confirmed as demonetized on human review was a video called “Very Violent Hong Kong Protests,” a satirical segment that, in fact, depicts the opposite of what its title suggests. The video shows China Uncensored host Chris Chappell “braving” the protest crowds to show how calm and polite the demonstrators are.

It’s true that YouTube gives video creators other avenues to monetize their work. But for those accustomed to making money from ads, it isn’t easy to pivot to a different business model.

In a statement to OneZero on July 3, YouTube said, “We have clear policies that govern what videos may show ads, and content that features violence is not suitable for advertising. Sometimes our systems get it wrong when deciding which videos can show ads, which is why we encourage creators to appeal when they encounter issues. We also offer creators a variety of ways to monetize their content outside of advertising, including Channel Memberships, Super Chat, and Merchandise.”

It’s true that YouTube gives video creators other avenues to monetize their work. But for those accustomed to making money from ads, it isn’t easy to pivot to a different business model. (How many news networks covering tragedies could succeed through merchandising?) Zhang also told me that she noticed videos that have been partially or fully demonetized seem to find significantly smaller audiences, and to affect her channel’s visibility overall.

A YouTube support video clarifies that its demonetization system is separate from its search and recommendation system, but that the search and recommendation system draws on some of the same signals to decide which videos might be inappropriate for wide audiences.

Hong Kong Free Press, a nonprofit newspaper founded by British expat and activist Tom Grundy in 2015, has undergone similar frustrations. It complained in a June 28 tweet that its YouTube channel had been demonetized for months, its long-standing appeal unresolved. Grundy also tweeted at YouTube support on June 27, getting a response from the company that it would look into it. On July 2, Grundy tweeted that his channel had been remonetized.

Grundy told me in a July 3 email that he suspected the issue had to do with automated algorithms, and not any conscious effort to censor his work. He added that he’d prefer to “move on” rather than dwell on it, but said he thought my inquiries about China Uncensored must have helped in getting YouTube’s attention. YouTube declined to comment on the record as to whether the press attention had spurred it to take a closer look at either channel.

From a business standpoint, it’s understandable that YouTube would want to be able to assure advertisers that their ads won’t show up alongside videos depicting things like sex, graphic violence, or hate speech. The scale of its platform means that manually reviewing every video would be staggeringly resource-intensive and time-consuming. Its use of automated systems to identify videos that seem to contain violence, or are sensitive for other reasons, makes sense given those constraints. And it’s clear that it does use human review to reverse at least some of those decisions.

And yet, for a platform that bills itself as giving people a voice — and often does just that — it’s troubling that coverage of major protests against an authoritarian regime would be deemed inappropriate by its advertising system, and that the company’s own guidelines fail to make clear where exactly it draws the line. Moreover, Zhang and Grundy’s experiences suggest that appeals from small to midsize creators can go unanswered until or unless YouTube senses a potential PR problem.

YouTube has faced mounting criticism for prioritizing viewer growth and engagement over content moderation. Part of its response has been to shift resources toward more traditional, sanitized content at the expense of the smaller creators on whose work the platform was built.

Automatically demonetizing broad categories of content, without giving careful thought to fine distinctions like the one between gratuitous violence and coverage of news events, might be a cost-effective way to mollify the company’s advertisers. But when the effect is to discourage creators from making videos about pro-democracy protests, it suggests that YouTube still cares less about getting content moderation right than it cares about protecting its bottom line.

Senior Writer, OneZero, at Medium

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