YouTube Explains Why a Racist Steven Crowder Video Didn’t Violate Its Hate Speech Rules

A grotesque segment mocking Black farmers illustrates just how much bigotry a conservative star can get away with

Screenshot: YouTube

An overtly racist video by conservative YouTube star Steven Crowder did not violate YouTube’s hate speech policy, the company told OneZero, though it has been taken down for other reasons. The stance highlights the broad leeway for bigotry in the platform’s moderation rules, even as it cracks down on certain categories of content, such as Covid-19 misinformation.

In a March 16 livestream, Steven Crowder and his co-hosts on the show Louder With Crowder — which has 5.4 million subscribers — performed grotesque caricatures of Black people. The bits were part of a segment mocking provisions in the new U.S. Covid-19 relief bill that set aside $5 billion in aid for farmers of color, who have historically faced discrimination from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

After running a news clip describing the aid, Crowder launched into a buffoonish imitation of a Black man posing as a farmer to obtain the money. “I’ma buy a plow, man!” he shouted. “Barack Obama, mother — ! I’m the president of plowing that ass.”

Crowder’s co-host, Dave Landau, chimed in with a joke about slavery: “I thought the last thing [Black people] would want to do is be farmers. Wasn’t that a big problem for hundreds of years?” He later joked about planting “a Hennessy tree,” after which Crowder implied that the soil in Black communities would be contaminated with “meth.”

The segment sparked outrage beyond YouTube after the progressive media watchdog group Media Matters for America criticized and circulated the clip on Twitter. You can watch it here, though be prepared: It’s even dumber and uglier than I’ve been able to articulate in words. Yet it is also emblematic of a brand of “humor” that has flourished on YouTube even though — or perhaps precisely because — it’s too offensive for traditional media.

A racist spoof of “American Gothic” that appeared during Crowder’s segment.

YouTube took down the video Tuesday — but not because of the racist caricatures. It was because the livestream also featured mockery of Covid-19 and public officials who had warned about it, which YouTube found to violate its policies against Covid-19 misinformation. “We removed this video for violating our Covid-19 misinformation policy, which prohibits content claiming that the death rates of Covid-19 are less severe or equally as severe as the common cold or seasonal flu,” YouTube spokesperson Ivy Choi said in a statement.

As for the segment on Black farmers, Choi told OneZero it did not violate YouTube’s rules: “Our hate speech policy prohibits content promoting hatred against groups based on their race. While offensive, this video from the Steven Crowder channel does not violate this policy.”

That distinction illustrates just how high a bar YouTube has set for hate speech: You’re free to mock, caricature, and belittle people based on their race, just as long as you don’t come right out and say you literally hate them.

It’s a stance that helps to explain how a personality who often traffics in stereotypes and bigotry can thrive on YouTube by walking right up to the line. Despite what YouTube acknowledges has been a series of violations of its platform policies, Crowder has amassed a huge subscriber base there, remains a member in good standing of YouTube’s partner program, which allows creators to earn money from ads YouTube places on their videos, and has his channel recommended by the platform’s algorithms.

You’re free to mock, caricature, and belittle people based on their race, just as long as you don’t come right out and say you literally hate them.

On Wednesday, Crowder himself was absent from the show, but as Media Matters noted, his co-hosts led a livestream that featured mockery of Elliot Page’s transgender identity and jokes about misgendering Page. “I got canceled yesterday, now I gotta worry about her penis,” Landau said, as if Page’s identity were something he was forced to discuss rather than a topic he chose as comedic material. The livestream also included a guest appearance from Crowder’s father, who suggested that the destruction of Native American societies was inevitable because they were incapable of advancement.

YouTube did not comment on whether it would take action against Wednesday’s segment, which remained available Thursday with a content warning and had been viewed close to 700,000 times, but a representative said the company would take a look at it.

None of this is out of the ordinary for Louder With Crowder. After a series of homophobic segments in 2019 targeting Vox personality Carlos Maza, YouTube initially stood by Crowder, saying that his comments were “hurtful” but didn’t constitute policy violations. The company then reversed course and suspended him from its partner program, citing a “pattern of egregious actions” that “harmed the broader community.” Crowder was allowed to keep posting videos for a wide audience but was prevented from directly monetizing them via ads on YouTube.

Prominent figures on the right pilloried YouTube for the decision. Fox News host Tucker Carlson accused it of “censorship.” Sen. Ted Cruz urged the company to “stop playing God and silencing voices you disagree with” and warned, “this will not end well.” He later cited YouTube’s demonetization of Crowder in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing as an example of Google’s power.

In August 2020, YouTube reinstated Crowder in its partner program, claiming he had “[taken] steps to address the behavior that led to his suspension and demonstrated a track record of policy-compliant behavior.”

Addressing Crowder’s March 16 video, YouTube says its systems flagged the video at the point of upload and immediately blocked it from running ads, though the company did not specify what had triggered the flagging. YouTube later took the video down altogether, this time explicitly in response to the Covid-19 misinformation.

YouTube told OneZero it also sent Crowder’s channel a warning under its “three strikes” policy — apparently in response to the Covid-19 misinformation, though the company declined to clarify. Under that policy, a channel typically gets one warning before its first strike, which typically results in a one-week suspension. Three strikes in the same 90-day period result in a lifetime ban. While YouTube didn’t make this clear, it seems that Crowder qualified for only a “warning” because his previous policy violations had occurred more than 90 days prior.

The takedown may have helped to short-circuit the burgeoning controversy over the segment on Black farmers. While the clip sparked outrage on YouTube, brief stories about the video in Bloomberg and the Verge focused more on the takedown than the company’s apparent tolerance of racism. YouTube, like other online platforms, has generally shown more willingness to aggressively police Covid-19 misinformation than other types of false, misleading, or offensive content perhaps because they find it easier to defend such decisions as objective rather than political.

The platform’s inherent permissiveness has also helped to make YouTube hospitable to people who are shut out of mainstream media for good reason.

It seems noteworthy, however, that racism alone — even when YouTube acknowledges that it’s “offensive” — does not seem to run afoul of the rules of YouTube’s partner program. There’s a clear parallel to YouTube’s initial defense of Crowder’s homophobic segments in 2019, which it acknowledged were “hurtful” but said did not rise to the level of “hate speech.” In that case, it ended up essentially inventing new rules to justify demonetizing him in order to stem the backlash. I wrote at the time that it laid bare the one true rule of online content moderation: If a decision becomes too controversial, change it.

Part of YouTube’s value proposition has always been to offer a platform to creators of all kinds who lack a mainstream-media megaphone. That has resulted in huge amounts of creative and useful content, filling all sorts of niches that traditional outlets might never have supported. But the platform’s inherent permissiveness has also helped to make YouTube hospitable to people who are shut out of mainstream media for good reason.

A segment like Crowder’s — or PewDiePie’s 2017 Nazi jokes or Logan Paul’s infamous 2018 “suicide forest” video — would be unlikely ever to make it to air on traditional channels, which are accustomed to being held accountable for their content. But YouTube, by largely disavowing editorial responsibility for what its users post, has helped make stars out of such controversial personalities, profitably filling an unmet market demand for unfiltered chauvinism.

Senior Writer, OneZero, at Medium

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