YouTube’s Independent Creators Are Mad That They Can’t Say ‘Coronavirus’

To prevent the spread of misinformation, the platform has been prioritizing traditional news sources

Photo illustration. Images source: Viaframe/Getty

YYouTube, like other social networks, has sent home its contractor-staffed human moderation teams in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus. That means moderation decisions are increasingly left to an automated system that no one is really sure is up to the job. To make the job easier, YouTube has decided to prioritize what Susan Wojcicki, YouTube’s CEO, called in a letter to creators “authoritative sources” in any search terms related to coronavirus.

That has taken effect: Search the site now for “coronavirus” and you’ll mostly be served up clips from established news programs and publications. In the U.K., that means videos from the BBC, ITV, and the Guardian are presented high up in search results; in the U.S., you’ll see ABC News, CNN, MSNBC, and the Washington Post. YouTube has also stopped serving ads on most videos related to coronavirus, which means those videos don’t earn revenue for their creators.

As a result, creators who would ordinarily focus on news commentary have shied away from creating videos around coronavirus. Or, they’ve developed odd codes (like calling coronavirus “CV”) to try and subvert the new policy. Some of them say that the restrictions are hurting their ability to earn money from YouTube, which has not yet figured out how to moderate the type of independent content it encourages them to create.

“Giving high authority to the mainstream media and auto-demonetizing normal creators discourages YouTubers from talking about important news, and trains viewers to watch cable TV,” says Nerd City, a YouTuber with 840,000 subscribers whose videos comment on YouTube’s policies and creators, told OneZero. “This is the last thing YouTube should want.”

“It’s insulting to see YouTube treat all this legacy media as superior to endemic content in every way,” says Nerd City. “It clearly isn’t, and that’s why so many of us moved on from it years ago.”

YouTube responded to backlash from creators like Nerd City by allowing some videos from independent publishers to earn money, saying “we will enable ads for content discussing the coronavirus on a limited number of channels, including creators who accurately self-certify and a range of news partners,” referring to a program in which creators can flag their own videos as safe for advertisers, and that it would expand ads to other creators in the coming weeks.

Now some videos that mention coronavirus are allowed to run ads, but more aren’t, including those from two larger independent channels, H3H3 Productions and Phil De Franco.

“This is the last thing YouTube should want.”

Josh Pescatore, a former producer for the popular DramaAlert YouTube channel and the creator of the Pescatore News Network (PNN), has slowed production because he says he can’t find a way to make money under YouTube’s restrictions on coronavirus videos. Pescatore covers news and gossip around YouTube and the world of internet culture, but also provides everyday news commentary.

“Me and the team at PNN have almost completely given up on producing videos for the main channel at this point, because even the mention of the illness will demonetize the video,” he says. One video, where a PNN news host holds a bottle of Corona beer up to the camera as a joke triggered YouTube’s demonetization algorithm to flag the content as inappropriate, and therefore ineligible for ad revenue. “But we still need to inform our community,” he argues. Instead, he’s turned to Discord.

Smaller creators say they’re having trouble keeping up with changes. “This is YouTube,” says one owner of a channel with hundreds of thousands of subscribers that posts news commentary. “They make the rules; it’s my job to try and figure out what the hell they even are before they change again.”

YouTube’s digital community of medical professionals, many of whom had their videos demonetized and suppressed in search results, are more measured about the issues at hand. “I was quite happy to have all the Covid-19 videos demonetized,” says Rohin Francis, a British cardiologist who posts medical videos on YouTube. “I think it removes at least one incentive for the channels that churn out misinformation.”

While he acknowledges he’s in a lucky position as someone who earns a living away from YouTube, stemming the tide of false information is important, and YouTube’s position as the world’s second-most-visited website is an important battleground.

Still, in attempting to weed out the damaging videos, YouTube has inevitably disappeared some useful ones as well. Ob/Gyn physician Danielle Jones, who posts videos on YouTube under the name Mama Doctor Jones, carefully researches and reviews any information before sharing it publicly. Her videos about coronavirus are meant to provide factual information for those who are pregnant as the virus scythes its way around the world, and to support expectant mothers who have questions about how to bring their babies to term.

She’s a reputable resource, with more than 300,000 subscribers to her channel. Yet when she searched YouTube for videos around Covid-19 and pregnancy, all she got was TV news segments, including one that interviewed a doula. “I’m really sensitive to the fact that there’s not really a good answer to this challenge,” she says. “But I thought: ‘My gosh, this isn’t the most reliable way to get information.’”

UK-based freelancer for The Guardian, The Economist, BuzzFeed News, the BBC and more. Tell me your story, or get me to write for you: stokel@gmail.com

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