Free speech advocates who warned of the predictable consequences of allowing powerful tech companies to police online discourse seized on YouTube's attempt Wednesday to purge hate speech from their video platform after creators performing public service journalism and education were swept up in the effort.
"Apparently, creating and implementing vague, arbitrary censorship standards on the fly in response to mob demands and then purging people en masse end up suppressing and punishing many voices that censorship advocates like. Who could have guessed this would happen?"
Wednesday's purge came after days of sustained criticism over YouTube's handling of bigoted content produced by fringe alt-right commentator Steven Crowder that targeted Vox media personality Carlos Maza. After nearly a week of online outrage, YouTube demonetized Crowder's channel and then launched a site-wide cleanup of what the company defined as hate speech and targeted harassment.
But the purge also caught journalists and historians up in its wake as the tech giant's heavy-handed response to Crowder's harassment didn't allow for context in most of the content.
The most prominent of those voices swept up in the purge thus far is Ford Fischer, a video journalist who reports on extremism in U.S. politics on his YouTube page, News2Share.
Fischer's page was demonetized Wednesday at 1:25 PM for promoting "harmful or hateful content," though what that content was is unclear, he told Common Dreams.
"Their explanation was extremely vague and offered no specifics," said Fischer. "I haven't heard from them since then."
Youtube removed two videos six minutes prior to the demonetization move, said Fischer. One of the pair featured a Holocaust denier being yelled at by protesters on either side of a protest at AIPAC. Fischer believes it was removed "because one person in it was a Holocaust denier" with no consideration of context.
"What Youtube pretends not to understand is the difference between content that shows a Holocaust denier and content that denies the Holocaust," said Fischer.
The other Fischer video removed featured comments from neo-Nazi Mike Enoch in a speech introducing Richard Spencer to a crowd of white nationalists at the Lincoln Memorial.
Fischer acknowledged that the videos include offensive language and themes. But, he said, that doesn't mean they're being endorsed by him—and, in the case of Enoch, Fischer was covering a news event.
"This content is evidently really important to understanding the complicated political moment we find ourselves in," said Fischer.
That lack of understanding context was also on display when YouTube deleted historical content featuring images and video of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler that had been uploaded for educational purposes by teachers. The material, which was intended to educate the public on the dangers of fascism, instead was caught up in YouTube's erasure of content.
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In comment to The Guardian, teacher Scott Allsop, who had his material removed over the last 24 hours, said that YouTube's heavy-handed tactics were causing more harm than good.
"It's absolutely vital that YouTube work to undo the damage caused by their indiscriminate implementation as soon as possible," Allsop said. "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."
As news of YouTube's decision and the consequences for creators like Fischer spread online, a number of free speech advocates criticized the company and warned of the potential for a crackdown on the virtual public square by actors not constrained by the law and emboldened by shortsighted public support.
Progressive journalist Rania Khalek, herself no stranger to deplatforming, opined on Twitter that the purge could hurt independent journalists and media outlets.
"It's interesting to me how mainstream media people are often insisting that we must do this to purge the far right, but it always ends up hurting independent journalists and leftists," said Khalek. "Almost like those mainstream media folks want social media companies to erase their alternative media competition."
The Intercept's Glenn Greenwald cited Fischer's case as a prime example of why actions like YouTube's purge are always destined to hurt those who don't deserve it.
"Apparently, creating and implementing vague, arbitrary censorship standards on the fly in response to mob demands and then purging people en masse end up suppressing and punishing many voices that censorship advocates like," said Greenwald. "Who could have guessed this would happen?"
In his comments to Common Dreams, however, Fischer was circumspect about where the lines need to be drawn.
"Facebook, Youtube, and Twitter are private companies," said Fischer. "Traditionally, we think of them as having the free speech right to allow or disallow whatever they like."
That presents the question, said Fischer, of whether or not the companies have total discretion in policing the speech on their platform, or if those tech companies are now part of the public square—especially given their influence on elections and political discourse.
"Do these elements make them a public square, worthy of free speech rights for users?" wondered Fischer. "I struggle to answer that myself."