The YouTube censorship controversy: How YouTube's ad-pocalypse is silencing creators

4 minutes to read
Zoë Gielen

YouTube's ad system is being boycotted by major brands; as a result YouTube started silencing their 'controversial' creators.

The ad-pocalypse

YouTube is one of the largest and most used video based platforms in the world. Since 2005, YouTube provides a platform for creators to upload their videos onto and share them with people from all over the globe. Nowadays, there are many bigger and smaller creators that make a living off of their YouTube channels and videos. There are two main ways to make revenue from YouTube videos. The first one is to have your video sponsored. In this case, the creator will mention the sponsor or a certain product or service in some part of the video. Most of the time, creators will mention the fact that the video is sponsored, but there are also creators who advertise products, but make it seem as though they are not trying to sell you something. The second, and by far the most common way to earn money from YouTube videos, is the YouTube ad-system. This is where advertisers pay money to run their ads before the beginning of YouTube videos with a relatively large audience. For the creators, this basically means the more views, the more money in their bank account. This seems like a straightforward system, but last March, an interesting issue surfaced.

YouTube, as one of the biggest platforms out there, is endangering a healthy online public debate by censoring its creators 

In March, YouTube started to get some complaints about their ad-system. It turned out that YouTube was getting ad revenue from extremist and hate videos, as well as videos with extremely graphic content of the tragic fate of war victims and refugees. The YouTube algorithm that determines the placing of the ads, was not making any distinction between videos that were ‘brand friendly’ and videos that were clearly not. As a result, a number of large companies like BBC, Starbucks, Volkswagen and McDonalds, among others, immediately withdrew their ads from the platform, causing a major drop in ad revenue for YouTube. The boycott by these major brands was soon labelled the ad-pocalypse. Not only did YouTube lose a lot of income, the creators that make use of the platform were the ones that were hit the hardest, as they rely on the monetization of their videos to make a living.


How YouTube is silencing its controversial creators

In response to this ad-pocalypse, YouTube quickly started to make changes in their monetization policy. The algorithm was adjusted and more manual control would take place. However, new complaints started to come in. The next issues was that many creators who were discussing slightly controversial topics found that their videos were labelled as ‘not advertiser friendly’ and thus demonetized. This went as far as LGBTQ+ creators and news outlets being demonetized by YouTube. This is where the ad-pocalypse becomes worrying. YouTube is basically censoring creators who make content that is not labelled as ‘family friendly’. Creators who are relying on ad revenue, are now forced to censor or adjust their content, or to find another platform to broadcast their ideas on.

Unfortunately, the commercialization of media, news outlets and other online and offline platforms, has been causing these issues for quite some time. Especially in the online space, where clicks equal dollars, platforms are serving us content that scores instead of content that is meaningful. In a new video, however, YouTube creator and entrepeneur Hank Green seems to be optimistic about the future:

[...] this has really squeezed creators who are making content that may be good, but may be not like super happy family funtime stuff. And again, it's like, is this worth it? [...] are we going to have to find other ways to turn the value we create into value we can spend? [...] If we are forced to deal with it, if the value proposition breaks, we will find -and we have already started to do this- new ways to support great content on the internet. [...] and YouTube and advertisers are going to have to be careful, because eventually they are going to need our eyeballs more than we need their pennies.

Like many Youtube users, I rely on YouTube as one of my sources for independent news outlets and I really appreciate the diversity of the creators on the platform. LGBTQ+ creators being labelled as ‘not family friendly’, is a very concerning development to me. Independent news outlets being silenced or forced to leave controversial topics alone, is also quite worrisome in these times of ‘fake-news’ and ‘post truth’. I rely on these news sources to form opinions and to get different perspectives on controversial topics. YouTube, as one of the biggest platforms out there, is endangering a healthy online public debate by censoring its creators. The commercialization of the media in general, is becoming a threat to the open debate that should characterize democratic social media. It will be interesting to see how and if creators will find more independent and open-minded platforms to broadcast their meaningful content. Like Hank Green, I am optimistic that this generation of young creators will find new and creative ways to provide us with the independent and quality content that we need to stay informed and active in the public debate.