In the aftermath of Google’s recent firing of James Damore, much of the criticism of the company has focused on its utterly hypocritical and alarming approach to free political speech by perceived political enemies, particularly on sites like YouTube, where videos featuring disfavored political views may soon be placed in a digital no-man’s land.
Conservatives and right-leaning YouTube commentators have cried bloody murder, and rightly so. However, while a focus on this is encouraging and entirely appropriate, it completely understates the scope of Google’s willingness to crack down on free speech on YouTube in a misguided attempt to subject the website to the constipated, sanitized standards of “advertiser friendliness.” One case study in particular suffices to illustrate this problem – namely, the case of horror fiction channel “Chilling Tales for Dark Nights.”
For those not familiar, “Chilling Tales for Dark Nights” is a channel wherein talented voice actors, both of the amateur and semi-professional variety, read horror fiction out loud while accompanied by music and sound effects, in a style that combines audiobooks with radio plays. The channel has absolutely no political orientation that can be detected in any way: in fact, to this author’s knowledge, no story that even mentions politics in passing can be found among its vast archives. Furthermore, this is not an issue of copyright infringement, as “Chilling Tales” seeks permission from all authors whose stories it narrates that are not already in the public domain.
Nevertheless, if one takes a look at the channel’s Facebook fan page, one observes a troubling saga illustrated through multiple posts detailing their Kafkaesque run-ins with YouTube’s content policing system. Which is a nice way of saying that literally every video on the channel has been demonetized for not being “advertiser friendly.” The criteria used for this determination appear to be entirely illusive, since no amount of changing the video descriptions, or tags, alters whether the videos are deemed advertiser friendly. Further, videos with titles that reference horror video games such as the cult classic “Five Nights at Freddy’s,” are considered so offensive as to be worthy of being shut down. In other words, apparently, YouTube so wants to sanitize its site that it is willing to shut down the functional equivalent of an audiobook production company for producing content that is too dark or horror-tinged, politics or no politics.
Until recently, one could have argued that this was the fault of overzealous AI. However, the channel has since managed to get one of their videos reviewed by actual human beings, and YouTube has confirmed that yes, audiobooks of horror stories are not “advertiser friendly,” and thus that yes, they do plan to Bowdlerize their entire site. Moreover, even if the flagging had been the fault of AI, “Chilling Tales” has no way to repeal because the only videos that are eligible to be reviewed have to first get 1,000 videos a week. In other words, the vast majority of videos on the channel are blocked indefinitely with no recourse. This might not seem all that terrible, but to a channel with 800 videos, the occasional ad revenue from all those old videos has a habit of adding up. Now, “Chilling Tales” has made its plan to leave YouTube for another platform clear.
It hardly needs mentioning that YouTube’s Hays Code-esque terms of advertiser friendliness are vastly more extreme than even most TV companies. Horror-themed fare such as Criminal Minds, American Horror Story, Penny Dreadful, Dexter, Channel Zero, and any number of other shows, have historically all been able to draw advertisers. Moreover, even if the case of a horror audiobook channel doesn’t strike your fancy, the “Chilling Tales” Facebook page may have uncovered at least one more victim of Google’s prudishness: a sport-fishing channel whose videos were flagged as “animal torture.” It’s almost like Google wants to reduce all YouTube content to Disney movie level inoffensiveness.
More menacingly for Google, though, is what this crackdown reveals about their own attitude when it comes to content on their site. For years, Google and other sites have used Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which indemnifies them against lawsuits over actions by their users, as a shield from liability. Yet, as the blacklisting of even apolitically “dark” platforms shows, Google keenly feels responsibility for the content YouTube users produce, and cares enough to police them relentlessly. This rather cuts against their legal defense that these are just users over whom they have no control.
Which is to say that, if Google wants to continue to enjoy protection from lawsuits over the actions of its users, then it should practice what it preaches and stop trying to take responsibility for its users. Stop dangling advertiser money as a carrot, and stop using overzealous deplatforming measures as a cudgel. If you’re going to pretend that YouTube and other Google services are an anarchic Wild West, then let them be just that, and protect their right to produce artistic work and get paid for it, provided that work can find an audience.
All of which is to say, that in blowing the whistle on their Kafkaesque treatment, “Chilling Tales” has inadvertently told the most terrifying story in its repertoire: the story of how Google’s chilling effects can make sites go dark.