YouTube warns content creators to brace for impact as the COVID-19 pandemic will result in a substantial increase in accidental video removals. According to their latest community update, this is due to workers being forced to stay home from work in order to combat the spread of the virus, temporarily transitioning to a predominately A.I. moderated system sure to make mistakes often corrected by the human reviewers.
“We have teams at YouTube, as well as partner companies, that help us support and protect the YouTube community — from people who respond to user and creator questions, to reviewers who evaluate videos for possible policy violations,” the announcement reads. “These teams and companies are staffed by thousands of people dedicated to helping users and creators. As the coronavirus response evolves, we are taking the steps needed to prioritize the well-being of our employees, our extended workforce, and the communities where they live, including reducing in-office staffing in certain sites.”
In a rare moment of systemic self-awareness, YouTube acknowledged this transition will result in removing videos “that may not even violate policies,” whereas promotions and recommendations features will also see reduced activity due to further staff isolation. In a separate blog post, YouTube’s parent company Google announced its plan to reduce staff across the board and reduce work shifts, all to increase the space between workers in their normal areas. YouTube provided no information on whether appeals will be processed during this time, suggesting delays and an inevitably heavy backlog of unaddressed cases, especially if the ship is effectively left on autopilot, the crew is severely outnumbered and there is no captain in charge.
On the plus side, YouTube has also said they’re withholding issues on community guidelines strikes, meaning channel removals are currently off the table with the exception of videos featuring “high confidence violations”. Although the explanation of this was vague, it’s safe to say this relates more to the detection of spam and porn — where YouTube’s bots use text, image, and video analysis to assess cases with high accuracy results — rather than the more complex issues requiring human judgment. This should give users some relief in the event they’ve been falsely flagged, limiting the appeals backlog to videos stuck in limbo rather than the channels themselves. It’s at least an improvement from trying to run the business as usual in such dire circumstances.
After all, it appears every single news story has some involvement with either the Coronavirus pandemic or its sparking of a potential economic collapse. YouTube is no exception, such as their recent decision allowing all content creators to monetize coronavirus coverage despite its advertising guidelines on “sensitive events”. As explained by Sarah Perez of TechCrunch, the policy was designed to “protect advertisers” from being associated with “exploitative videos capitalizing on some sort of human tragedy for views”, such as mass shootings, natural disasters, and health epidemics, which conveniently targets independent media over the mainstream.
Nevertheless, YouTube’s CEO Susan Wojcicki revealed this two-tier approach was broken as the topic was “now an important part of the everyday conversation” rather than some one-off, freak of the week, exploitable news bulletin. If YouTube continues this accidental censorship, however, don’t expect content creators to be lining up for the blood, sweat, and tears of their work to be locked behind the bureaucratic backlog. As platforms like Google hold a staggering 73% market share of all online video content through YouTube, with billions of users across the globe, there’s no question the platform has a responsibility not just to its employees’ safety, but the safety of the online info-sphere that’s too big to call in sick.
YouTube has shown some initiatives towards fixing its systems, such as granting creator assistance through hiring political consultants and a newly simplified video reply option for appeals, but incremental reforms mean little in the face of a global pandemic. Sure, we can grant the catalyst is outside of YouTube’s control, yet it doesn’t change how its centralization will only exacerbate anxieties for creators moving forwards, whether it’s leaving the news unprofitable, unviewable, and the broader population uninformed on how to combat the virus — exactly when we need the fourth estate the most.
In turn, creators will instead have to carefully consider their topics, thumbnails, and words as to best manipulate YouTube’s deeply flawed content algorithms, whereas the brains behind their operations are left home isolated without any means to administrate billions across the world. “We recognize this may be a disruption for users and creators,” the statement concludes, “but know this is the right thing to do for the people who work to keep YouTube safe and for the broader community. We appreciate everyone’s patience as we take these steps during this challenging time.”