YouTube has a notorious exploitation problem, and it continues to this day. Last month, the platform quietly rolled out a software update which spammed users with children’s videos in light of a new child abuse probe from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a report from Bloomberg confirms.
It seems it wasn’t just my own family who noticed random suggestions for Peppa Pig. A YouTube spokesperson revealed the teams “tweaked” their algorithms to curate content outside audience interests, claiming it was a deliberate effort to “give users the ability to find quality family content.”
In effect, YouTube buried certain channels in favor of others at the exact same time as the FTC began investigating the platform for malpractice over child safety. They gave no explanation as to what actually constituted an offense, so it was all left to the loose-cannon judgment of the admin bots or their privatized mechanics.
In another report from The Washington Post, it was revealed that the FTC was looking into YouTube’s data collection practices and failure to protect children from online predators, the result of several complaints made months ago by consumer groups, privacy advocates and political pressure from Capitol Hill. The FTC has refused to give comments to the press on its ongoing case.
Almost a year since #YouTubeWakeUp — an exposé which forced advertisers working with Disney, McDonald’s, Nestle, as well as Fortnite-developers Epic Games to withhold marketing funds after the discovery of soft-core child pornography being pushed through the algorithms — this whole big tech racket is finally coming into question from public oversight.
The platform, however, has been scrambling to reform itself from behind closed doors. After numerous scandals related to Google’s child data collection and sales, privacy breaches, questionable censorship, community harassment, surveillance, falsehoods, and potential radicalization, it was only a matter of time before people demanded true accountability.
YouTube’s version of accountability — whether we liked it or not — was to both cover their tracks and replace them with a fraudulent content-overload. As the propaganda saying goes, “if you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.” According to Bloomberg journalist Mark Bergen, this strategy was to “convince regulators that it isn’t violating the law” by somehow avoiding the site’s natural behavior. As the people wrote in the YouTube subreddit, “they’re just pushing this shit hard on literally the whole platform to grab as many kids’ views as they can.” The trick just didn’t work.
This isn’t to say YouTube and Google executives, including respective CEOs Susan Wojcicki and Sundar Pichai, are entirely wrong to adjust the platform’s flow of content, especially those with abuse. The platform is truly caught between a rock and a hard place: it is devoted to the almighty dollar while trying to mitigate the very scandals which provide such a lavish multi-billion-dollar income. While YouTube claims the site is not intended for children under the age of 13, Pew Research found its child network is the most profitable on the site. In addition, our publication found that Wojcicki admitted that her own underage children use the platform and discussed how they play into her oversight judgment.
“As the CEO of YouTube, I’ve seen how our open platform has been a force for creativity, learning and access to information,” Wojcicki stated in a pay-walled interview for The Daily Telegraph. “I’ve seen how activists have used it to advocate for social change, mobilize protests, and document war crimes. I’ve seen how it serves as both an entertainment destination and a video library for the world. I’ve seen how it has expanded economic opportunity, allowing small businesses to market and sell their goods across borders. And I’ve seen how it has helped enlighten my children, giving them a bigger, broader understanding of our world and the billions who inhabit it.”
Sadly, Wojcicki can’t acknowledge that she doesn’t just inhabit a world, but currently oversees one, given how a monopolized platform like YouTube manifests as an online public space. To arbitrarily change the means of information and entertainment, without any community engagement, while decisions are made behind closed doors in the conference rooms of selective elites - this forces the platform into a God-like social authority overseeing public discourse without much public inspection. That leaves users feeling cheated when their communal capital has suddenly gone haywire for uninteresting kid’s content. The affair just stinks of accountability dodging.
In the fallout of #VoxApocalypse, when YouTube just selectively decided who is and isn’t permissible, from conspiracy theorists to secular progressive pundits, we get little more than statements that changes to the platform’s conduct will be coming… eventually… maybe… if ever… as the same cycle of corporate interests takes precedence over legitimate judgment. Thousands of video creators rely on YouTube’s secretive content system to reach audiences in the new public square, but YouTube is an honest actor when it comes to handling its lavish economy. Now it’s trying to steer the watchdogs away from their scent.
“YouTube’s business model puts profits first, and kids’ well-being last,” said David Monahan of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, who spoke with the Post. “When we filed a COPPA complaint with the FTC a year ago, Google’s response was ridiculous — that YouTube is not a site for kids, when it’s actually the most popular children’s site on the Internet. We hope the FTC will act soon, and require YouTube to move all kids’ content to YouTube Kids with no marketing, no autoplay or recommendations, and strong protections for children’s privacy.”