This is a huge battle for free speech here on YouTube, at least for unbiased enforcement anyway! Go get ’em, Steven!
A year in YouTube’s penalty box worked out well for Steven Crowder.
Crowder—one of the most popular conservative voices on Google’s video site—was blocked from running advertisements on his channel in June 2019, after his sustained mockery of Carlos Maza, another YouTube personality, drew charges of homophobic harassment and sparked a large-scale debate over the limits of acceptable speech on the platform. Critics, including Google employees, called for YouTube to ban him altogether.
Instead, Crowder has been again making money from YouTube ads since August. He’s gained nearly a million subscribers since last summer, bringing his total over two YouTube channels to more than 5 million, and plays host to guests like Donald Trump Jr. His conflict with YouTube has also turned him into a symbol for some on the right who accuse Silicon Valley of anti-conservative bias. Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, held Crowder up in a Senate hearing last month as a victim of Google’s market power.
Two weeks after the hearing, Crowder invited Cruz onto his YouTube show to offer live commentary of the first presidential debate. Viewers got to see Crowder, decked out in a red, white, and blue boxing outfit, joke with Cruz about Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s supposed senility, often after watching pre-roll ads. The video drew more than 100,000 viewers that night—a bigger audience than YouTube coverage from NBC News, the Washington Post and the Guardian.
YouTube, like all social media platforms, is under enormous pressure to police its site for disinformation and inflammatory rhetoric in the run-up to the most divisive U.S. presidential election in decades. Crowder, 33, shows how hard that can be. He bills himself as a satirist, but walks right up to the line of what YouTube and its parent company, Alphabet Inc.’s Google, have promised to bury. Since June, Crowder has run videos with titles like “The COVID Death Count is Inflated,” “BLM is a Domestic Terrorist Organization” and “The Democrats’ Plan to Steal the Election!”
In past videos, Crowder has donned makeup to perform as a Black activist and a boorish caricature of an Asian man. Becca Lewis, a Stanford researcher who studies extremism on YouTube, said Crowder stays away from expressing white nationalism directly, but his channel “has some of the most overt racism of any of the shows I’ve looked at.” Crowder acknowledges that his work touches “third rail” topics, like Islam and LBGT rights, but argues he avoids vulgarity. “Our show is a strong PG-13,” he said. “It’s just that people are offended by certain topics.”
While people on the right cite Crowder as an example of YouTube’s censorship, Crowder doesn’t make those claims himself. In a recent interview with Bloomberg News, he said the company has made it clear to him they want “conservatives to feel welcome.” But he also says it hasn’t clearly communicated the violations that resulted in his ads suspension. “My issue is dishonest business practice,” said Crowder. “I will play the rules in their sandbox but they need to be consistent with them.”