YouTube is ‘looking into’ complaints that it unfairly censors LGBT videos
Robert Kyncl, YouTube Chief Business Officer, speaks as YouTube unveils "YouTube Red," a new subscription service, in 2015.
YouTube’s "Restricted Mode" viewing option filters out "inappropriate content." It is designed for family viewing and is also used at some libraries and other public spaces with internet access as an automatic filter.
But as several prominent YouTubers discovered recently, some of the things hidden from view when the filter is turned on are a bit baffling. Things like an LGBT couple reading their wedding vows to each other, a straightforward makeup tutorial for trans women, and one of YouTube’s own "spotlight" videos celebrating Pride month.
Those filtered videos, along with many, many others discovered by LGBT YouTubers over the past several days, led many to accuse the platform of censoring its LGBT creators. And so far, the YouTube community at large is not satisfied with YouTube’s responses to their concerns.
Tyler Oakley, who has more than 8 million subscribers, noticed last weekend that a recent video of his on "8 Black LGBTQ+ Trailblazers Who Inspire Me" was unavailable with the filter turned on. He urged his fans to "actively check on all LGBTQ+ creators you’re subscribed to & continue to support their content."
Hank Green was a bit more straightforward with how the filter’s choices were being read:
"’YouTube Restricted’ is for a way for parents to block potentially offensive content. Apparently that includes the existence of gay people?"
A few hours after the likes of Green and Oakley began drawing attention to the filter, YouTube tweeted that it was "so proud to represent LGBTQ+ voices on our platform," and that Restricted Mode was intended to "filter out mature content for the tiny subset of users who want a more limited experience." The statement says that some LGBTQ+ content is available with the filter on, but not some "videos that discuss more sensitive issues."
"We regret any confusion this has caused and are looking into your concerns," the statement adds. Green responded to that statement by asking YouTube to suspend the filter, presumably until the problem is resolved. Other well-known creators were similarly unsatisfied.
One tweeted: "If they’re a tiny subset then why are you catering your platform to them. I’m sorry dad but this is not only vague but seems like a lie."
For YouTubers, even incremental changes in how the site displays their videos can became major rallying points of outrage. It is, after all, their livelihoods.
In the fall, YouTube started to alert creators when their videos were demonetized for potentially drawing complaints from advertisers, instead of burying those notifications deep in an analytics dashboard. And although the policy itself wasn’t new, the change triggered a round of outrage among creators, once they started to get a better sense of which of their videos fell afoul of YouTube’s advertiser guidelines. YouTube’s policy of removing ads from videos that cover "controversial or sensitive subjects and events," for instance, was alarming to creators whose channels include news coverage.
The demonetization outrage raised two questions that reappear in the discussion about YouTube’s filter: How does the company define and identify "controversial" or "offensive" content in the first place, and why isn’t YouTube more transparent about these processes with creators and their fans?
For LGBT YouTubers, the Restricted Mode’s filter drew ire for potentially restricting their ability to reach LGBT youth with their videos — a mission that is a core message for many of the community’s most popular creators.
"No one’s really sure how it’s working, but we know it has some sort of targeted effect for LGBT individuals," said YouTuber Rowan Ellis in a video that drew attention to the filter last week. Ellis’ channel focuses on feminist and queer examinations of pop culture.
"This attitude that queer and trans people are inappropriate, just their existence is inappropriate to be talked about around children, is insidious, and it has a history here, and it is not based in any kind of reality," Ellis added, noting that about 40 of her videos were hidden under the filter. One of them is an essay about the lack of representation of LGBT couples in children’s programming, which is illustrated almost entirely by clips from TV shows and movies for kids.
One YouTuber, NeonFiona, posted side-by-side images showing her channel with and without Restricted Mode turned on. With the filter active, videos with the words "Lesbian," "Gay" and "Bisexual" were hidden, while other non-LGBT specific videos on dating and relationships — including one that discusses sex — were not.
NeonFiona told Gizmodo that, as one of many YouTubers trying to reach and help LGBT youth, she feels "restricting these videos makes it harder for these kids to find information they need and the community that they’ve been missing."
As outrage about the filter’s impact on LGBT content spread, fans in other YouTube communities were also surprised to learn the extent of the filter’s reach on their favorite channels.
Game Grumps, a popular gaming channel with 3 million subscribers, has exactly zero videos available for viewing with the filter on. Markiplier, another gaming YouTuber with 16 million subscribers, has just two videos that made it through the filter. Both of those channels do include plenty of videos that have 1) objectionable language and/or 2) scary or potentially graphic video game footage, so it would be understandable that a family-friendly filter would hit some of the videos on their channel.
Lilly Singh, who goes by ||Superwoman|| and has more than 11 million subscribers, does a lot of comedy sketches and isn’t exactly considered to be one of YouTube’s more controversial personalities. With the restricted filter on, I couldn’t view a video on her channel that announces the dates for her latest tour. The video is basically a parody of "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them," and we’re really struggling to see what might be potentially offensive about it. The filter also restricts a video of hers promoting a "bra toss challenge" which is much, much tamer than that sounds and is for a cause.
YouTube says its Restricted Mode filter restricts content that is "flagged by users and other signals," and is not "100% accurate." We’ll have to wait and see how, if at all, YouTube addresses the continued criticism of this feature from some of its most popular personalities.