YouTube Unsure How To Gracefully Step Out Of QAnon Quagmire
Last week, Facebook announced it would be banning QAnon groups and profiles, while Etsy announced it would be banning QAnon themed tea cozies and what-have-you. Twitter has already taken steps to tamp down the conspiracy theory, including banning several major accounts and keeping QAnon-themed hashtags from trending.
But what is YouTube doing?
On Monday, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki spoke to CNN's Poppy Harlow about what the site is doing to stop the conspiracy from spreading.
"We're looking very closely at QAnon," Wojcicki said. "We already implemented a large number of different policies that have helped to maintain that in a responsible way." [...]
Wojcicki pointed to changes made to YouTube's recommendation system, which she said have reduced viewership of QAnon content by more than 80%. She said "a lot" of QAnon-related content would be classified in what YouTube calls "borderline content" -- which doesn't explicitly break its rules.
"We also have already removed a lot of it, in terms of hundreds of thousands of videos because it could violate other parts of our policies: hate, harassment, Covid information," Wojcicki said. "There's been quite a lot of videos that have been taken down or the views have been reduced." [...]
While Wojcicki was being cagey, she's not entirely wrong. There are a whole lot of people out there spreading QAnonsense without even having the slightest idea about QAnon itself, which is part of what makes it difficult to rein in at this point. A lot of it is particularly vague as well. "Save The Children" is the name of a legitimate foundation that actually helps children. "Save The Children" is also a QAnon derived movement of people who think that children are being sex trafficked in Wayfair cabinets. It is also an extremely vague phrase that could be used to describe a number of general causes. Child sex trafficking is also a real issue, just not in the way these people think it is.
So it's not entirely uncomplicated.
Harlow asked Wojcicki about the hesitation to ban QAnon on YouTube, especially as the FBI has called followers a potential domestic terror threat. She did not provide a clear answer.
"I think with every policy, it has to be defined very clearly. Like what does that exactly mean, a QAnon group exactly?" Wojcicki said. "That's a kind of thing that we would need to put in terms of the policies and make sure that we were super clear. So we are continuing to evolve our policies here. It's not that we're not looking at it or we don't want to make changes.
"I think the way to approach it is by actually having the policies implemented in the right way. And our platform is very different from how Facebook works. And so I think each of us will take an approach that makes the most sense for our platforms," she added.
Of all of the social media sites, YouTube is likely the worst for conspiracy crap. As we all know, when conspiracy weirdos say they've "done their own research" it usually involves having watched the YouTube videos of equally disturbed people. I actually don't know how they do it because, let me tell you, I have tried and that shit is boring as hell and usually about four hours long.
However, as someone who has been watching all of this unfold for a long time, I'm not certain that an explicit ban of QAnon themed videos would really work all that well, given how sprawling the theory has become. It's also likely that something about banning a certain topic rather than a specific behavior might rub people the wrong way.
The better way to go may be to address the root of the problem instead — a solution that will also address similar issues, as well as conspiracies that no one has even thought of yet. A solution that will also, perhaps, seem more fair.
The problem with QAnon isn't just that what they believe is incorrect, but that it is defamatory, which means it's not actually free speech. Lots of people believe untrue or, at least, unprovable things — but the thing that makes QAnon so dangerous is that they are accusing people of very serious crimes. Crimes like murdering babies in order to drink their blood to get high. If the people they are accusing cared enough to bother, or weren't concerned about Streisand-effecting themselves if they bothered, they would have very legitimate cases for defamation.
The standard for libel when it comes to public figures is high and requires actual malice, which means that they have to prove that the person libeling them did so "with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." It wouldn't meet the first part, as these people do sincerely believe that every batshit thing they say is true, but it would meet the second, because they absolutely are acting with reckless disregard for the truth and in fact just making up things that they want to be true.
Were YouTube to institute a ban on videos that could constitute libel, that would get at the root of the problem. It would also make it more difficult for damaging conspiracy theories to follow in its footsteps — so instead of playing whack-a-mole with wacky conspiracy theories as they pop up, or appearing to play favorites with said wacky conspiracy theories, they can just deal with it head on.
Now, watching every single video on YouTube would be pretty much impossible, but through a system of user reporting, doing just a slight bit of research on who the major players here are, and implementing more changes to their "recommended videos" algorithm, they can do, well, something more than they've been doing.
Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse