With internet giant YouTube becoming an increasingly dominant media player, more and more influencers are joining the platform. This has allowed diverse content creators, including celebrities such as renowned Korean fashion stylist Han Hye-yeon and actress Shin Sae-kyeong in Korea, to reach new audiences. At the same time, the surge in user-created content is not without its dangers. There has been a rise in clickbait videos containing incendiary and violent contents aimed solely at attracting views to generate more income. Provocative videos such as “the fire challenge” in which people set themselves alight after applying flammable liquids to their bodies have sparked complaints from YouTube content creators and users, claiming that the platform has not been regulating videos well. Following YouTube’s initial steps at video regulation, controversy has emerged over the platform’s content vetting policy.
The problem of YouTube’s inconsistent regulation system
The most recent controversy regarding the regulation of YouTube in Korea was related to a review video on a menstrual cup. YouTuber named “Hemtube” uploaded a video in July, talking about her experience of using menstrual cups, which are plastic or rubber cups that women can use as an alternative to pads or tampons during their periods. The video was deleted by YouTube
several hours after being uploaded on the grounds that its content may have evoked sexual curiosity among its viewers. As well as deleting the video, YouTube also issued a warning to Hemtube over the upload under the violation of the platform’s “nudity and sexual content” guideline.
According to the YouTube Help Center, sexually explicit content such as pornography is not allowed and videos touching fetish topics will be removed or age-restricted, depending on the severity of the content in question. However, videos containing nudity or other sexual content may be allowed if the primary purpose is educational, documentary, scientific or artistic, and are not gratuitously graphic.
Given this policy, the removal of Hemtube’s video raised questions from the audience because the video was educational in nature and addressed menstruation, which is never a “fetish” topic. Hemtube and her subscribers filed an appeal to YouTube Korea on the day the video was removed. This appeal was accepted and the warning against the Hemtube channel was cancelled the next day. However, the company made no official apology to the creator and her subscribers
and many viewers criticized the YouTube’s poor vetting system.
Such disputes over the content regulation of YouTube are happening worldwide. Early this year, a huge controversy was sparked over a footage uploaded by a U.S. actor and a YouTube celebrity, Logan Paul, which became known as the “suicide forest” incident. The video showed the dead body of a Japanese man who had committed suicide in a Japanese forest, along with Logan and his friends laughing in the scene and failing to take the matter seriously. The video was uploaded on Dec. 31, 2017, when Logan Paul had more than 15 million subscribers to his
The situation was escalated by the fact that the footage of the dead body was viewable by the public for an extended period of time because YouTube failed to remove the video immediately. After a massive backlash from viewers, Logan removed the video two days later and apologized on Twitter, saying “I didn’t do it for views… I did it because I thought I could make a positive ripple on the internet, not cause a monsoon of negativity. That’s never the intention… It won’t happen again. I love everyone. I believe in people.”
The video had been viewed more than six million times, causing it to be automatically featured on the YouTube trending page. YouTube issued a statement a week later saying that it had listened to the complaints and acknowledged that the actions of one creator can affect the entire YouTube community. The company pledged to share the steps it was taking to ensure that such
content will never be circulated again.
YouTube did not ban Logan Paul’s channel, but removed it from the Google Preferred ad program, which allows advertisers to pair with top performing videos, thus generating more revenue for creators.
However, changes to YouTube’s video vetting processes after the suicide forest incident have made the situation especially difficult for small YouTubers.
The new algorithm now flags more contents containing any “controversial” elements such as mental health, disabilities and LGBTQ topics. This has caused some YouTubers to face reduced revenue due to being removed from advertising partnerships because of their ostensibly controversial, but arguably educational content they are creating.
The new algorithm has also altered the arrangement of its subscription feed from displaying videos chronologically to prioritizing those that have been viewed longest by the largest number of people. YouTube said that its new search and discovery system aims to help viewers find videos they want to watch and maximize long - term viewer engagement and satisfaction. The company also stated that it is optional for the users to use its personalized feed function.
YouTube: A voice for profit or for people?
As more people engage with the world’s top online video-sharing platform, the introduction of the new medium via YouTube has attracted the attention of experts. While offering an effective tool to deliver one’s thoughts and messages, it still has some limitations. Not least, the issue of content regulation has recently affected the entire YouTube community and many have criticized the platform for its inconsistent and rather discriminative approach to content regulation. YouTube expert Dr. Fracesca Sobande, who lectures on marketing and advertising research at Edge Hill University in the United Kingdom, shared her insights about the current limitations of YouTube and ways to go beyond them.
Dr. Sobande shared that YouTube appears to have “democratized” media and cultural production processes by providing a global platform for individuals, particularly for those who have often been excluded from mass media because of their race, sexuality or gender identity. “YouTube has expanded opportunities for young people to represent themselves in the media in ways that may not require formal training in content production
processes,” she added.
In spite of it being regarded as a DIY (Do-it-yourself) content-sharing platform, she emphasized that there are several problems caused by the sense that the platform is still highly commercial and controlled. “YouTube has certainly resulted in the self-brands and financial success of some content creators, but there is a bit of an illusion about how easy it is to monetize content in a very profitable way,” she said. “Despite seeming different from the more traditional media such as television, radio and print, YouTube is still embedded in wider capitalist structures that most media has always been a part of. The platform is profit-driven in nature, hosting contents that can be detrimental to people’s lives as well as hosting many videos that generate no financial profit for creators. Even though YouTube may seem more accessible than other traditional mainstream media institutions, content creators on YouTube may still find their creativity strained by the market logic of consumer demand.”
While Dr. Sobande saw no simple solution to address the platform’s problems, she emphasized that one issue that should be prioritized is tackling the unjustified censorship of contents created by marginalized communities such as LGBTQI YouTubers.
“As long as YouTube continues to be a place that hosts content that is racist, sexist and homophobic, it has very limited potential to be more inclusive of systemically marginalized groups of people and individuals who are often regarded as minorities,” she said. “Many social media and online contentsharing websites claim to be politically neutral but without them enforcing effective policies that remove offensive and abusive content, this ‘neutrality’ restricts the ability of such platforms to support the online experiences and work of marginalized people.”
She also shared her thoughts about the future of YouTube and where it should be heading.
“If YouTube is to maintain its success, there will undoubtedly be changes ahead,” she said. “The platform has enjoyed a brand image that has positioned the platform as a space to freely broadcast yourself.
However, we are living at a point in time when words such as ‘post-truth’ and ‘fake media’ are commonly thrown around, including as a part of criticism of social media. People continue to be skeptical about the sources and contents of media in ways that could contribute to expectations that YouTube controls and censors contents more severely.
The approach of the company on how content creators make money has already undergone a number of changes in recent years and I think it is likely to continue to do so.”