As YouTube continues in its efforts to crack down harder on content that violates its terms of usage and promotes offensive and/or misleading content, it’s found itself in the fake news crossfire this weekend.
After a video and some advertisers were removed from YouTube channels controlled by Alex Jones, the far-right commentator best known for hosting the video show InfoWars, Jones announced yesterday that YouTube would be freezing and deleting his YouTube channel today, Sunday — but the claim was false, according to YouTube.
“The Alex Jones channel with billions of views is frozen,” Jones wrote on Twitter. “We have been told it will be deleted tomorrow and all 33 thousands [sic] videos will be erased.” But according to a spokesperson from YouTube responding to our request for comment, the site at present has no plans to delete Alex Jones channel or erase his videos on Sunday, March 4.
Conveniently, Jones used the Tweet to promote (what else?) a new YouTube channel to show off its “censored” content videos. There’s nothing like a scandal when you’re InfoWars.
Jones’s YouTube account is one of the biggest of several tied to the InfoWars’ brand, with nearly 2.3 million subscribers and millions of views across hundreds of videos — a mix of right-leaning opinion pieces and sensationalised, tabloid-style reports that fan the flames of conservative discontent.
YouTube’s procedure for terminating an account involves a number of steps before an account gets completely taken down, starting with three “strikes” for terms of service violations and following an appeals process by the account holder.
While Alex Jones’s account is still alive and kicking, it is not in completely good standing.
It had one strike against it a couple of weeks ago, when YouTube removed a video from the channel that accused a student from Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who had appeared in the media speaking about gun control, of being a ‘crisis actor’ in the wake of the shooting at the school — he isn’t. This counted as a first strike in YouTube’s termination procedure.
Then in recent days, YouTube confirmed to us that it had notified Jones about advertisers asking to be removed from Jones’ various channels — following an investigation by CNN into how the videos get monetised. It’s not clear if this is also counted as a strike against the channel (we’re asking).
YouTube has attracted negative publicity in recent months for what some believe to be a position that has been too laissez-faire when it comes to questionable videos on its platform. Critics believe the company’s motives of driving more traffic and advertising, and encouraging more rather than less activity on the site, combined with not-fit-for-purpose moderation against iffy content, have all contributed to a cess pool effect on the platform.
However, YouTube has responded with a vow to improve how it handles the problem — acknowledging the part the site plays to enable it — with better enforcement, and that is what we are seeing unfolding in YouTube’s scuffle with InfoWars.
The controversy with InfoWars and Alex Jones specifically relates to the trend of fake news and how it’s portrayed as fact alongside more accurate content. It’s a particularly acute problem on platforms like YouTube and Facebook, which play host to thousands of media organizations that range from junk merchants to legitimate news outlets.
It’s not clear how much InfoWars makes off YouTube advertising versus other revenue streams — which, like other social-media based personalities, also includes a strong merchandising track. In the case of InfoWars, it’s a sizeable online store selling everything for the right-leaning individual who believes the world is falling apart and that InfoWars has the solutions to fix it, or at least ride out the storm: alternative medicinal remedies, coffee (“Wake up, America” is the slogan), body armor, water filters, Trump gear and more.
Taking down a video and removing some advertisers may not, therefore, hit InfoWars’ bottom line, but they are still strong symbolic gestures that could undermine the channel’s credibility with mainstream viewers, and potentially offer an increment of less traffic to other parts of the machine (such as that store).
We’ve seen YouTube try to tackle the content controversy by turning other screws on offending channels. It has taken steps to remove monetising and discoverability features on channels, as it recently did with vlogger Logan Paul. And it has banned some sites outright.