Home / Tech / YouTube's week from hell: How the debate over free speech online exploded after a conservative star with millions of subscribers was accused of homophobic harassment

YouTube's week from hell: How the debate over free speech online exploded after a conservative star with millions of subscribers was accused of homophobic harassment

youtube lgbtq freedom of speech 2x1

Before this week, Carlos Maza, also known as @gaywonk on Twitter, was a minor celebrity among those interested in media and politics. Only a few followers shy of 100,000 on the microblogging platform, Maza carved a space out for himself on the progressive and wonky internet through his video essays on Vox, previously hosted on progressive media watchdog site Media Matter For America, that provide an ounce of opinion and graphics per ounce of reporting and facts.

But Maza’s profile is quickly rising after he took to Twitter May 30 to call out Google’s YouTube for allegedly failing to enforce its harassment policies on videos made by conservative new media star Steven Crowder, who currently has 3.8 million subscribers on YouTube.

What followed from Maza’s tweetstorm was just the latest conflict in the emerging war over free speech, hate speech, and content moderation on the largest platforms on the internet. 

 

Maza says that Crowder’s comments violate YouTube’s harassment policy, sparking an investigation from the platform.

Tweet Embed:
//twitter.com/mims/statuses/1134264395717103617?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
Since I started working at Vox, Steven Crowder has been making video after video “debunking” Strikethrough. Every single video has included repeated, overt attacks on my sexual orientation and ethnicity. Here’s a sample: pic.twitter.com/UReCcQ2Elj

“Lispy queer” and “lispy angry sprite” were just a few of the characterizations Crowder used to describe Maza, shown in an aggregated video posted by Maza to Twitter which now has over 3 million views. 

Crowder, who hosts a roundtable discussion and sketch show with a conservative bent, has repeatedly featured segments ripping on videos made by Maza, where he contradicts their ideas while also jabbing at Maza’s sexual and ethnic identity.

In his original tweetstorm, Maza said that the personal attacks led to doxxing and harassment from Crowder’s supporters, while also allegedly violating YouTube’s harassment and bullying policy.

Specifically, Maza pointed to the following types of content that YouTube discourages in its harassment policy:

    • Content that is deliberately posted in order to humiliate someone
    • Content that makes hurtful and negative personal comments/videos about another person
    • Content that incites others to harass or threaten individuals on or off YouTube

Crowder responded by claiming that Maza’s efforts to get his videos removed were part of a larger alleged campaign to deplatform independent conservative creators.

In a response, Crowder acknowledged his use of the language against Maza, insisting that it was comedic and only used when arguing against Maza’s ideas, noting that he has never promoted doxxing or targeted harassment and condemned it. 

Crowder went on to claim that Maza’s efforts to flag his videos were part of a larger campaign from big media companies to deplatform conservative creators, noting a $200 million investment from NBC Universal in the company in 2015, calling the situation comparable to “David vs Goliath.” 

“This is a war we will fight to the absolute bitter end,” said Crowder.

Maza, anticipating the argument, tweeted earlier that his concern was YouTube, “ I don’t give a flying f–k if conservatives on YouTube disagree with me. But by refusing to enforce its anti-harassment policy, YouTube is helping incredibly powerful cyberbullies organize and target people they disagree with.”

High-profile figures on both sides of the aisle have chimed in on the case.

The dispute between Maza, YouTube, and Crowder quickly gained attention, becoming political and personal.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York retweeted Maza, adding “Bigotry + disinformation campaigns are often the most ‘engaging’ (& rewarded) due to their inflammatory nature.” 

Gay Olympian Adam Rippon retweeted Maza saying “people still get constantly harassed online just for being LGBTQ+.”

Maza posted about receiving ramped-up negative attention, claiming that he was receiving a flood of death threats and harassment, and highlighting that a “Carlos Maza is a f-g” shirt had gone on sale online, an imitation of a “socialism is for f*gs” shirt that Crowder sold. 

Republican senator Ted Cruz of Texas brought attention to the debate, commenting, “This is ridiculous. YouTube is not the Star Chamber — stop playing God & silencing those voices you disagree with. This will not end well.”

Maza condemned Cruz for supporting Crowder, writing, “A U.S. senator is coming to the defense of someone who spent two years calling me a ‘lispy queer,'” to which Cruz responded, “Sigh. This individual claims to be a ‘journalist.’ Then he throws a fit & demands that YouTube CENSOR views he doesn’t like. Here’s a crazy idea: if you don’t like what @scrowder says, ARGUE AGAINST HIM.”

YouTube also faced criticism from prominent gay journalist Glenn Greenwald in an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program. “YouTube caved in,” said Greenwald. “Not in defense of the marginalized person, but in defense of the powerful one, the one who despite being gay and Latino works for a major media conglomerate.” 

YouTube announced that Crowder’s videos had not violated their policies.

On June 4, five days after Maza’s original tweets on the matter, YouTube responded via Twitter, writing:

“Our teams spent the last few days conducting an in-depth review of the videos flagged to us, and while we found language that was clearly hurtful, the videos as posted don’t violate our policies. We’ve included more info below to explain this decision. As an open platform, it’s crucial for us to allow everyone–from creators to journalists to late-night TV hosts–to express their opinions w/in the scope of our policies. Opinions can be deeply offensive, but if they don’t violate our policies, they’ll remain on our site. Even if a video remains on our site, it doesn’t mean we endorse/support that viewpoint. There are other aspects of the channel that we’re still evaluating– we’ll be in touch with any further updates.”

In a statement to Gizmodo, YouTube elaborated upon its decision, writing, “In videos flagged to YouTube, Crowder has not instructed his viewers to harass Maza on YouTube or any other platform and the main point of these videos was not to harass or threaten, but rather to respond to [Maza’s] opinion.”

Read more: YouTube is refusing to punish a star with millions of fans after he hurled homophobic slurs at a journalist

Following the decision, YouTube received a torrent of criticism.

Vox publisher Melissa Bell criticized the decision in a statement to The Verge, saying, “By refusing to take a stand on hate speech, they allow the worst of their communities to hide behind cries of ‘free speech’ and ‘fake news’ all while increasingly targeting people with the most offensive and odious harassment.”

Former Reddit executive and victim of online harassment Ellen Pao wrote, “Wrong decision. Platforms don’t operate in silos; technology has made our world interconnected. Cross-platform harassment is real. YouTube should look at the impact of the behavior across all platforms–and from followers as well. The mental anguish is real and can’t be ignored.”

Numerous journalists also shared their dismay over the decision.

Tweet Embed:
//twitter.com/mims/statuses/1136127718355902464?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
I love that @YouTube, one of the biggest purveyors of right-wing hate on earth, has a rainbow avatar for Pride Month. They ignored serial and blatant homophobic harassment @gaywonk got from a guy with millions of subscribers, but look at the pretty colors. https://t.co/CTa75dA63wTweet Embed:
//twitter.com/mims/statuses/1136100272462323718?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
Kind of seems to me like YouTube is using “freedom of speech” to protect a profit model that would otherwise force them to regularly confront the racism, sexism, and extremism that has been rejuvenated all throughout the world due to their unchecked algorithm.

 

 

Notably, Google began receiving criticism from inside the company.

The decision became a flashpoint for an increasingly vocal faction of activists who are employed by Google. A group called Googlers Against Hate began a social media campaign targeting the decision, using the hashtag #NoPrideInYT and encouraging employees to speak out.

Tweet Embed:
//twitter.com/mims/statuses/1136286890695544833?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
Despite YouTube capitalizing on Pride as a marketing campaign, it’s clear they have no issue making policy decisions that harm LGBTQ people like @gaywonk. We have #NoPrideInYT pic.twitter.com/onD1cARt98

Employees who spoke to media outlets like Business Insider and The Verge expressed their dismay.

“It’s hard to put my shoes on everyday and go to work when I don’t think the company I work for supports my identity,” a Google engineer told Business Insider.

Another Google employee reportedly told The Verge, “Internal outreach to executives has not been effective in years. They ignore us completely unless there is extreme unrest. We can’t trust them anymore to listen in good faith.”

Read more: Google employees are speaking out using the hashtag ‘NoPrideInYT’ after YouTube was slow to punish a right-wing creator for using homophobic slurs

Google is now facing questions from LGBT organizations who already have, or are considering, cutting ties, including San Francisco Pride.

In response to YouTube’s decision, multiple LGBT groups have begun assessing their work with Google.

The non-profit Pride Foundation of Maryland said that it would remove its content from YouTube in response to the issue, and called for other groups to do so as well.

Tweet Embed:
//twitter.com/mims/statuses/1136347140593213444?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
We will be removing our content from @youtube. We encourage other LGBTQ orgs and individuals to do likewise. There is nothing to be gained by generating content for a platform that is used to attack and harass us in the way that @gaywonk has been. #NoPrideinYT

On Wednesday, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, former Google employee Tyler Breisacher petitioned the San Francisco Pride board in a meeting to keep Google from marching in the San Francisco Pride parade.

Following Breisacher’s comments, San Francisco Pride reportedly contacted Google with concerns over the Crowder-Maza incident.

A day after making its initial decision, YouTube appeared to respond to the criticism by announcing that it had demonetized Crowder’s videos. Backlash from all sides seemed to intensify.

Following its initial announcement, YouTube published an update saying that it had demonetized Crowder’s videos — crippling his ability to make money from ads on his YouTube content — based on “a pattern of egregious actions” that the company said, ” harmed the broader community.”

Tweet Embed:
//twitter.com/mims/statuses/1136341801109843968?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
Update on our continued review–we have suspended this channel’s monetization. We came to this decision because a pattern of egregious actions has harmed the broader community and is against our YouTube Partner Program policies. More here: https://t.co/VmOce5nbGy

Later, YouTube clarified that Crowder could have his monetization reinstated if he removed links to his merchandise store which sold a “Socialism is for F*gs” shirt and addressed certain “harmful” content on his channel. 

The decision left both Crowder and Maza upset.

Maza says that by simply demonetizing Crowder, who claims to have previously been mostly demonetized anyways, YouTube is simply encouraging him to lean harder into his controversial statements because he YouTube has shown it won’t delete his videos.

Crowder also appeared to be upset by the decision. In a video titled “WE’RE DEMONETIZED!” he said “[YouTube] have managed to come up with a solution that pisses everybody off,” expressing outrage that the company had demonetized “the biggest conservative channel in the history of YouTube” because “he didn’t violate any guidelines, but we gotta’ give the piranhas something.” He went on to say that the employee who came up with the solution was “probably not fired because he’s probably gay.” 

 

The same day, YouTube announced that it would begin removing certain extremist, bigoted content including videos promoting neo-Nazism. Some saw strategic timing in the move.

In an announcement that came the same day as Crowder’s demonetization, YouTube said that it would begin removing “videos alleging that a group is superior in order to justify discrimination, segregation or exclusion,” along with videos denying the occurrence of mass tragedies. 

According to The New York Times, this will affect thousands of videos and channels promoting neo-Nazism, white supremacy, and other extreme ideologies.

For many critics, the announcement came off as a small token that was transparently attempting to deflect criticism from the company. Gizmodo’s Bryan Menegus called it a “vague mea culpa” and the “bare minimum” for addressing YouTube’s hate problem. 

Others noted that Google and YouTube had made similar promises before.

Tweet Embed:
//twitter.com/mims/statuses/1136317799842963456?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
lol youtube has actually made the same promise **three years in a row** now right around the upfronts season (ht @elizabcking) pic.twitter.com/d86V4izFK1

Shortly after the announcement, journalist Ford Fischer, who documents rallies and protests, tweeted that his entire account had been demonetized, noting that YouTube had cited a video he uploaded of protesters confronting a Holocaust denier. 

Tweet Embed:
//twitter.com/mims/statuses/1136334778670518273?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
Within minutes of @YouTube’s announcement of a new purge it appears they caught my outlet, which documents activism and extremism, in the crossfire.

I was just notified my entire channel has been demonetized. I am a journalist whose work there is used in dozens of documentaries. pic.twitter.com/HscG2S4dWh

Media watchdog Right Wing Watch noted that one of their videos had been taken down because of a clip they used from a conservative claiming that YouTube was controlled by “the synagogue of Satan.” The original clip from Rick Wiles was reportedly not taken down.

Others who were questionably caught up in the purge included a history teacher who’s channel used archival footage of the Nazis and a Southern Poverty Law Center video of an interview with a Holocaust denier.

Since Maza posted his tweets, Crowder has gained nearly 90,000 subscribers.

Despite being demonetized, Crowder’s following has only grown since the controversy began. Since Maza originally posted his tweets, Crowder has gained nearly 90,000 subscribers according to SocialBlade.

Crowder is now encouraging viewers to support him through his merchandise and personal website.

The dispute between YouTube, Maza, and Crowder is just the latest in an increasingly fiery debate over the balance between hate speech and free speech.

The dispute between Maza and Crowder is just the latest in the emergent tug-of-war between conservative “free speech advocates,” who often find themselves being accused of hate and harassment, and progressive advocates for proactive censorship of what they believe to be hate speech or targeted abuse.

Following the removal of accounts from far-Right and fringe figures that have included conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who most famously questioned whether the Sandy Hook school shooting really happened, YouTuber Carl Benjamin, who was kicked off of crowdfunding platform Patreon for racially charged comments made in an old YouTube video, and Milo Yiannopoulos, Crowder and others have popularized the idea that there is a growing movement silence conservative voices.

The question of online censorship has quickly become a political issue.

In a recent segment on Fox News, Laura Ingraham highlighted online censorship and faced backlash after using a white supremacist as an example of a “prominent voice” that had been censored. 

Facebook has been questioned by Republican members of Congress over actions taken against Trump supporters Diamond and Silk (Diamon and Silk were also questioned and appeared to lie in their testimony).

On Sunday, President Trump tweeted support for conservatives who had been removed from Twitter.

Tweet Embed:
//twitter.com/mims/statuses/1137702218835136517?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw
Twitter should let the banned Conservative Voices back onto their platform, without restriction. It’s called Freedom of Speech, remember. You are making a Giant Mistake!

Maza, among other progressives, argues that many right-wing personalities on and offline have used an appeal to free speech to excuse the spread of hate, harassment, and bigotry. The urgency around the issue has intensified after numerous mass shooters have sprung from online communities that champion free-speech, such as 8chan and Gab, which have quickly turned into virtual homes for neo-Nazis and white supremacists.

Advocates of increased censorship argue that domestic radicalization will continue to rise unless extremist content is identified and controlled online.