Despite apparent good intentions, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki may only be making matters worse by attempting to explain YouTube's hate speech policies in the wake of controversies surrounding the company.
Responding to questions about one of the company's most recent problems, posed by attendees at Scottsdale, Arizona's annual Code Conference earlier this week, the executive seemed torn between defending YouTube's free expression policies and decrying abusive statements that have been driving the ongoing controversy. That centers around the well-publicized content posted to the platform by conservative pundit Steve Crowder.
Ms. Wojcicki said that she is, on a personal level, "very sorry" about the turn of events because YouTube has served as a platform for the LGBTQ community. The executive also said that she agrees with YouTube's decision entirely.
The response Axios journalist Ina Fried or Recode Interviewer Peter Kafka, who attended the gathering and called out the executive about whether or not she was sincere in her apology. The questions were met with applause from the audience.
At the heart of the matter is the problematic defense of free speech
The statements of leaders at YouTube and of the company's CEO highlight the thin line between allowing users and content creators to express themselves freely and ending support of content that causes real-world harm.
In the most recent of YouTube's debacles, as noted above, the trouble stems from a channel run by conservative pundit Steve Crowder.
The YouTuber has been actively going after Vox writer, Carlos Maza -- who happens to be a gay Latino man and who is also on YouTube -- for years. A portion of that has included what could clearly be called 'malicious' by any standard definition of the term, with Mr. Crowder taking aim at Mr. Maza's sexuality and race.
YouTube has claimed to have reviewed the content and disagrees that it violates policies against malicious activity.
At issue here is that, according to Ms. Wojcicki, the content doesn't meet up with the company's internal definition of what it means to be malicious. Moreover, the executive says, if Mr. Crowder's content were to be pulled down, other content would have to be too since it could feasibly be placed in the same category.
That would include pulling down videos categorized as late-night comedy shows or music videos. The same policies need to apply to every video on the site, the executive explained.
YouTube has made inroads in differentiating between some content on its platform, specifically as it pertains to content that promotes violence, Nazis, or denies well-documented facts -- including the promotion of Holocaust denial, among other similar matters. Where it seems to be at a loss is with what to do when content blurs the lines between provocative and outright hate speech and more directly where content crosses that line under the guise of "debate."
In reality, YouTube loses either way
Coupled with other unwelcome attention garnered by YouTube's parent company, Google, over the past several months, YouTube appears to be perilously stuck between difficult decisions without much room to maneuver. In terms of real-world impact to its bottom line, YouTube stands to lose a significant number of users regardless of how it addresses the issue at hand.
It is likely to lose both creators and viewers from either side of the controversy irrespective of how it handles things.