How YouTube’s User Interface Helps Perpetuate Hate Speech

UPDATE (6 May 2017): The “Report” Option Returns (at Least on YouTube Red)

UPDATE (18 June 2017): Looks like the top level “Report” option has vanished again.

– – –

Computer User Interface (UI) design is both an art and a science, and can have effects on users that go far beyond the interfaces themselves. As I’ve discussed previously, e.g. in The New Google Voice Is Another Slap in the Face of Google’s Users — and Their Eyes, user interfaces can unintentionally act as a form of discrimination against older users or other users with special needs.

But another user interface question arises in conjunction with the current debate about hate speech on Google’s YouTube (for background, please see What Google Needs to Do About YouTube Hate Speech and How Google’s YouTube Spreads Hate).

Specifically, can user interface design unintentionally help to spread and perpetuate hate speech? The answer may be an extremely disconcerting affirmative.

A key reason why I suspect that this is indeed the case, is the large numbers of YouTube users who have told me that they didn’t even realize that they had the ability to report hate speech to YouTube/Google. And when I’ve suggested that they do so, they often reply that they don’t see any obvious way to make such a report.

Over the years it’s become more and more popular to “hide” various UI elements in menus and/or behind increasingly obscure symbols and icons. And one key problem with this approach is obvious when you think about it: If a user doesn’t even know that an option exists, can we really expect them to play “UI scavenger hunt” in an attempt to find such an option? Even more to the point, what if it’s an option that you really need to see in order to even realize that the possibility exists — for example, of reporting a YouTube hate speech video or channel?

While YouTube suffers from this problem today, that wasn’t always the case. Here’s an old YouTube “watch page” desktop UI from years ago:

An Old YouTube User Interface

Not only is there a flag icon present on the main interface (rather than having the option buried in a “More” menu (and/or under generic vertical dots or horizontal lines), but the word “Flag” is even present on the main interface to serve as a direct signal to users that flagging videos is indeed an available option!

On the current YouTube desktop UI, you have to know to go digging under a “More” menu to find a similar “Report” option. And if you didn’t know that a Report option even existed, why would you necessarily go searching around for it in the first place? The only other YouTube page location where a user might consider reporting a hate speech video is through the small generic “Feedback” link at the very bottom of the watch page — and that can be way, way down there if the video has a lot of comments.

To be effective against hate speech, a flagging/reporting option needs to be present in an obvious location on the main UI, where users will see it and know that it exists. If it’s buried or hidden in any manner, vast numbers of users won’t even realize that they have the power to report hate speech videos to Google at all (the disappointing degree to which Google actually enforces their hate speech prohibitions in their Terms of Service, I’ve discussed in the posts linked earlier in this text).

You don’t need to be a UI expert to suspect one reason why Google over time has de-emphasized obvious flag/report links on the main interface, instead relegating them to a generic “More” menu. The easier the option is to see, the more people will tend to use it, both appropriately and inappropriately — and really dealing with those abuse reports in a serious manner can be expensive in terms of code and employees.

But that’s no longer an acceptable excuse — if it ever was. Google is losing major advertisers in droves, who are no longer willing to have their ads appear next to hate speech videos that shouldn’t even be monetized, and in many cases shouldn’t even be available on YouTube at all under the existing YouTube/Google Terms of Service.

For the sake of its users and of the company itself, Google must get a handle on this situation as quickly as possible. Making sure that users are actually encouraged to report hate speech and other inappropriate videos, and that Google treats those reports appropriately and with a no-nonsense application of their own Terms of Service, are absolutely paramount.