Before we delve into a particularly sordid layer of YouTube and its implications to individuals, society at large, and Google itself, I’ll make my standard confession. Overall, I’m an enormous fan of YouTube. I consider it to be one of the wonders of the 21st century, a seemingly limitless wellspring of entertainment, education, nostalgia, and all manner of other positive traits that I would massively miss if YouTube were to vanish from the face of the Earth. I know quite a few of the folks who keep YouTube running at Google, and they’re all great people.
That said, we’re increasingly finding ourselves faced with the uncomfortable reality that Google has seemingly dragged its collective feet when it comes to making sure that their own YouTube Terms of Service are equitably and appropriately enforced.
I’ve talked about an array of aspects relating to this problem over the years — including Content ID and copyright issues; YouTube channel suspensions, closures, and appeal procedures; and a long additional list that I won’t get into here again right now, other than to note that at Google/YouTube scale, none of this stuff is trivial to deal with properly, to say the least.
Recently the spotlight has been on YouTube’s hate speech problems, which I’ve discussed in What Google Needs to Do About YouTube Hate Speech and in a variety of other posts. This issue in particular has been in the news relating to the 2016 election, and due to a boycott of YouTube by advertisers concerned about their ads appearing alongside vile hate speech videos that (by any reasonable interpretation of the YouTube Terms of Service) shouldn’t be permitted on the platform in the first place.
But now I’m going to lift up another damp rock at YouTube and shine some light underneath — and it’s not pretty under there, either.
The issue in focus today is YouTube’s vast cornucopia of so-called “prank” – “dare” – “challenge” (PDC) videos, which range from completely innocuous and in good fun, to an enormous array of videos portraying vile, dangerous, harmful, and often illegal activities.
You may never have experienced this particular YouTube subculture. YouTube’s generally excellent recommendation engine tends to display new videos that are similar to the videos that you’ve already viewed, so unless you’ve looked for them, you could be completely forgiven for not even realizing that the entire PDC YouTube world even existed. But once you find them, YouTube will make sure that you’re offered a bountiful supply of new ones on a continuing basis.
This category of YouTube videos was flung into the mainstream news over the last few days, with a pair of egregious (but by no means isolated) examples.
In one case, a couple lost custody of young children due to an extensive series of horrific, abusive, “prank” videos targeting those children — that they’ve been publishing on YouTube over a long period. They’re now arguing that the abuse was “faked” — that the children agreed to do the videos, and so on.
But those claims don’t change the outcome of the equation — not in the least. First, young children can’t give meaningful, independent consent in such situations.
And here’s a key point that applies across the entire continuum of these YouTube videos — it usually doesn’t matter whether an abusive prank is faked or not. The negative impact on viewers is the same either way. Even if there is a claim that a vile “prank” was faked, how are viewers to independently judge the veracity of such a statement in many cases?
An obvious example category includes the YouTube “shock collar” prank/challenge videos. What, you didn’t know about those? Just do a YouTube search for:
and be amazed. These are at the relative low end of the spectrum — you’re not terribly likely to be seriously injured by a shock collar, but there are indeed some nightmarish exceptions to that generalization.
So in this specific category you’ll find every imaginable combination of people “pranking” each other, challenging each other, and otherwise behaving like stupid morons with electricity in contact with their bodies.
Are all of these videos legit? Who the hell knows? I’d wager that some are faked but that most are real — but again as I noted above, whether or not such videos are faked or not isn’t the real issue. Potential copycats trying to outdo them won’t know or care.
Even if we consider the shock collar videos to be on the lower end of the relative scale under discussion, it quickly becomes obvious why such videos escalate into truly horrendous activities. Many of these YouTube channel operators openly compete with each other (or at least, claim to be competing — they could be splitting their combined monetization revenue between themselves for all we can tell from the outside) in an ever accelerating race to the bottom, with ever more vile and dangerous stunts.
While one can argue that we’re often just looking at stupid people voluntarily doing stupid things to each other, many of these videos still clearly violate Google’s Terms of Service, and it appears, anecdotally at least, that the larger your subscriber count the less likely that your videos will be subjected to a rigorous interpretation of those terms.
And then we have another example that’s currently in the news — the YouTube channel operator who thought it would be a funny “prank” to remove stop signs from intersections, and then record the cars speeding through. Not much more needs to be said about this, other than the fact that he was ultimately arrested and felony charged. Now he’s using his YouTube channel to try drum up funds for his lawyers.
One might consider the possibility that since he was arrested, that video might serve as an example of what others shouldn’t do. But a survey of “arrested at the end of doing something illegal” videos and their aftermaths suggests that the opposite result usually occurs — other YouTube channel operators are instead inspired to try replicate (or better yet from their standpoints, exceed) those illegal acts — without getting caught (“Ha ha! You got arrested, but we didn’t!”).
As in the case of YouTube hate speech, the key here is for Google to seriously and equitably apply their own Terms of Service, admittedly a tough (but doable!) job at the massive scale that Google and YouTube operate.
To not act proactively and effectively in this area is too terrible to risk. Non-USA governments are already moving to impose potentially draconian restrictions and penalties relating to YouTube videos. Even inside the USA, government crackdowns are possible since First Amendment protections are not absolute, especially if the existing Terms of Service are seen to be largely paper tigers.
These problems are by no means isolated only to YouTube/Google. But they’ve been festering below the surface at YouTube for years, and the public attention that they’re now receiving means that the status quo is no longer tenable.
Especially for the sake of the YouTube that I really do love so much, I fervently hope that Google starts addressing these matters with more urgency and effectiveness, rather than waiting for governments to begin disastrously dictating the rules.