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On YouTube, controversy doesn’t pay

Most people have probably never heard of political commentators Tim Black and Paul Joseph Watson, much less listened to them. And thanks to a new policy at YouTube, there’s a chance you never will.

Black is a witty, smooth-talking left-winger, while Watson is a specialist in right-wing rage. You can see for yourself on YouTube, where both men’s videos have rung up millions of views. But better hurry, as both are running out of cash, thanks to a change in YouTube’s advertising policy.

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In recent months, YouTube has been pulling ads from videos with controversial messages, a costly policy known as “demonetization.” It has echoes of the debate over political speech happening all over the country, including here in Boston last weekend. But the YouTube crackdown is being pushed by advertisers dismayed at being associated with hateful videos.

Watson, Black, and many others say demonetization is a form of censorship. Dissenting voices are still free to publish, but if they can’t get paid, many will fade away. These critics might be right. But YouTube and its advertisers say demonetization is good business, and they are definitely right.

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On traditional television, an advertiser buys time on specific shows that appeal to specific audiences. If you want to sell shaving cream, you buy time during baseball games; if you’re selling denture cream, you run ads during the NBC Nightly News.

It’s different with YouTube, which hosts hundreds of millions of videos on every imaginable topic. Even a giant company like Procter & Gamble has no way of knowing which videos ought to carry its ads, because unlike traditional TV, it doesn’t have great data on who watches what.

All that data is held by YouTube. Its parent company, Alphabet Inc., also owns the search engine Google, probably the world’s richest trove of marketing data. Alphabet combines YouTube and Google data to generate precise profiles of each person’s tastes and interests. So the ads you see when you visit YouTube are uniquely tailored to you.

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Alphabet doesn’t share the data with advertisers. Instead, they say, just tell us the audience you seek, and we’ll figure out the best videos for reaching them. And that’s where the trouble began.

Ryan Bonnici, senior director of global marketing at Cambridge-based advertising software company HubSpot Inc., told me that advertisers have tried to buy YouTube ads using the same methods they’d applied to TV. They would target certain demographic groups—say, women age 18 to 35. Or certain interest groups, like foodies or car racing fans.

These simple criteria work fine on traditional TV, but not on YouTube. What if that foodie also likes videos of antifa radicals fighting with alt-right racists? What if the Nascar buff also enjoys how-to videos on how to build homemade bombs?

Sure enough, the world’s biggest companies discovered their ads on videos produced by terrorists and hate-mongers. And since the producers of these videos get paid whenever an ad is run, the companies were financing their repulsive activities.

“A lot of advertisers didn’t realize that was possible,” said Bonnici. But when the Times of London ran a story in February that highlighted the issue, corporate reaction was swift and merciless. Big names such as PepsiCo, Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Johnson & Johnson and Volkswagen pulled their ads, costing YouTube a tub of money. The company hasn’t said how much, but Bonnici estimated it might be as much as $700 million.

Since then, YouTube has announced new features to keep ads from extremist videos, such as artificial intelligence systems and human inspectors to spot the worst offenders more quickly. It’s also making it easier for advertisers to target their ads more precisely.

It all makes perfect sense, and YouTube has no choice in the matter anyway. No respectable company wants its ads to accompany hate videos. But the demonetization has gone a lot farther, ravaging the revenues of many sites that contain the merely controversial. These range from popular videos by Diamond and Silk, two black women who avidly support President Trump, to the work of left-wing humorist Jimmy Dore.

‘It’s not about specific videos. It’s about pushing out diversity of thought and uplifting major news networks such as CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.’

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Under its “advertiser-friendly content guidelines,” YouTube gives itself wide latitude to demonetize a vast amount of material, including “video content that features or focuses on sensitive topics or events including, but not limited to, war, political conflicts, terrorism or extremism, death and tragedies, sexual abuse, even if graphic imagery is not shown.”

That sounds like it could rule out the nightly news. And while these restrictions have been around for a long time, many YouTubers say that a newly aggressive enforcement policy is strangling them.

YouTube is clearly walking a tightrope here. The company doesn’t want to ban controversial material altogether; but it doesn’t want to scare off the advertisers who keep the cash rolling in.

Tim Black told me that demonetization is a deliberate effort to stamp out independent political commentary, from the left or the right. “It’s not about specific videos,” he said in an email. “It’s about pushing out diversity of thought and uplifting major news networks such as CNN, Fox News and MSNBC.”

Since cutting his advertisers, Black said “YouTube has gutted my ability to fund my independent reporting. My viewers are buying t-shirts, mugs and donating to keep my voice alive.”

A YouTube spokesperson said video producers can appeal demonetization. “Many creators, including Diamond and Silk, have submitted and successfully won appeals,” the spokesperson said.

YouTube also rejected claims it’s censoring people. Advertisers “can choose the kind of content that they feel is suitable for their ads. Providing advertisers this choice is not censorship.”

That won’t mollify Diamond and Silk, who are planning to sue YouTube. I wouldn’t bet on their success. It’s advertisers who want YouTube to hook them up with inoffensive videos that generate sales rather than outrage. If that’s censorship, it’s the same kind you’ll find on TV, where the free, ad-supported fare on the broadcast networks is bland as oatmeal, and the daring, edgy stuff is found on the pay channels such HBO or Amazon Prime.

For now, YouTube features as much rabble-rousing as ever. Now let’s see what happens when the rabble has to start paying for it.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.
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