two people arguing, violent, blocked money access

How YouTube switches off the hate

August 2020

July has not been a great month for Facebook. More than 1,000 companies pledged to halt ad spend on the platform for the entire month, the biggest boycott in Facebook’s history.

It came after Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg decided to allow a Donald Trump post quoting a racist 1960s police chief with the words “When the looting starts, the shooting starts”, in response to the US protests against the killing of George Floyd.

Facebook has often been criticized for its failure to prevent hate speech and misinformation, but it was this incident that prompted the group Stop Hate for Profit to call on companies to forswear advertising on the platform. Facebook gets about 98% of its $70bn in annual revenue from advertising, so it had the potential to be a serious threat.

Another platform where brands could have an impact when it comes to tackling hate speech, harassment, inciting of violence and other nasty behaviour is YouTube. In fact, YouTube advertising is arguably a sharper weapon in this particular battle than Facebook.

Like Facebook, YouTube can ban people from the platform, delete offensive posts and use warning labels. Unlike Facebook, YouTube shares its advertising revenue with its content creators, so if a YouTuber steps over the line, the company can pull advertising on their videos and hit them hard in the pocket.

This is a form of punishment that Facebook lacks. And YouTube is not afraid to put it into practice. Two years ago, it banned commercials for the prominent YouTuber Logan Paul when he posted some tasteless material two years ago. More recently the platform did the same when the far-right Stefan Molyneux kept violating its rules on hate speech.

Whether brands can use advertising to have any long-term effect remains to be seen. We could be seeing the start of a seismic shift. Anger has been steadily brewing for years over inequality, racism and police brutality, and the George Floyd incident coupled with a global pandemic has brought things to a head. Maybe the Facebook boycott is the start of something bigger, with brands, sensing this anger in their customers, forcing a change in the way Facebook regulates itself.

Or Facebook might make a few token changes and then return to business as usual. It could be that its audience is too big to ignore and that brands rely on its advertising too heavily to stay away for too long. Zuckerberg himself seemed to shrug the whole thing off, saying his guess was that “these advertisers will be back soon enough”.

Still, at least the conversation is being had, and brands are showing sensitivity to their customers’ values. It might not be easy for them to put their ad money elsewhere, and it might not have an immediate impact. But advertisers are exercising their purse power and, particularly in the case of YouTube, directly influencing the type of content that we see on our screens.