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Saturday 5 October 2019


Humans v algorithms

A group of YouTubers are suing after their films were censored because of “the gay thing”

By Jenny Kleeman

Humans vs Algorithms 9’19

It began with a gay Christmas show: the 2017 holiday special of GNews, a weekly LGBTQ+ news bulletin on YouTube. Hosts Celso Dulay and Cameron Stiehl wore gaudy jumpers on a set festooned with tinsel and poinsettias. They reported on the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Australia, San Francisco AIDS Foundation’s Christmas appeal, and “Gay-tivity” nativity scenes they’d spotted online. Camp as Christmas, but a fairly straight news show.

Dulay and his husband and co-producer Chris Knight uploaded the video to their YouTube channel and clicked on the option to promote it, spending $100 with Google Ads. But within a few hours they received a message saying their request to advertise had been denied, due to their show’s “shocking”, “adult” or “inappropriate” content.

Chris Knight with Celso Dulay, his husband and co-founder of GlitterBombTV.com

“We specifically made sure this was the most benign show we’d made to date,” Dulay tells me over the phone from San Francisco. “There could not be anything possible that could trigger the algorithm to deny us an ad. We’d tried to follow every rule and regulation to the letter.”

They knew it was a piece of software rather than a human who had ruled against them: the algorithm YouTube uses to censor, promote and monetise content on the platform had rejected their requests for promotion many times in the past. They would appeal, and the ads would eventually run, but any delay meant their show was old news by the time the ads were live.

“You can appeal online or call into the Google Ads centre and try to figure it out why the advertising is denied, but oftentimes they wouldn’t be able to tell us anything specific,” Knight adds. “With the Christmas show, it was different.”

When Knight called to appeal, he was put on hold while the humans in the call centre went away and watched the show to try and figure out the algorithm’s reasoning. Eventually a manager eventually came back to him to say they couldn’t allow promotion “because of the gay thing”. He sounds quite matter-of-fact about it in the recording Knight made of the call.

That recording is now a key piece of evidence in a class action lawsuit filed by Dulay, Knight and six other LGBTQ+ YouTubers against YouTube and its parent company, Google. They are claiming “discrimination, fraud, unfair and deceptive business practices” and “unlawful restraint of speech”. They say YouTube’s algorithm is restricting LGBTQ+ content no matter how harmless it might be, purely because it’s made by and for LGBTQ+ people.

This case has implications for all of us, regardless of our sexual orientation, or whether or not we even watch YouTube. Algorithms are responsible for a growing number of decisions that guide our daily lives. Some of them are trivial – like shopping recommendations on Amazon and viewing tips on Netflix, but others have life-changing consequences, like whether we are approved for a mortgage or life insurance. We rely on them to cut through vast swathes of data too large for any human to analyse and come to supposedly neutral decisions. If the plaintiffs in this case are right, and algorithms are already discriminating against entire communities because of who they are, any of us could be next.

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki at VidCon in Anaheim, California

Knight and Dulay emailed their story to YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki and copied in the company’s PR team. “They apologised profusely and said it’s not our policy, we’re going to look into it. But we continued to see waves of coverage with LGBT creators being denied, restricted, over and over again, and YouTube saying several times, ‘We know that there’s something wrong, we’re going to fix it,’ and it never got fixed.”

Earlier this year they approached Peter Obstler, a lawyer involved in an ongoing legal action against YouTube for age-restricting videos made by a conservative group, and began gathering other plaintiffs to bring a class action on behalf of the LGBTQ+ community.

The most high profile plaintiffs are Bria Kam and Chrissy Chambers, the lesbian duo behind BriaAndChrissy. Their comedy sketches and music videos have earned them close to a million subscribers and hundreds of millions of views. Chambers and Kam made a decent living from YouTube until a few years ago, when they say the algorithm started age-restricting uncontroversial videos, “demonetising” them (classifying them as unsuitable to be paired with advertising), and paying them a reduced rate for the videos that were monetised compared to non-LGBTQ+ YouTubers.

Bria and Chrissy

I speak to them just after they uploaded a collection of comedy sketches called Ten Ways to Know You’re in Love, featuring content as harmless as Chambers perusing her rock collection. “I’d tried my best to make it so it could not be seen by the algorithm to have the word ‘gay’ in it, but the second we put it up, it was age-restricted and demonetised,” Kam tells me. There was no way a human could have made the decision – not enough time had elapsed for anyone to watch it. They appealed, and a few days later the video was remonetised, but they had already lost potential earnings.

Age-restriction denies Chambers and Kam their core audience. “We can’t reach the young women who look up to us, who need us as a sense of community and support,” Chambers says. It means a video won’t appear in YouTube’s search results, and can only be viewed by those who have signed in to a YouTube account. If you have an account and you are under 18, it won’t play. The music video for their single Hypnotised, which involves nothing more controversial than Chambers walking fully-clothed in the desert, is one of several to have been inexplicably age-restricted.

When they finally managed to speak to someone at YouTube, they thought she was reading from a script. “It was all excuses, corporate jargon,” Chambers says. “Nothing changed.”

Kam believes bias in the algorithm is being allowed to persist because YouTube fears LGBTQ+ content could hurt its bottom line. “I think YouTube are scared that advertisers will leave and, because they think LGBT is controversial, they are trying to nip it in the bud.”

Lindsay Amer and Teddy

Lindsay Amer is the YouTuber behind Queer Kids Stuff, an educational video series for children with over two million views. Amer (who is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns) plays catchy songs on their ukulele with a teddy under their arm, discussing bullying and explaining the meaning of words like gay and queer to an audience as young as three. The algorithm once classified some of their videos as only suitable for 18+, until Amer tweeted about it and the decision was reversed.

Amer is part of the class action because of YouTube’s inability to stop their videos being surrounded by hate speech. “The first video I ever did got picked up by an neo-Nazi website. I had thousands of neo-Nazis in my comments for a week,” they tell me over Skype. That was just the beginning of the abuse. “Antifeminist, conservative, white supremacist, misogynist, lots of homophobia, lots of transphobia, pretty steadily throughout the three years I’ve been doing this. A year or two ago I had to shut down comments completely on every single video on the channel because it certainly wasn’t safe for kids to see.” 

Not only were parents telling Amer they couldn’t show the videos to their children because of the comments beneath them, they also said Amer’s channel would automatically lead their children to anti-LGBTQ+ content. “Kids would watch a video of mine, and then immediately after a hate video about me would play in the ‘Up Next’, and appear on the ‘Recommended’ bar next to the video.”

A partner manager at YouTube told Amer they could remove the ‘Recommended’ bar on their videos, but that would mean Amer’s content would never come up as recommended on anybody else’s videos either. And because their comments section is turned off, the algorithm is less likely to promote their videos elsewhere on YouTube. Amer is faced with the choice of living alongside the abuse or making their content hard to discover.

Lindsay Amer and Teddy of Queer Kids Stuff

The answer, Amer says, is fewer algorithms and more human beings. “Algorithms cannot do comments. They just can’t. There are 15 different spellings of the word ‘paedophile’ on my block list, and still things come through. Maybe an algorithm could get closer, but it’s not smart enough to prevent it.” By failing to police abuse properly, YouTube is pushing minority groups out, Amer says. “The people who created the system are straight, white men, and it’s going to have their biases.”

Dulay thinks the straight white men can do better if they want to. “My opinion is, if you’re smart enough to make an algorithm, you’re smart enough to make it smarter. If it’s within the interest of your business model you will. I don’t think YouTube is interested in fixing it because there’s not a need, and there hasn’t been enough pushback. That’s part of the reason we’re taking a position.”

YouTube didn’t respond to requests for comment on this article, and has made no response in public to the class action since it was filed in August.

“The reason that we’ve all come together is not to get a big chunk of money and go on holiday – it’s to make systemic change,” Dulay continues. “We want to be able to do our show and reach our community.”

With its near-monopoly on user-generated online video, YouTube is policing almost all the homegrown video content on the internet with its algorithm. But this is about more than who gets to upload clips: as we increasingly turn to algorithms to make decisions, it shows how far we are from being able to rely on them.

Amer has begun to move into podcasting, Chambers and Kam are increasingly spending their time doing live stream videos instead of YouTube. Knight says he and Dulay have also “given up a little bit” on making YouTube videos, but there’s really nowhere else for any of them to go. “If you’re going to have an audience, you need to be on YouTube. I know most of the creators want YouTube to be fixed, so they can go back to their shows.”

Photographs Chris Knight/Left Coast Scenes, Andrew Kemmis, Hannah Rimm/Queer Kid Stuff, Getty Images

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