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Uneven content policies and moderation practices: How YouTube’s standards fare

July 21, 2020 | By Rande Price, Research Director – DCN @Randeloo

Publishers establish editorial guidelines to provide a common foundation for journalists, creators, and producers. These guidelines provide a common language to identify an editorial framework and boundaries. Guidelines are often questioned, reevaluated, and updated in a process that allows the editorial voice to evolve over time. Editorial guidelines also present a check and balance system for standards and content moderation, which in turn creates a safe space for advertising.  

Unfortunately, the editorial guidelines of social media platforms appear to be a complex maze of mixed messages. This results in unhappy content producers – given opacity around monetization of some content – and risky business for marketers.

A new research report, Tiered Governance and Demonetization: The Shifting Terms of Labor and Compensation in the Platform Economy, examines YouTube’s governance and guidelines including its content moderation practices. The authors, Robyn Caplan and Tarleton Gillespie, investigate the complex landscape of YouTube, the largest video hosting platform in the world. They explore YouTube’s monetization models and their attempt to provide a foundation for governance.

Monetization strategy

One problem is that they frequently include different governance strategies for different creators. The result is that creators struggle to remain inside the viable boundaries for monetization.

YouTube offers a partnership program for content creators and shares advertising revenue with them. Plain and simple, the more user-generated content, the more views, which allows YouTube to collect user data to support targeted advertising. And the more ads served, the more revenue generated.

The YouTube Partnership Program (YPP) is intrinsic to its revenue model. Essentially, it is a form of unpaid labor that generates enormous revenue for the platform. YouTube’s partnership program encourages users to make more content with an offer of compensation as ads run against that content.

YouTube’s content creators vary from amateurs, professionalized amateurs, legacy media organizations, and YouTube’s contracted producers of original content. One particularly tricky aspect is that each is held to held to a different standard and entitled to a different monetization offering.

A few other social platforms developed similar programs, but YouTube’s is by far the largest. According to Caplan and Gillespie’s research, YouTube’s lack of clarity and complicated rules appears to do little in the way of effective content moderation or fair compensation. Further, the fact that YouTube works with multiple creator tiers fuels issues of inconsistent treatment. Consider how editorial standards would impact:

  1. amateur creators who are not dependent on revenue,
  2. creators who are dependent on revenue
  3. professionals building their reputation for secondary distribution, or
  4. media institutions who partner for distribution power.

Enforcement practices

YouTube’s policies vary, with little explanation, in dealing with content that violate their standards and practices around sexual content, violence, harassment, hate speech, or misinformation. Actions include content demonetization, removal of individual videos, or the suspension of entire accounts. They might also place videos behind age barriers or include interstitial warnings indicating graphic content. YouTube may also remove videos deemed to infringe on copyright infringement, violate privacy, or simply spam.

Caplan and Gillespie summarize the YouTube problem:

  • YouTube stated values as an open platform of expression are in direct conflict with their cautiousness regarding acceptable content and the financial and algorithmic incentive structure.
  • YouTube’s governance offers a different set of rules for different users. These include different material resources and opportunities for creators to different procedural protections and different expectations of fairness.
  • Given the ambiguity in the guidelines, creators develop their own theories as to why their content is demonetized.  

Caplan and Gillespie offer examples of YouTube’s randomness in enforcing its standards. For example, it appears that YouTube determines participation in YPP based on an algorithmic mix of popularity, engagement, and propriety.  However, according to many independent content creators, YouTube also allows inappropriate content to circulate and amplify based on popularity and the ability to generate revenue for the company.

YouTube’s participatory video culture does not bode well for advertisers’ demand for quality and predictability. It appears to be a system based on rewarding audience size and celebrity stardom. Unfortunately, given this revenue model, when YouTube adds new layers to its already complex labyrinth of standards, it fails its creators and fails to effectively moderate content.

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