Oh no it's the second newsletter
And this time it's sort of about watching someone get radicalized on YouTube
Welcome back to Pithy Outcomes! This is my newsletter where I write about tech and all of its misgivings and then other things I like that I think you may also like. Today we are mostly talking about YouTube.
An undefinitive guide on how not to handle a radicalization crisis on your platform
I think it started in 2013. I was camped out in a booth in the dining hall in Newhouse, procrastinating writing a paper for a women’s studies class I would drop before the end of the semester. I pulled up Facebook in a new tab on Chrome and scrolled aimlessly, looking at an unending barrage of pictures and posts from frat parties and newborn babies. Then I saw a post from a girl I had been close with when we were teenagers. I even visited her once at Penn State after we went our separate ways to go to college. The post was a link to a YouTube video about the New World Order. “Pretty thought-provoking, free documentary,” she wrote. “Check it out.”
I’d vaguely kept up with this person in the way that you do when you both exist on social media and have a general understanding of the other person’s life. I naively thought maybe that was it, just one video, she just barely dipped her toe into the world of conspiracy videos, it’s not like she was posting Alex Jones rants about how chemicals in the water are turning frogs gay or how Sandy Hook was a hoax, and it wasn’t like the rest of us haven’t also posted something dumb on Facebook once (let us not forget the viral ascendance and rapid implosion of KONY 2012, for example). But in recent years I’ve noticed something alarming about her Instagram stories. They’re mostly pictures of recipes she’s whipped up, or crafts she’s made, but occasionally there’s something that feels like a glitch in the matrix, and you see a post of hers riddled with anti-vaccination propaganda, or an errant picture of chemtrails with a skeptical caption and a thinking-face emoji, or a link to a YouTube video about mythical white genocide in South Africa (“Highly recommend this documentary, available to watch for free on YouTube,” she recently wrote, linking out to the Instagram page of Canadian far-right YouTuber Lauren Southern).
If you blink, you could miss it—it’s that seamlessly imbued with the rest of her social media presence. One day you’re just watching her make a dozen cupcakes for her elderly neighbor, and suddenly you’re reading a post she’s linked to from another account about “medical freedom” and “disease hysteria.” Maybe you have someone like this in your life or maybe you just read Kevin Roose’s excellent piece for the New York Times about YouTube as a radicalization mechanism. I feel like I’ve been watching a now-acquaintance get lightly radicalized for years, and short of being a scold and barging into her DMs to tell her she’s wrong (which wouldn’t be effective anyway—she’s made it clear she’s highly skeptical of the mainstream media, which I guess I’m a part of), it feels like a pretty helpless situation. It’s also, I guess, not actually hurting anyone, so in that regard it’s none of my business at all, but obviously I don’t want a person who I knew well once to succumb to misinformation like this, and my greatest fear, having reported on this for several years, is that the information she’s seeking out will only become more extreme.
YouTube’s business incentives have made it a sort of on-ramp to extremism, a platform that has greater encouragement to steer you toward only more extreme content to keep you glued to the next crazy thing in the queue. Harassment and hate speech have always technically been forbidden on the platform, but for years YouTube has taken a sort of laissez-faire approach to content moderation. That apparently came to an end last week, when it announced it would be updating its policies to ban videos promoting neo-Nazism, white supremacy, and conspiracies like Holocaust denial. The new rules prohibit any video "alleging that a group is superior in order to justify discrimination, segregation or exclusion based on qualities like age, gender, race, caste, religion, sexual orientation or veteran status."
It is not a coincidence that this decision happened after Vox video host Carlos Maza spoke out about the harassment he received at the hands of fans of right-wing commentator Steven Crowder, who has spent literal months hurling homophobic slurs at Maza in videos. Crowder has an audience of nearly four million YouTube subscribers, and in the past some of these subscribers and fans have taken it upon themselves to harass Maza and even dox him. Ultimately, as you might have heard, YouTube defended its decision not to remove Crowder from the platform, though his channel has been demonetized due to a “pattern of egregious actions” that had “harmed the broader community.” Then on Monday YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki (sort of) apologized for hurting the LGBT community over the decision to keep Crowder on the platform. "I am truly, truly sorry," she said at the Code Conference in Scottsdale, AZ. "I know it was hurtful to the LGBT community. That was not the intention." But she still defended the decision. "If we took down that content, there would be so many other content we'd need to take down," she said. "We don't want to be knee-jerk."
YouTube has been doing the worst possible PR for itself during Pride Month, its social-media avatars laden with rainbow imagery while a prominent gay journalist on its platform faces unending homophobic harassment from bad actors who know exactly just how far they can push the limits on YouTube to inflict damage without getting in trouble. Last week, some employees at Google and YouTube began circulating documents in opposition to the way YouTube has handled the Crowder situation. “It’s insulting,” one Gaygler told me. “They doled out this small punishment while still enabling hate speech, which has always supposedly been forbidden.” One petition that had been circulated called for YouTube to remove its Pride Month rainbow branding "in light of YouTube's recent decision which allows, and thereby perpetuates, homophobic hate speech and therotic in favour of defending the right to public debate.” Action items for employees who wanted to protest how YouTube dealt with the situation included alternative pride marches in cities like New York and San Francisco—every year, some Google employees march or ride Google-sponsored floats in Pride Month events in different cities. This past weekend, Google had a float in the Los Angeles Pride Parade, for example. “We’re demanding that YouTube drop the rainbow insignia because they’re coopting it while also allowing for the spread of homophobic rhetoric and harassment,” another Google employee told me. “But it would be better if they just worked on preventing abuse instead.”
Oh noooo (but also this was probably about as good an outcome for this situation as one could hope for):
I recently engaged in some, um, consensual adult activity under the mutual understanding that it would be a temporary relationship at another person’s apartment. No work productivity was harmed in the making of this hookup.
After a pleasant night, I walked out of a room to discover that, not only did the man I spent the night with have a roommate, that roommate had a pleasant night of their own WITH MY NEW BOSS.
I’m in my mid-20s and my boss is in his mid-30s. The roommate he was seeing is closer to his age (early 30s) while the person I was seeing is closer to mine (late 20s). Neither of us are married and we live in a large city, so it’s not like either of us learned something that would be salacious gossip.
As part of my job, I have to get up very early every morning to meet a deadline. As if the experience wasn’t awkward enough, my boss (who presumably was up early to take a look at my work once I was done) joked that he could make me coffee and find out the wifi password for the apartment at 6 am as I packed up my laptop to head to a nearby coffee shop to get the work done.
I declined. This was yesterday.
So I literally never acknowledge this, right? What do I do if he ever brings it up? My first instinct is to crawl into a deep dark hole and die.
But he’s doing a marvelous job of pretending nothing happened so far, so I’m inclined just to follow his lead?
Seek therapy, Jesse Eisenberg.
These are not uplifting stories, but HuffPost has a new series exploring debt and the American GofundMe healthcare system.
I wrote about the good pants I bought from Universal Standard last week for the Strategist.
Something fun to drink: at the new Magazine Bar (130 Franklin St., Greenpoint), there’s a frozen coffee-coconut drink that you should order and probably sip more slowly than I did last month.
Something to eat when you’re out at the beach: I can’t give away all of my Rockaways beach secrets, but PICO (419 Beach 129th St., Belle Harbor) is just a little further out of the way than the Rockaway Beach Surf Club if you find yourself out at the beach in Queens, and unlike Rockaway Taco, they do take credit cards. Get there by taking the A to Beach 116th and walking, or renting a Lime Bike (they’re everywhere out there).
One small beef online, explained:
r/libertarian had something of a minor meltdown this week, as mods for the subreddit quibbled over proposed changes to how their small corner of the internet should be run. It started calmly enough. “Before you all freak out, both of these proposed changes are opposed by several members of the mod team,” spartan6222 wrote. “We feel that r/libertarian should continue to function with as little mod interference as possible while still following Reddit wide rules. We feel the civility rule is especially egregious as we should not be in the business of policing speech.”
This clause about enforcing a rule about civility would become an enormous issue. Subreddit mod birdpear responded:
“I disagree with him strongly about the merits of a civility rule, but he's right about the state of the mod team. The way things stand right now, the mods will overwhelmingly vote not to implement a civility rule. There is a solid chance expanding Memeless Mondays could pass if the community supports it though.”
This is when things began to devolve.
Birdpear’s suggestion to keep a civility rule was met with intense backlash from other mods. User gnome_sane replied: “You are one of the biggest purveyors of insults, you hypocrite. Why don't you go start your own ‘Civility Subreddit’ if you came to jesus and now see the error of your douchebaggery ways?”
The meltdown continued. Birdpear, whose dissent on the civility rule kicked off this entire shitstorm, called gnome_sane a “trumptard,” user distorted_perception chimed in to say “Fuck the fucking authoritarian shitfuck who suggested this rule,” and other users called for Birdpear’s removal from the subreddit. It remains unclear which new rules, if any, the subreddit will implement, or if it will devolve into a lawless state altogether.