YouTube’s ‘dangerous’ crackdown on independent journalists

It is difficult for an independent journalist to remain afloat in a field dominated by large corporations with hundreds of staffers and deep bank accounts. They often rely on YouTube and other social media platforms to promote their work and gain exposure.

Video journalist Ford Fischer documents political events, particularly protests and rallies; shares them on his various platforms and frequently licenses his footage to major news outlets.

“I sometimes jokingly say that it’s the C-SPAN of political activism,” Fischer says of his media outlet News2Share, which he co-founded in 2014.

A Washington D.C. local, Fischer found himself amid a sea of Trump supporters on Jan. 6 at the National Mall, capturing their reaction to a giant screen that displayed then-President Donald Trump‘s fiery speech ahead of the Capitol Hill riot.

Fischer, who identifies as nonpartisan, shared the raw footage on his platforms. Like the vast majority of his videos, the footage was not edited and provided no commentary. In fact, BBC licensed the video for a docuseries.

However, on Jan. 24, the day before the House of Representatives delivered its article of impeachment against Trump to the Senate, YouTube removed the video for allegedly “violating” its “Terms of Service.”

“We wanted to let you know our team reviewed your content, and we think it violates our spam, deceptive practices, and scam policy,” YouTube wrote in an email to News2Share. “We realize this may be disappointing news, but it’s our job to make sure that YouTube is a safe place for all.”

The email, which Fischer published on Twitter the next day, then cited a policy stating: “Content that advances false claims that widespread fraud, errors, or glitches changed the outcome of the U.S. 2020 presidential election is not allowed on YouTube.”

After Fischer drew attention to YouTube’s actions, the Google-owned video giant doubled down.

“This video was removed bc [because] it didn’t include countervailing views or sufficient context of the claims made in the footage,” TeamYouTube responded to Fischer. “As videos can be embedded across the web, we only allow this content to remain on the platform if there’s appropriate context within the video itself.”

“If you see similar footage on the platform, it’s likely because it includes countervailing views or sufficient context, as opposed to just the raw footage, itself,” that statement added.

Fischer immediately pushed back, pointing out that his video, which can still be seen on Odysee, provided context with its title, “Crowd reacts to Trump January 6 speech ahead of Capitol insurgency” and cited several networks whose live streams of Trump’s “Save America” rally remained active on YouTube.

On Wednesday, YouTube escalated its actions by demonetizing Fischer’s entire channel, citing “harmful content,” despite approving the video for monetization on Jan. 8.

“Demonetization” is the common term for stripping a content creator of the ability to make money from ads provided by, in this case, YouTube.

“Honestly, it defies all logic and reason why they would behave like this. Whatever their reasoning is, there’s an obvious discrimination against independent content creators,” Fischer tells Fox News. “I really, really can’t rationally think of any difference between the videos other than simply who posted them.”

This isn’t the first time Fischer’s channel was demonetized. In 2019, his account was one of hundreds that were either demonetized or deleted. Seven months later, YouTube “admitted they’ve made a mistake,” according to Fischer. The suspension of ad revenue cost Fischer “thousands” of dollars, income which he told Fox News largely pays for hired freelancers and his own travel expenses.

“It is not unlikely that they will make the same decision again this time, but I really hope that it doesn’t take seven months of not having YouTube income until that happens,” Fischer says. “I think they extremely, obviously made a mistake. I don’t think there’s any rational argument they could have to defend it. I just hope that they resolve it quickly.”

GABBARD: BIG TECH CONTROLS WHO GETS TO HAVE A VOICE

YouTube isn’t the only tech giant that has given Fischer headaches. Following the November election, Facebook suspended his ability to post on his page. Back in September, Facebook removed his “entire account.” Fischer did, however, appreciate that Facebook quickly resolved the issues and reached out with “an actual human being” to apologize.

Fischer also tells Fox News that he’s been “shadow-banned” on Twitter following his coverage of the Capitol insurrection. Not only does his profile not appear in search results, a warning appears for those who aren’t logged in and attempt to view his page that reads: “Caution: This profile may include potentially sensitive content”. In addition, every tweet that includes media has a “potentially sensitive content” label attached to it.

Twitter did not immediately respond to Fox News’ request for comment.

Despite the problems Fischer has had with other tech giants, YouTube continues to be his biggest obstacle.

“YouTube used to be for independent content creators primarily, right? It used to be about democratizing, everybody has a voice. Like, that was the idea of YouTube. That’s what I love about YouTube. That’s why I like it still, at least for that principle,” Fischer tells Fox News.

“It seems like YouTube has basically started to just be a platform for the corporations that you could watch on cable TV anyway, and as they’ve been doing that, they have acknowledged that they’re squeezing down the amount of viewership that goes into independent content creators,” he adds. “The way they would describe it is that they are ‘shifting viewership towards reputable sources.’ And that’s their way of saying, ‘We’re giving priority to mainstream media when you search for stuff.’ But I think that the fact that major news outlets can live stream the same things that I filmed and mine gets deleted and theirs gets ads put on it — well, I think it indicates to me … YouTube is serving corporations rather than small businesses and individual users.”

Fischer is alluding to “Project Owl”, launched by YouTube’s parent company Google in 2017. Project Owl modified algorithms to amplify what it describes as “reliable sources” or “authoritative pages” and rank them higher in search results in order to combat the spread of misinformation.

Matt Taibbi, an independent journalist who advocated on Fischer’s behalf on Twitter, tells Fox News what YouTube is doing now is “more drastic” by making even raw footage from independent outlets “off-limits or taboo,” even if the same footage was used by other mainstream media outlets.

“The clear goal is to disempower alternative media,” Taibbi says. “The end game here is to force all content to be sifted through the filter of larger outlets.”

Taibbi, who has launched his own newsletter on the subscription-based platform Substack, argues that America is moving away from a free press to a “journalistic licensing system” operated by Big Tech and that “you can only do the job if you’re part of a larger structure.”

“Their goal is to make the press part of the political establishment, rather than a check on it,” Taibbi explains.

Fischer is one of several independent journalists who have been punished in some form or another by YouTube. The left-leaning media outlet The Convo Couch was similarly demonetized for “harmful content.” When pressed by co-founder Jonathan Mayorca to reveal which videos specifically violated the platform’s policies, TeamYouTube replied, “We can’t share which specific videos were harmful.”

“YouTube expects us to take a guess at which one(s) of our over 1000 videos violated their policy,” Mayorca tells Fox News. “YouTube expects us to censor ourselves while we strongly believe that NONE of our videos violate their Harmful Content Policy. They are purposely being ambiguous about what exact content violates their policy.”

“The intricacies of how content is regulated is to be discussed and debated but we hold that free speech is free speech unless it incites violence,” Mayorca and Convo Couch co-hosts Fiorella Isabel and Craig “Pasta” Jardula add. “Talking about election fraud is not inciting violence. Filming history on Jan. 6, 2021 is not inciting violence. Filming with or without commentary of armed conflict is not inciting violence.”

The Convo Couch hosts tell Fox News they are “considering litigation” in response to YouTube’s actions.

While much of the discussion of online censorship has dominated right-wing politics, conservatives aren’t the only ones feeling the wrath of Big Tech. The progressive media outlet Status Coup has clashed with YouTube in recent weeks. YouTube had removed a livestream of a peaceful gun rights rally that took place on Jan. 18, but the video was restored after Status Coup co-founder Jordan Chariton vocally protested the decision on Twitter. On Tuesday, YouTube removed Status Coup’s livestream of the Capitol Hill riot, alleging the footage is “advancing claims of election fraud.”

The footage, which was captured by Status Coup cameraman Jon Farina, was licensed by several news organizations, including CNN, MSNBC, NBC News, CBS News, ABC News, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Associated Press.

Chariton called YouTube’s actions “alarming and dangerous” and is urging mainstream media outlets to condemn “the onslaught of censorship against leftist channels.”

“It’s part of a broader trend by Google (YouTube) to purge their platform of independent and progressive channels their advertisers don’t view favorably. They are doing it under the guise of removing extremist right-wing content,” Chariton tells Fox News. “It’s puzzling to see our historic footage, that has been used by dozens of domestic and foreign media networks, removed when we were COVERING the events — not advocating or ‘advancing’ false claims of election fraud… It is corporate censorship by YouTube and other platforms to appease corporate advertisers.”

Status Coup has not been demonetized by YouTube, at least for now.

However, other left-wing YouTube channels have been demonetized this week, including “The Progressive Soap Box”, hosted by Jamarl Thomas; “Political Vigilante”, hosted by progressive commentator Graham Elwood; and “Franc Analysis,” whose host is alleging that the money that his audience donated to his show through YouTube’s “Super Chat” feature was not only blocked from reaching him, but was never refunded to donors.

When asked about potential solutions to social media censorship, News2Share’s Fischer expresses skepticism that government is the answer. Instead, he believes enough people need to “speak up” so that YouTube and other platforms feel that it’s “going to damage their business if they” demonetize him.

And in a direct appeal to YouTube, Fischer tells Fox News that he wished “an actual human being” would speak to him before taking such drastic actions.

“What I would like to say to YouTube is just come talk to people before taking away someone’s entire livelihood. Before taking down content, they should just actually reach out to the content creator and say, ‘Hey we have some concerns about your channel,'” Fischer explains. “It’s deeply hurtful to me that they just send an automated form letter and say, ‘Oh, that’s part of your livelihood. It’s gone. Good luck’ and make it hard to speak to a human there.”

A spokesperson for Google, YouTube’s parent company, told Fox News “we will take a look” in response to several inquiries about YouTube’s recent actions against these independent journalists.

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