ALEX GOLDMAN: From Gimlet this is Reply All. I’m Alex Goldman.
ALEX: Carlos Maza grew up in Miami. As a kid, he was chubby and shy, and he had a very hard time fitting in at the all-boys Catholic high school that his parents sent him to.
ALEX: What was your like first experience being bullied?
CARLOS: It was just like a- my–the high school I went to was like really, had like an out of control bullying and homophobia problem. It was just a ton of getting called a fag, being zip tied to my chair, (ALEX: groan) people would steal my bookbag, and like flip it inside out, and then draw a penis on it with chalk. And I- I–I don’t know–looking back I'm like, “What was I thinking?” But I came out in high school like in the middle of all that.
ALEX: [stumble.] Um… When you were getting bullied in high school and you would tell the teachers, what would they say?
CARLOS: I didn’t tell the teachers.
ALEX: Oh really.
CARLOS: Yeah. it was so normal to me that I thought, I don’t even know what I’d be complaining about, like the the beloved AP English teacher is calling kids faggots in school, like to some extent, this stuff only exists because the teachers know and tolerate it.
ALEX: They knew it. tolerated it. And it made life for Carlos really hard. But in his late-teens, he found a place that he said was an oasis for him -- YouTube.
CARLOS: What struck me about it was, it was this weird Wild West place where I could see gay people doing shit that like wasn’t just the kind of gay stuff that was acceptable for like primetime corporate TV. Like watching Tyler Oakley and Hannah Hart do weird shit and just kind of be charming and gay while they did it, was like really important for me.
ALEX: Carlos grows up, he becomes one of these YouTube people that he admired as a kid. He gets a job at Vox and starts a YouTube show it’s called Strikethrough.
STRIKETHROUGH VIDEO: This week, White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee scrambled to explain why Trump abruptly fired FBI Director James Comey...
ALEX: They're these bite-sized videos that are like basic explainers about how the media works from a lefty perspective. And they're the kind of videos that Carlos would've loved to have watched growing up.
STRIKETHROUGH VIDEO: Political journalism looks like this: on either side, you’ve got the parties fighting for the attention of the press, and in the middle, you’ve got journalists sorting through what’s important and what’s just partisan bullshit. This is called gatekeeping.
ALEX: His videos are doing well. People are enjoying them. But Carlos can’t shake the feeling that what he’s doing is not completely safe. That just being himself, an out gay man in front of this big group of people, is going to somehow get him in trouble. And then, in April of 2017, just two months after he started Strikethrough his fears come true.
It starts with this video that he posts, one that felt completely innocuous and uncontroversial when he posted it. It's called "Comedians have figured out the trick to covering Trump".
STRIKETHROUGH: Look at what happened after Trump tweeted that Obama had wiretapped his phones at Trump tower. Comedians all covered it basically the same way, they said it was baseless, pointed out that it came from a fringe conspiracy theorist.
STEPHEN COLBERT: Right wing radio host and unlicensed gynecologist Mark Levin.
STRIKETHROUGH: And then made clear how bonkers this whole thing was.
ALEX: So the video goes up, and very quickly he realizes that another YouTuber has made a response video to it, this very, very popular YouTuber named Steven Crowder.
STEVEN CROWDER: [music] Vox released this video talking about the importance and the validity of liberal satire in the time of Donald Trump.
ALEX: Landing on Steven Crowder’s radar is a huge deal. He has millions of subscribers, the alt-right loves him, conservative politicians love him. And in this video, Steven and a few of his friends are going through Carlos Maza’s video and dissecting it, rebutting it point by point.
STEVEN CROWDER: Satire is a rubber tipped sword. It’s a way to make a point without drawing blood, but let’s get into their reasoning, and they pivot to something that is oh so expected. Politic-
ALEX GOLDMAN: ALEX: How did you feel when you saw it?
CARLOS: Um, first like a deep sense of insecurity about my argument because my biggest fear when I'm writing something is that I missed something really big, or that I have a blind spot. I was like Jesus, what did I miss that is so devastating?
STEVEN CROWDER: It really does get into the realm of the absurd. See, you’re using an adjective as part of a sentence to describe why that’s the case. Just saying it’s ridiculous, it’s bonkers is proof that you’re being given a free pass as a crappy writer because you’re gay.
CARLOS: And then when I realized that he was making a lot of comments about my, um, voice and sexual orientation and ethnicity, my second feeling was just like a tremendous amount of embarrassment.
STEVEN CROWDER: Thank you! For letting me know about comedy - I won’t–I don’t know what I would do without you Mr. Lispy Queer from Vox.
CARLOS: The way that Crowder's show is set up, it's like him and four of his friends in the studio. So it's not just him making jokes, it's like him making homophobic and racist jokes and then four other grown men laughing at them and jumping in. And there’s just something very, it just feels like a group of bullies is following me around, talking shit about me when I'm trying to work
ALEX: For some reason, Steven Crowder decides that for the next two years, Carlos is going to be his punching bag. So when Carlos posts a new Strikethrough episode, often there’s a rebuttal from Steven.
STEVEN CROWDER: That is actually what he would call an outlier! [laughter] Mm, chip, chip, chip, chip bet you can't eat just one! Like dicks.
The rebuttals are Steven Crowder picking apart Carlos’s videos -- calling them simplistic or biased, and they’re peppered with insults about how Carlos looks, how he talks. And whenever Steven posts one of these rebuttals, his fans swarm the comments of Carlos’s video, echoing Crowder’s talking points, and adding their own insults.
STEVEN CROWDER: The Gay Vox sprite is wrong! (laughter) Now he could be a tranny, your Honor!
Carlos won’t acknowledge Steven Crowder in his videos, which Steven finds very annoying. Steven’s fans message Carlos incessantly, saying, “Debate Steven Crowder.” And somehow they get ahold of his cell phone number, and bombard him with hundreds of text messages, which really freaks Carlos out.
CARLOS: “If they have my phone number, what if they have my address? What if they have like my personal information? What if they have my family's stuff?” I don't know how to defend myself at all.
[fast forward sound]
STEVEN CROWDER: Even his hand movement in fast motion is gay...
CARLOS: I looked to see if YouTube had any kind of policy that could protect me from this kind of thing, and that's when I realized that YouTube had not just an anti-harassment and anti-bullying policy, but also an anti-hate speech policy, a–which was news to me.
STEVEN CROWDER: Two gay guys sitting there eating a banana, we get the symbolism there.
ALEX: What Steven Crowder was doing seemed to pretty clearly violate YouTube’s Rules.
STEVEN CROWDER: Mexican, Gay, Latino there at Vox...
ALEX: The guidelines specifically prohibit quote: “Content that is deliberately posted to humiliate someone OR content that makes hurtful and negative personal comments/videos about another person.”
STEVEN CROWDER: Ad hominem? Yes, but it was an addendum facts...
ALEX: So Carlos flags Steven Crowder’s videos for harassment, which reports them to YouTube. And nothing happens. The videos stay up. And Steven Crowder just keeps making more.
STEVEN CROWDER: Okay, so you really are just an angry little queer...
Carlos is beginning to wonder, like, am I overreacting to this? Are the things Steven Crowder is saying about me really that bad? So one night, Carlos sits down on his couch and makes a video for himself: a montage of the worst things that Steven Crowder’s said about him.
And when he watches it, it’s obvious to him that this is not ok. So he takes that video and posts it to Twitter with a statement.
CARLOS: “These videos makes me the target of ridiculous harassment, and it makes
my life sort of miserable. I waste a lot of time blocking abusive Crowder fanboys, and this shit derails your mental health.
That being said, I'm not mad at Crowder.
There will always be monsters in the world.
I'm fucking pissed at @YouTube, which claims to support its LGBT creators, and has explicit policies against harassment and bullying.”
ALEX: The thread hits a nerve, it gets retweeted over 20,000 times.
This kind of thing happens online a lot. A platform like YouTube has a ton of rules. Sometimes they get enforced, sometimes they don’t. But when someone with a big enough following gets harassed and they go public about it, usually it’s dealt with pretty quickly.
And so it seems like what’ll happen next is obvious -- YouTube will have no choice but to act.
Except -- they don’t. They tell Carlos they’re looking into it, and then they go silent.
In the meantime, Steven Crowder uses Carlos’s complaint to cast himself as a martyr -- an innocent guy under the thumb of left wing censorship. In fact, he says that the real bully here -- is Carlos.
We reached out to Steven Crowder for this story and he wasn’t available. But, on Youtube, Steven Crowder made video after video:
CROWDER: It’s been brought to my attention that many of the comments, videos and overall tenor and tone of this program have been considered hurtful and offensive to many...
Like this fake apology video which he says is aimed at everyone he’s ever offended, but it’s just an opportunity for him to take some more shots.
STEVEN CROWDER: I would like to apologize for the use of all of the following, racially, sexually, and generally prejudicially-charged pejorative nouns and or adjectives that have been used on this program: homo, colored, [bleep], [bleep], [bleep], [bleep], [bleep], [bleep], [bleep], queer, [bleep], [bleep]...
ALEX: In the week after Carlos’s complaint, Steven Crowder gains 100,000 new subscribers. On Fox News, Tucker Carlson comes to his defense.
TUCKER CARLSON: His stuff isn’t for everyone, but so? If you don’t like his videos watch Colbert, it’s a free country. Or it used to be. The press is working to change that. A few days ago, a writer at Vox.com demanded that YouTube ban Steven Crowder. Why? For the crime of insulting him.
ALEX: Meanwhile, Steven Crowder fans are sending Carlos death threats. They’re telling him that they know where he lives, where his family lives. They’re doing everything they can to harass him.
CARLOS: Someone posted on Reddit a fake account that claims to be me, posting uh, amateur gay pornography. Obviously not me, but multiple people have sent links to that pornography to my bosses at Vox and cc'ed me.
My- my–my parents are freaked out, I haven't been staying at my apartment, for obvious reasons.
ALEX: Do you regret having posted that thread?
CARLOS: No. I'm like, I'm like really mad. That it takes this happening to someone to get a big corporation that claims to give a shit about queer people to even attempt to do the bare minimum to protect us from abuse. Like it's, it's bullshit. I want them to have to carry this stuff because it is their fault.
After the break--how YouTube’s predicament can be traced back to Gangnam style, yes, Gangnam style.
Welcome back to the show.
Carlos is angry because he feels like Youtube has become a place where abuse is just a fact of life. It’s a site that makes life really easy for people like Steven Crowder at the expense of people like Carlos.
And that is not the Youtube that he grew up on -- it’s changed over time. I wanted to know how that happened
KEVIN: Right so there’s sort of a long story here. Do you want me to walk you thorought the history of the thing?
ALEX; Oh my god there is nothing I’d rather you do.
ALEX: But just to back up. First thing first, can you tell me your name and how you’d like to be identified?
KEVIN ROOSE: Kevin Roose, I’m a tech columnist for the NYT
Kevin’s written a lot about YouTube, and he told me the story of how this change happened.
It’s a story about YouTube blindly and ambitiously focusing on one very specific part of the site. A part of the site that on its face doesn’t seem like it would have anything to do with Carlos Maza or Steven Crowder. The recommendations feature.
KEVIN ROOSE: I’ve been fascinated with YouTube for a longtime, and like the recommendations algorithm specifically. Like, I feel like people think that’s a sort of side feature because it appears beside the video, but like it’s the product. So, if you want to like, understand what YouTube is you have to understand like how that little box works.
ALEX: That little box – that’s the engine that drives YouTube. But that wasn’t always the case, in 2006 when Google bought YouTube for over a billion dollars, people were confused about how it was going to make money. Because back then it was just like a searchable America’s Funniest Home Videos.
CHARLIE VIDEO: Oh, ouch.
Stuff like "Charlie Bit My Finger."
CHARLIE VIDEO: Ouch! Charlie...
ALEX: YouTube was a free website hosting an infinite amount of video, which gets really expensive. So Google decides to start running ads against the videos, which brings in some money, but not enough. Because at the time, the way YouTube worked was that people would go there, they'd watch a video and they'd leave. So YouTube decides to tweak its algorithm.
KEVIN ROOSE: So YouTube in 2012, decided to make a sort of fundamental change in the way that their algorithms worked. So instead of selecting based on views it was going to try to optimize watch time. So the overall time that people spent on YouTube would be the thing that factored into the algorithm.
ALEX: So now that Youtube is focusing on how long people stay on their site, they set this ridiculously ambitious goal for themselves. They want people to spend one billion hours a day on YouTube.
KEVIN ROOSE: That was their north star for many, many years. They talked about it publicly. All their executives were sort of obsessed with this billion hours number.
ALEX: Every design choice and every engineering choice that YouTube was making at this point was supposed to try and get people to watch videos longer. And so, they tweaked the recommendation algorithm so that it favored longer videos and the people who created them.
KEVIN ROOSE: That’s when you saw this birth of these like YouTube commentators who would just go on for half an hour, for forty five minutes, for an hour, a day about something in the news as a kind of way to, to juice their watch time.
STEVEN CROWDER: The global warming alarmists are out in flock, you’ve seen these people
ALEX: Steven Crowder is actually a great example of this — when he started making videos in 2009, they were mostly like under five minutes. Stuff like short sketches where he would play characters.
STEVEN CROWDER: Have you been outside? It’s mild and sunny in the middle of winter, proof of global warming for ya!
ALEX: But around 2015, his videos ballooned to like 30, sometimes 60 minutes. And there were a lot more sitdown interviews with people like James O’Keefe and Gavin McInnes.
STEVEN CROWDER: Ben Shapiro how are you sir?
BEN SHAPIRO: I’m doing ok how are you dude?
STEVEN: I’m doing alright, so I never know how to broach this subject...
ALEX: Around the same time, YouTube came up with this other innovation to keep people on the site longer, which is after you finished a video another video, recommended to you based on what you'd watched, would start playing automatically.
The problem is that the recommendations weren’t really that smart. When you finished one video generally you would just get recommended a more popular version of the thing you’d just watched.
KEVIN: So if you were watching like an obscure synthesizer tutorial, it might push you to a more popular synthesizer tutorial. (ALEX: Mm-hmm) And then it might push you to a Ted Talk about synthesizers, and then it might push you to a, you know, a performance by um…
ALEX: Herbie Hancock!
KEVIN: Herbie Hancock. Um, and inside YouTube people actually refer to this as the “Gangnam Style Problem.”
KEVIN: Because if you just left your YouTube, there was a, sort of an internal joke at the company, like if you left your YouTube running–
ALEX: It would automatically- it would–all roads lead back to Gangnam Style.
KEVIN: Like- it would–it would eventually get to Gangnam Style because that was like the most popular video on the website.
ALEX: Got it.
ALEX: In 2015, YouTube makes another huge change to their algorithm. They’re trying to fix the Gangnam Style problem. And they do that by tweaking the algorithm in a whole bunch of different ways. So now, the algorithm starts recommending videos to people that they’ve never heard of, often, videos more niche than what they’re watching.
KEVIN: So, instead of taking you toward Gangnam Style, it might take you in a more obscure direction, or down sort of an adjacent rabbit hole to the one that you are in.
ALEX: Got it.
ALEX: This may sound innocuous, but the consequences of this algorithm change were huge.
Because if a YouTube user was watching a video that leaned towards extreme viewpoints, Youtube would then recommend a video that was even more extreme. So like, a 9/11- was an-inside-job video could lead you to a moon-landing-was-a-hoax-video. Or, an anti-affirmative action lecture could lead you to a video about eugenics.
MONTAGE: Why would any woman fight against the patriarchy?
And this is how previously obscure conspiracy theorists, racists, etcetera suddenly started getting a ton of new traffic from YouTube.
ALEX: In 2016, YouTube hit their goal. They blew past a billion hours a day. But the problem is they did it at least in part by letting all these sort of fringe voices flourish on their site.
This January, YouTube tried to fix some of this -- they tweaked the algorithm so that it stopped recommending flat earth videos or anti-vaxxer videos.
But it’s much harder for them to regulate this huge category of alt-right provocateurs that they elevated during their pursuit of a billion hours. Because when those people break the rules, or tiptoe around them -- they do so knowing that they have power. Because their whole brand is that what they’re saying is dangerous, and the establishment wants to shut them up. And so any action that youTube takes, risks coming off as censorship.
KEVIN: I think that they fear political backlash if they start banning people because–
ALEX: What kind of political backlash exactly?
KEVIN: I mean, you’ve already seen congressional hearings about anti-conservative bias, you know, executives from social media companies have been dragged to Capitol Hill to explain themselves. The president is tweeting about how people can’t find him on Twitter, um, because Twitter is biased against conservatives.
Guitar sting --
Steven Crowder used this exact playbook when Carlos complained to YouTube.
STEVEN CROWDER: This is corporate censorship. And this is yet another giant company trying to lean on this channel, your channel, and the content that you've created. And this is a war, I want to make sure that everyone understands, we will fight to the absolute bitter end both legally and publicly.
ALEX: Remember this was all happening before YouTube had even rendered a verdict -- before they’d indicated they might punish Steven Crowder in any way.
After 5 days of essentially radio silence, Youtube got back to Carlos.
They told him quote, “Our teams spent the last few days conducting an in-depth review of the videos flagged to us and while we found language that was clearly hurtful, the videos as posted don’t violate our policies.”
Everyone who agreed with Carlos was enraged by this decision. But then, a day later YouTube surprised everybody by saying -- actually -- we are going to punish Steven Crowder.
We’re going to demonetize his videos, meaning he can’t make any money off of them until he changes his behavior. This made Steven Crowder livid, and I was curious how Carlos felt about it.
ALEX: So they finally kind of came back and demonetize these videos. What does that mean to you? Does it mean anything? Is it enough?
CARLOS: No. Demonetizing doesn't work because people who benefit from this platform aren't primarily using it because of the money that YouTube gives through ad revenue. They're using it to build an audience with a massive free technology that they otherwise wouldn't have access to. And if Steven Crowder gets demonetized, it doesn't matter because he's able to sell merch to the- to this now loyal fan base of customers that YouTube found for him. And he can say buy my mug, buy my socialism is for fags shirts. Steven Crowder has almost 4 million subscribers, who hang onto his every word.
ALEX: It wasn’t just Carlos, a lot of people that I talked to told me that YouTube thinks of demonetization as a serious punishment, when many times, it just isn’t. I wanted to ask YouTube how they’d come to their decision, and so I asked them for an interview.
ALEX: If you could tell me your name and your title.
ANDREA FAVILE: Sure. Andrea Faville. I'm the head of corporate communications for YouTube.
ALEX: So the reason I got in touch is because I was interested in talking about YouTube's moderation sort of in the wake of the Steven Crowder Carlos Maza blow up. And the reason I wanted to is because to me personally, what Steven Crowder did like his behavior was like racist, homophobic. It seemed tailormade to victimize Carlos Maza and to marshal Steven Crowder’s fans to like harass him and humiliate him which is exactly what they did. And if I were the person who moderated YouTube I think that I probably would've kicked him off. And that's not what YouTube's decided to do and I'm just wondering what the calculus was in making that decision.
ANDREA: Yeah sure. So I think first of all just to take a step back it's important to understand what our harassment policy actually does and what it covers.
ANDREA: And um, so what our harassment policy does is it looks for videos where the primary purpose of the video is to harass, insult, bully another person or to incite harassment of that person.
ALEX: Mm hmm.
ANDREA: I also think it's important to keep in mind that what a lot of folks, uh, saw in the case of the Steven Crowder Carlos Maza incident was they saw a supercut of clips that had been spliced together.
ANDREA: From various different videos that Crowder uploaded.
ALEX: What Andrea’s talking about here is that montage that Carlos posted to Twitter of all the nasty things that Steven Crowder said about him.
ANDREA: And if that exact video had been uploaded to YouTube, that video would have violated our policies.
ALEX: Well I mean–
ANDREA: Oh sorry, go ahead.
ALEX: If I can jump in for just a minute. After this whole dustup took place, Steven Crowder made a video where he basically, it was his quote unquote apology video. And it was just him repeating all of the slurs that he's used in the past in this sort of faux apology in order to be able to just say them all in a row again.
ANDREA: I mean and, and it was directed at a lot of different people. I do want to go back to like the supercut video for a second.
ANDREA: Because I do think this is important to understand. It was entirely composed of insults and harassment. And the purpose of that video, if viewed, would have been clearly to harass another person. What we were actually responding to were the videos that were uploaded on YouTube which were actually fairly long response videos to videos that had already been posted (ALEX: Right.) discussing and debating the ideas in those videos. They included some offensive language but it was actually a much longer political debate.
ALEX: Andrea said that YouTube had taken lumps
from both sides in this fight. Carlos Maza supporters were mad because Steven Crowder hadn’t been banned from YouTube. And Steven Crowder supporters were mad because he’d been demonetized.
But the thing that really surprised me about this conversation was that Andrea said YouTube didn't want to take these videos down because the context of the videos mattered. That most people only saw the supercut of insults. But if they had watched Steven Crowder's videos in their entirety, they would understand that the offensive stuff was just a small percentage of what actually appears in the videos. I asked Carlos what he thought about this, and he found the idea really naive.
CARLOS: It feels mind numbing to argue this because it feels like arguing that the sky is blue or that gravity exists. Hate speech is almost always coupled with some other demand or criticism of the target. When I was in high school people would say, “Hey faggot get out of the way.” Or, “Hey faggot shut up.” And the primary intent of that speech was to get me to do something. But the presence of hate speech had a very important effect and secondary impact, not just on me the target, but on the audience that was watching it.
And what YouTube has done is basically say, “Hey if you want to get away with hate speech on the platform just make sure you sandwich it between, you know, 10 minutes of political nonsense that isn't that. It's, it's not an anti-harassment policy, it's an instruction manual for how to harass.
And it signals to queer people or people of color that if you want to participate in political discussions on YouTube that part of the price you have to pay is being willing to tolerate that we're going to get called a lispy queer or get made fun of for how we speak and how we act.
And it's one that, that costs us meaningful access to free speech because who in their right mind would want to talk about politics if they knew that every time they did, they'd get called a lispy queer?
When YouTube started out, it began with this idea that was very utopian -- it was going to be a forum for free speech, a marketplace of ideas. And even before they’d made a ton of money, before they found themselves under lots of political pressure, they had a genuine belief that they wanted to censor people as little as possible.
The problem is that the internet looks way more like a high school than it does like some kind of free speech utopia. If you don’t decide what’s acceptable, the loudest people will decide for you.
ALEX: So have you made any video since the one that preceded this dust up?
CARLOS: No, I haven't.
ALEX: Are you going to keep making videos?
CARLOS: Yeah, that's like the plan. Um, I don't know honestly like, Crowder has been super awful since all this stuff happened, and I kind of know that the next thing I publish is gonna get absolutely bombarded by these people and that now there's like a huge target on my back. I did this job for two and a half years, I caused this big conversation about YouTube's policies and that feels important and meaningful. I didn't win, I didn’t really fix anything. Maybe I like set it in motion, but I just miss being boring. There is a part of my brain that's like, “I'm going to quit and go teach to Dungeons & Dragons to kids for the rest of my life.” And that sounds really appealing, but my honest answer is I don't know.
ALEX: You said something to the effect of, “I lost.” Is that, Is that, is that like really how you feel?
CARLOS: I mean, the like intellectual, not emotional part of my brain is like, “You started an important conversation.” But there's this other feeling–part of my brain that's like, “Every morning I wake up to tweets from Steven Crowder fans saying, he named you his employee of the month this month because you helped him sell more mugs than he's ever sold.” I think today he's like moving into a bigger studio, he’s like upgrading all of his equipment. He's made a ton of money now. He gets to keep calling me a fairy or whatever he calls me on his YouTube channels like the day after YouTube's announcement, he was back to saying stuff about me. And YouTube didn't admit that they had screwed up.
And like everyone in my family had to like change their passwords. People asked me how this story ends, I'm gonna have to say and, and then nothing.
if I didn't lose, I like lost a lot in the process.
Carlos Maza. You can find his old Vox videos on their site, his series is called Strikethrough.
Reply All is hosted by PJ Vogt and me Alex Goldman. We’re produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, Damiano Marchetti, Anna Foley, Jessica Yung, and Emmanuel Dzotsi. Our editor is Tim Howard. We’re mixed by Rick Kwan. Fact-checking by Michelle Harris. Our intern is Emily Rostek. Special thanks this week to Claire Stapleton, Megan Farokhmanesh, Chris Stokel-Walker, Mark Bergen, Dieter Bohn
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