YouTube has rolled back a permanent suspension of Right Wing Watch (RWW), a nonprofit that tracks extremist individuals and groups, apparently backtracking from its stance that documenting those extremists’ actions is the same as promoting them.
RWW tweeted on Monday that its mission to “expose the bigoted view and dangerous conspiracy theories spread by right-wing activists” had been disrupted by YouTube. According to screenshots of emails tweeted by the organization, YouTube moderators wrote they had found “severe or repeated violations of our Community Guidelines.” RWW appealed the decision but received a response from the Google-owned video site saying, “Thank you for your account suspension appeal. We have decided to keep your account suspended.”
Hours later, however, and presumably after receiving numerous media inquiries, YouTube backpedaled in predictable fashion.
The video giant changed its mind, acknowledged it hadn’t made the right call, and reinstated the group’s channel. In a statement to Gizmodo, a YouTube spokesperson described the decision to ban it in the first place as an error: “Right Wing Watch’s YouTube channel was mistakenly suspended, but upon further review, has now been reinstated.”
RWW is a project of People for the American Way (PFAW), a group originally launched in 1981 to combat the growing influence of evangelical Christians in U.S. politics (specifically the Moral Majority, a “traditional family values” political organization that dissolved in the 1980s but served as a predecessor to today’s powerful religious right). While it is perhaps best known for tracking prominent far-righters like InfoWars conspiracist Alex Jones or The 700 Club host Pat Robertson, much of RWW’s work focuses on an array of more obscure individuals ranging from members of the “constitutional sheriff” movement and radical evangelical preachers to radio hosts, QAnon personalities, and all other manner of volatile weirdos.
RWW’s detailed site and video collections thus exist as a long-term archive of extremists’ past comments and actions, which is both helpful for understanding their actions in the present and a roadblock to them obscuring their pasts in pursuit of greater public exposure. On more than a few occasions, RWW’s coverage has played a role in extremists getting suspended from sites like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, which goes a long way toward explaining the gloating tone of right-wing Twitter users responding to the tweet in which the site announced it was banned.
Kyle Mantyla, a senior fellow at RWW, told Gizmodo via email that YouTube had issued two strikes against its account in April (which also resulted in denied appeals) and that the organization had largely ceased publishing to YouTube pending the expiration of those strikes in July. But YouTube issued a third and supposedly final strike last week, citing a video that was nearly a decade old.
“Last week, we got a third strike for a video that we posted eight years ago and YouTube terminated our account,” Mantyla wrote. “We filed an appeal to that decision, explaining the mission of RWW and our purpose for posting such videos. YouTube rejected our appeal without any real explanation, so we announced their decision on Twitter this morning, which generated various news stories, resulting in bad press for them, which eventually caused them to relent this afternoon and reinstate our account, again without any real explanation or suggestions as to how we can avoid having our future videos removed and winding up in this exact same place at some point down the line.”
Mantyla told the Daily Beast that YouTube’s moderation had been increasingly penalizing RWW’s account as the video titan claimed to be addressing issues like extremism, disinformation, and hate speech on its platform. As RWW awaited the expiration of the strikes, it simply posted to smaller competitor Vimeo instead. Both YouTube and Vimeo have similar rules against hate speech, disinformation, and the like, but both sites have sections specifying the importance of context when making moderation decisions.
Mantyla wrote to Gizmodo that “the loss of our YouTube channel was not particularly detrimental to our efforts” given the alternate platform available, “but right-wing activists certainly had a short-lived field day attempting to dunk on us over this issue, which we were confident would eventually be resolved in our favor.”
The future of RWW’s account on YouTube remained in question, he wrote, as the prior strikes remained in place.
“While we are grateful that YouTube has restored our account, we have been having this problem with the platform for years and it shouldn’t take a public shaming for them to respond,” Mantyla told Gizmodo. “As of this moment, we still have two strikes against our account, so it is entirely possible that our channel could disappear again tomorrow.”
“As for right-wing activists prematurely celebrating the loss of our channel, that was to be expected,” Mantyla added. “It seems like a weird self-own for them to be rejoicing that our channel was terminated for posting clips of them saying bigoted and outrageous things.”
In a statement, Right Wing Watch’s director, Adele Stan, wrote that “there is a world of difference between reporting on offensive activities and committing them.”
“Without the ability to accurately portray dangerous behavior, meaningful journalism and public education about that behavior would cease to exist,” Stan added. “We hope this is the end of a years-long struggle with YouTube to understand the nature of our work. We also hope the platform will become more transparent about the process it uses to determine whether a user has violated its rules, which has always been opaque and has led to frustrating and inexplicable decisions and reversals such as the one we experienced today.”
Update: June 28, 2021 at 7:05 p.m. ET: This post has been updated with comment from Right Wing Watch.