Anyone who’s ever visited YouTube and ventured into the comments knows that the site struggles with how to deal with offensive content, and now it seems one of its content filtering features might have gone a bit too far. Over the past few days, several LGBT vloggers have accused YouTube of hiding their material through the “Restricted Mode” feature.
Restricted mode is an optional feature that automatically filters content. According to Google, which owns YouTube, they “use community flagging, age-restrictions, and other signals to identify and filter out potentially inappropriate content.” It’s off by default and can be turned on or off on each page, but it can also be locked to prevent changes on that browser.
British YouTuber Rowan Ellis, whose bio states she makes videos about “pop culture from a feminist and queer perspective” and has been posting videos for about two and a half years, posted a video yesterday criticizing YouTube for allowing this to happen:
The video is among those that is hidden in restricted mode, and Gizmodo verified that other channels had LGBT-related videos that disappeared on restricted mode. Other restricted videos include a video of a lesbian couple reading each other their wedding vows.
Ellis told Gizmodo that while she doesn’t know why this is happening, it’s troubling regardless, because it implies “there is a bias somewhere within that process equating LGBTQ+ with ‘not family friendly.’” Regardless of “how innocent or unintentional the ‘hows’ or ‘whys’ are, the effects cannot be ignored,” she added.
Another YouTuber, NeonFiona, posted side-by-side screenshots showing which videos were restricted. Titles including words like “gay,” “lesbian,” and “bisexual” were hidden:
In another tweet, NeonFiona pointed out that her other video, “An Honest Chat About Being Single,” actually discusses sex, whereas her “bi videos don’t.”
NeonFiona told Gizmodo that her videos focused on “normalising LGBT+ stuff and especially bisexuality.” She worries that young people who turn to YouTube for information on LGBT issues will miss out:
Kids who want to know about different orientations and definitions and about the history of LGBT people, etc, they can’t access that when their videos are being restricted. Restricting these videos makes it harder for these kids to find information they need and the community that they’ve been missing.
Trans YouTuber SeaineLove also tweeted about her videos being hidden last night. One of Seaine’s videos, “I Am Transgender,” disappears when viewed in restricted mode. The video is innocuous, and the swearing is censored.
Seaine told Gizmodo that she felt her video was “pretty G rated,” and that she simply wanted other LGBT youth to “be able to watch my videos and go ‘Hey, I feel the same way! That’s how I am too! Wow, that inspires me to be myself!’”
Others, including gamers and an ASMR channel, have also reported their videos being hidden in restricted mode, so it doesn’t appear as though this feature is specifically targeting LGBT videos; moreover, not all LGBT-themed videos are hidden in restricted mode. It doesn’t appear that the feature targets only and all LGBT content. It could well be a flaw with the algorithm, which is very inconsistent—some of these YouTubers’ LGBT videos stay visible in restricted mode while others are hidden.
In a statement, a Google spokesperson told Gizmodo that the feature is optional, and noted that videos that discuss sexuality may trip it up.
“Restricted Mode is an optional feature used by a very small subset of users who want to have a more limited YouTube experience,” the spokesperson said. “Some videos that cover subjects like health, politics and sexuality may not appear for users and institutions that choose to use this feature.”
While the spokesperson noted that the feature is fully optional, the feature’s own help page warns that “Computers in libraries, universities, and other public institutions may have Restricted Mode enabled by the system administrator.” That could pose a problem for kids whose main access to the internet is through computers at school.
According to Rowan Ellis, the fact that innocuous LGBT videos are being hidden is troubling, because it implies there’s something inherently offensive about being LGBT. “Videos about LGBTQ+ life, love, history, friendships etc are no more inappropriate than videos with straight couples or telling the history of straight figures,” she told Gizmodo. “Yet they are apparently being treated differently.”
Update 3/20/2017 8:20am EST: YouTube issued another statement yesterday on its YouTube Creators Twitter account, saying it’s “looking into” the problem:
Ellis’ video is also now visible on restricted mode, though comments are still turned off.
Update 3/20/2017 3:20pm EST: Perhaps recognizing that its first non-apology was not entirely satisfactory, YouTube Creators has tweeted about the restricted mode controversy again. While its earlier tweet merely expressed “regret” for any “confusion,” YouTube is now officially “sorry” for said confusion. They are now, it seems, “on it.”
Update 3/20/2017 10:05pm EST: In its third statement on the matter in just over 24 hours, YouTube has posted a fuller apology on its Creators blog, saying the “bottom line is that this feature isn’t working the way it should” and that the company is “going to fix it.”