YOUTUBE’S GUN VIDEO TYRANNY
VIDEO CHANNELS BEGIN TO FEEL THE FALLOUT FROM YOUTUBE’S FIREARM CONTENT RESTRICTIONS
Video Channels Begin to Feel the Fallout from YouTube’s Firearm Content Restrictions
YouTube is the land of people doing stupid stuff, cats, and, for firearms enthusiasts, guns — lots and lots of guns. From tutorials and reviews to footage of shooters just doing their thing, it’s all on YouTube for your viewing pleasure.
That’s because when a new YouTube gun video policy went into effect in April, just what is and isn’t taboo is far from settled. Instead of thousands of educational and informative videos on virtually any kind of weapon imaginable, YouTube could instead be home to more cats.
The idea that firearms content, seen by many as both a First and Second Amendment issue, could be tossed by someone who knows nothing about gun culture has video producers entering digital survivalist mode.
They aren’t playing a game of wait and see. They’re bracing for impact.
“The entire industry uses YouTube as a repository of information. It’s huge,” said Jon Patton, whose channel and brand The Gun Collective has almost 130,000 YouTube subscrib- ers and about 12.5 million views. “The same way Facebook could change elections, YouTube could silence an entire industry.”
YouTube made the change quietly in late March, long before a woman opened fire at the company’s California headquarters killing herself and injuring three others. Rather than just prohibiting videos featuring the much maligned bumpstock, the new policy creates bans for specific conversions or perfectly legal accessories, and opens the door to sweeping deletions.
“YouTube prohibits certain kinds of content featuring firearms. Specifically, we don’t allow content that: Intends to sell firearms or certain firearms accessories through direct sales (e.g., private sales by individuals) or links to sites that sell these items,” the policy reads. “These accessories include but may not be limited to accessories that enable a firearm to simulate automatic fire or convert a firearm to automatic fire (e.g., bumpstocks, rotary triggers, drop-in auto sears, conversion kits), and high capacity magazines (i.e., magazines or belts carrying more than 30 rounds).”
And then it goes on, banning content that “provides instructions on manufacturing a firearm, ammunition, high capacity magazine, homemade silencers/suppressors, or certain firearms accessories such as those listed above. This also includes instructions on how to convert a firearm to automatic or simulated automatic firing capabilities, [or] shows users how to in-stall the above-mentioned accessories or modifications.”
As of this writing, YouTube, owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, has been silent on the inspiration for its expanded gun policy, but it’s not hard to guess the cause.
In October 2017 the site prohibited videos demonstrating bumpstocks or how to “convert firearms to make them fire more quickly,” YouTube officials said in statements at the time. The most recent policy change was made about one month after a former student killed 17 people at
a high school in Parkland, Florida, and just days before thousands attended a gun control rally in Washington, D.C.
It’s easy to see how the new policy raises questions among firearm pros.
For example, blocking content that “provides instructions on manufacturing a firearm” clearly rules out how-to videos for homemade guns, but what about a tutorial on assembling a gun after cleaning? And if “conversion kits” are banned, does that include, for example, installing aftermarket stocks?
But for many producers, the stickiest problem of all lies in the new rule against content that “intends to sell firearms or certain firearms accessories.”
Although YouTube-generated advertising has long been blocked for videos that Google sees as fitting that category, the existence of the videos themselves has never been at risk.
In a world of content pumped full of promotions, reviews, and firepower that marketers hope will inspire viewers to get out their wallets, banning videos that could fit an “intends to sell” description gives YouTube the leeway to censor pretty much anything, producers worried.
Patton and others already know that including links to products in their video descriptions, a common practice, means their pages won’t have YouTube placed ads on or in them. But the new rules seem to say that including any of those links or promoting guns at all could also simply mean their channels will cease to exist.
THE MODERATOR PROBLEM
Unlike the majority of video producers with small to midsize followings, Tim Harmsen’s almost 700,000 YouTube subscribers on his Military Arms Channel grants him something others don’t have: access. He has a direct line to YouTube through a YouTube representative with insider intel.
What he’s learned by questioning that contact since the announcement is, well, not much. So far, he said, his requests for clarification haven’t really been answered. If YouTube officials understand the nuances of their own gun policy, they haven’t told Harmsen.
YouTube and, by extension, Google are making the rules, but it appears that no one there knows how to play the game, Harmsen said.
As part of its “community policies,” YouTube has about a dozen contentspecific rule categories around topics like “hate speech,” “child endangerment,” and, of course, “firearms.” Those rules are policed through layers of official and unofficial content moderators.
But just what training those employees or the volunteer flaggers have in the nuances of guns is anyone’s guess, said Harmsen.
“In my conversations with Google I said, ‘If you unleash these 10,000 moderators … it’s basically a ban on all firearms videos because they don’t know jack sh*t about firearms,’” he said. “Pretty much anything firearms related to an untrained eye, these moderators who don’t want to lose their jobs, they’re going to flag it.”
The flagging system is only the start of the parade of new issues for gun video creators and the channels they run.
The real problem is what happens next. If a flagged video is confirmed as violating the YouTube policy, the channel it’s posted by is given a “strike,” which sits on the account for 90 days. If a channel gets two strikes in that period, they’re blocked for posting anything new for two weeks.
Three strikes, and “your account will be terminated,” Google warns.
That means all of the channel’s videos and content are deleted, creators said. And while strikes can be appealed, there’s no promise as to how quickly those appeals will be processed.
THE MONEY GAME
Some content producers already know the burn of a channel cancellation all too well.
Take James Yeager, for example.
His channel, run under his name, had 336,000 subscribers but was killed by YouTube last fall after receiving three strikes. He then started a second channel, Tactical Response, which YouTube has allowed him to keep.
The deletion of his original channel did more than just eliminate his hard work and a parade of a million views per month. He said it hurt his bottom line. That’s because, like many content producers, Yeager wasn’t just running his channel for the hell of it; he was using it to earn money.
Google’s AdSense system pays producers based on viewership but requires that videos and the text posted with them abide by a set of standards. Expanded last summer, those standards rule out a variety of gun or “violent” content, including “pages that drive traffic to firearm sales,” the rule that has now been expanded to the YouTube policy.
It was thanks to that change that channels like the Military Arms Channel went from making what Harmsen called “good money,” to having their ad revenue cut by as much as 90 percent.
AdSense isn’t the only way using YouTube can pay. Content producers also make money through sponsorships, paid reviews, or links back to advertisers placed in the video description, all made problematic by any rule against promoting sales.
But more than anything else, the AdSense changes forced video producers to start funding their channels through crowd-funding sites like Patreon, which marshals pledges and cash support from fans. Using that system ensures they aren’t relying on the whims of YouTube or its moderator team to guarantee paydays.
That support from viewers like you, they said, keeps them producing and means YouTube doesn’t have to be the boss of what they can and cannot do.
… Sort of.
FINDING SAFE HAVEN
YouTube’s site isn’t the be-all and end-all of gun video hosting. RECOILtv and Full30.com, among others, offer content space.
But YouTube is the biggest, which is why the announcement sparked a wave of worry from producers over the bigger question regarding their videos: If YouTube kicks them out, who will take them in?
Part of the answer for one channel, InRange TV, is the porn industry. In the wake of YouTube’s announcement, InRange founders Ian McCollum and Karl Kasarda announced that they’d had enough of YouTube’s power plays and would happily begin uploading their videos to a site that has no problem protecting freedom of speech: PornHub.
With plenty of server capacity and no chance that their videos will be considered too edgy, McCollum said, the pair’s decision to utilize PornHub in addition to a variety of other sites, including Full30 and Facebook, makes sense.
But what PornHub doesn’t offer InRange and the others who have since joined them there is a guaranteed path to the almighty dollar. Many firearms or firearms accessory advertisers likely won’t appreciate PornHub’s NSFW qualities, the other ads that’ll populate next to their products, or the idea of further tying the two industries, producers worried.
That’s why many content brands and industry insiders are looking for a more family friendly home than PornHub can supply. And there are plenty to choose from. Since the YouTube announcement, a flurry of hosts have cropped up, including Utah Gun Exchange and GunStreamer.com, joining already established platforms like Full30 and RECOILtv; the latter is currently opening up its video platform to media partners.
But starting a video hosting site isn’t as simple as it sounds, said Harmsen, who cofounded Full30. The recently launched platforms don’t yet support advertising, and running servers and technical support for video hosting is expensive — a truth that has kept Full30 from expanding consistently since its 2014 founding. He said his site currently has over 1,000 producers lined up looking for space that he can’t yet offer thanks to those challenges.
“The bandwidth costs alone are phenomenal,” he said. “Full30 has every intention of being that lifeboat when we are sure the infrastructure can handle the load.”
He said he thinks the new platforms won’t last, if only because they’ll run out of the money needed to stay in operation.
THE BIGGER QUESTIONS
While the YouTube change has left producers scrambling over practical problems like where to host their videos, it has also raised loftier questions that both industry insiders and video producers say will necessitate long game thinking.
They start with freedom of speech and flow quickly to the Second Amendment battle with which firearms enthusiasts have become all too familiar.
At what point, producers have asked, does a privately owned company become a part of the public interest? Should it be OK for YouTube to ban videos of legal firearms activities and products while still populating bomb making videos and violent video game content? And does YouTube have to answer for what many see as the hypocritical standard of allowing some types of potentially dangerous content, while banning others?
YouTube, said McCollum, allows
“all manner of illegal activity” to be displayed on the site, but still has plans to remove large numbers of completely legal firearms videos.
“YouTube is basically the biggest library in history. They exist as a digital content provider and at least, to me, I think that’s their role,” McCollum said. “On a much grander scale, do we, as a society, really want YouTube to decide which speech is going to be free?”
InRange TV founders
Ian McCollum, left, and Karl Kasarda talk to their YouTube audience about changes
in their funding model, asking them to support them using
Jon Patton talks in a
video posted to his YouTube channel, The Gun Collective, about his giveaway hosted on another site. YouTube’s new gun policy could be interpreted to block even that kind
Tim Harmsen demonstrates use of a YHM Turbo 5.56 Silencer in this still from a video on his Military Arms Channel on YouTube. Under their new gun policy videos like this could be banned.
James Yeager discusses his goals for 2018 in a still from a YouTube video posted to his channel. He recently launched his own video platform in an attempt to flee the site’s new restrictions.