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Tina Casey headshot

When Boycotts Work: YouTube Relives 2017 Nightmare Yet Again

By Tina Casey
The age of social media is far from over, but recent troubles at Google’s YouTube could signal the beginning of the end, as now the company is again struggling with highly offensive content.

The age of social media is far from over, but recent troubles at Google’s YouTube could signal the beginning of the end, as now the company is again struggling with highly offensive content.

The age of social media is far from over, but the recent troubles of Google’s YouTube could signal the beginning of the end. In 2017, YouTube toughed out an advertiser exodus sparked by offensive content. Now the company is barreling down the same road all over again.

The fundamental problem is that the social media business model operates on a shoestring. Its high volume, open invitation to participate does not allow for the granular gate-keeping that characterizes conventional media.

When boycotts work: YouTube and behavior change

YouTube’s current troubles involve a new episode, but the seeds were sown back in 2017, when it became one of the high-profile media platforms targeted for boycott by the online organization Sleeping Giants.

Rather than asking individual consumers to boycott YouTube and other targets, Sleeping Giants prevailed upon people to publicly shame corporate advertisers.

TriplePundit’s reporting on the Sleeping Giants campaign in 2017 included this observation:

“In the latest bad news for YouTube, Ad Age reports that Verizon and Johnson & Johnson joined a growing list of brands that have suspended advertising on the site.”

The advertiser boycott did have some impact. At the end of 2018, YouTube rolled out a group of reforms aimed at providing advertisers with more control over where their ads appear — for a price, of course.

Regardless of YouTube’s behavior change, some top brands (notably, Unilever) continued to push back against YouTube’s lax standards last year.

That was a wise precaution. By providing advertisers with more control over where their ads were place, YouTube only addressed one part of the problem.

The new restrictions really didn’t add much in the way of new efforts to restrict the videos posted on YouTube’s platform. They also did not affect comments posted on the site.

That festering problem burst open in full force last week, when The Guardian reported that Epic Games and Nestlé pulled their advertising from YouTube, after discovering that “videos filled with provocative comments about children” could be accessed with ease.

YouTube user Matt Watson is credited with revealing the “wormhole” into pedophilia. He outlined the scope of the problem in a video posted last week, captioned with the incendiary title, “YouTube is Facilitating the Sexual Exploitation of Children, and it's Being Monetized.”

“Paedophiles are trading social media contacts; they’re trading links to actual child porn in YouTube comments; they’re trading unlisted videos in secret, and YouTube’s algorithm through some glitch in its programming is facilitating their ability to do this," wrote Watson.

AT&T, Hasbro, Kellogg and Disney were also among those pulling or at least suspending their advertising on account of the offensive comments.

Boycotts and behavior change

To its credit, YouTube reacted quickly when the news broke. The video-sharing service disabled algorithms that helped users find offensive content and disabled “tens of millions” of comments on videos featuring children, among other actions.

Nevertheless, YouTube’s troubles are chipping away at Google’s brand reputation.

Google (aka Alphabet) is the parent company of YouTube. Though the general public may not be aware of the connection now, the YouTube scandal is drawing renewed attention to the relationship.

Wired reported on the pedophilia scandal and underscored that point. In addition to citing other advertisers, the February 20 article called out Google, reporting that “banner advertising for Google and the World Business Forum also appeared alongside some of the videos.”

The National Center on Sexual Exploitation is also spreading the word. The organization’s Vice President of Advocacy and Outreach, Haley Halverson, took a look at YouTube after the company announced its action steps, and she found that it was still peppered with offensive comments.

As a result of all this, the organization placed Google — not YouTube — on its 2019 Dirty Dozen List for mainstream facilitators of sexual exploitation, alongside Amazon, EBSCO, HBO, Massage Envy, Netflix, the state of Nevada, Roku, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, the video game distributor Steam, Twitter and United Airlines.

It’s also worth noting that just last month, BuzzFeed reported that videos for children posted on YouTube were accompanied by images suggestive of bestiality.

Last week, BuzzFeed also took note of self-harm tutorials spliced into children’s videos.

So, what’s next?

Chances are that advertisers will return to YouTube, just as they did after the 2017 episode quieted down.

However, those chances are slimmer than they would have been in the past. Advertisers are becoming acutely aware of the reputational damage that can occur when their brands are associated with offensive content.

AT&T, for example, was badly burned by last week’s episode. The company was among those dropping YouTube after the 2017 scandal, only to restore ties just a few weeks ago. Little wonder that the company responded to the latest scandal with this short, cutting statement:

“Until Google can protect our brand from offensive content of any kind, we are removing all advertising from YouTube.”

In addition, CNBC digital editor Matt Rosoff pointed another red flag that last week’s episode should raise.

Citing the example of Facebook, Rosoff cautions that users, not advertisers, could permanently turn away from YouTube and sites like it as the litany of bad behavior grows in size and scope:

“We started to see some hints of this with Facebook after the Cambridge Analytica scandal last year. While Facebook had been caught violating users' privacy dozens of times, the mere hint that a political consultancy might have used Facebook data to help elect Trump (although this is far from proven) set people off.”

Consumer boycotts rarely work, but they can be successful when the target is a brand that is already suffering reputation issues.

That pretty much sums up the problem for YouTube and Google, too.

Image credit: JM3 on Flickr

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey