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What do YouTube’s new harassment policies mean for music?


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Spend any amount of time digging in to the comments on any public figure’s social-media accounts, and you’ll quickly realise it’s not all wonderful #engagement with fans. In fact, it can often be a cesspit. This is a challenge all the social networks (and streaming services with comments enabled) are trying to tackle. Yesterday, YouTube announced its latest measures to deal with harassment on its platform, including within content as well as comments.

“We’ve always removed videos that explicitly threaten someone, reveal confidential personal information, or encourage people to harass someone else. Moving forward, our policies will go a step further and not only prohibit explicit threats, but also veiled or implied threats. This includes content simulating violence toward an individual or language suggesting physical violence may occur,” explained YouTube in a blog post.

Also: “We will no longer allow content that maliciously insults someone based on protected attributes such as their race, gender expression, or sexual orientation. This applies to everyone, from private individuals to YouTube creators, to public officials.”

YouTube is also promising to take action against harassment when it comes in “a pattern of repeated behaviour across multiple videos or comments, even if any individual video doesn’t cross our policy line”, by stiffening its policies for its YouTube Partner Program including demonetising channels, removing videos and even “issuing strikes or terminating a channel altogether”. And all of these new policies will apply to comments too,

What, you might wonder, does all this mean for music? Interestingly, the BBC’s report on the changes, which includes an interview with YouTube’s chief product officer Neal Mohan, reports that YouTube “said there would be some exemptions from the new policy, including insults used in ‘scripted satire, stand-up comedy, or music’.”

Diss tracks should be okay, then – at ease, everyone waiting for Eminem’s riposte to Nick Cannon – although YouTube has in the past found itself at the centre of a controversy in the UK around the ‘drill music’ sub-genre, when in 2018 London’s Metropolitan Police Commissioner accused gangs of using their drill music-videos to make specific threats against rivals (“They say what they’re going to do to each other and specifically what they are going to do to who”). YouTube deleted dozens of drill videos at the time, but critics have argued that the controversy was (in the words of journalist Dan Hancox) “situated in a long history of police and judicial persecution of black music”.

YouTube’s new policies are aimed at genuine, targeted harassment, and they’re a good step forward for its platform, while the mention of exemptions for satire, comedy and music suggests that there’s careful thought around the implications. As Spotify infamously found out when trying to implement a ‘hateful conduct’ policy, unintended consequences can emerge when a digital platform trying to do the right thing least expects them. If YouTube can walk the line between clamping down on harassment (which, of course, is often targeted at musicians) and free speech, it will be a good thing.

Eamonn Forde

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