While debate rages on about YouTube and other social media platforms censoring content in a way many conservatives claim represents a clear political bias, the video-sharing platform again made headlines this week for content it didn’t censor: namely, explicit instructions on how best to commit suicide being spliced into popular children’s programming.
It may sound like the sort of sensational story you’d expect to be able to file under “fake news,” but these videos are a frightening reality for parents that play entertaining or educational videos for their children using the popular platform, as well as its supposedly “safe for kids” sister platform “YouTube Kids.” The video that prompted this latest bout of concern regarding YouTube censorship policies was first spotted by a mother who chose not to divulge her name on the parenting blog “Pedimom.com,” but has since been identified as Free Hess.
Hess, who is identified as a physician in the blog post, said she sat down with her son who was having a nosebleed. In order to keep him calm until the nosebleed stopped, she turned on YouTube Kids and they proceeded to watch a children’s cartoon together.
“Four minutes and forty-five seconds into the video, a man quickly walked onto the screen, held his arm out, and taught the children watching this video how to properly kill themselves,” she wrote.
“The man quickly walked in, held his arm out, and tracing his forearm, said, ‘Kids, remember, cut this way for attention, and this way for results,’ and then quickly walked off.”
The mother reported the video and got a hold of friends and family members asking them to report it as well. The video remained on the site for some time after, but has since been removed.
Google acknowledged what happened and offered this prepared statement to Ars Technica:
We work to make the videos in YouTube Kids family-friendly and take feedback very seriously. We appreciate people drawing problematic content to our attention, and make it possible for anyone to flag a video. Flagged videos are manually reviewed 24/7 and any videos that don’t belong in the app are removed. We’ve also been investing in new controls for parents including the ability to hand-pick videos and channels in the app. We are making constant improvements to our systems and recognize there’s more work to do.
The backlash facing Google may not have been so severe had the platform not already demonstrated a propensity for censoring content. Last year, YouTube announced a new policy that bans content that promotes the sale of firearms or firearm accessories. It has also been accused on multiple occasions of exercising a liberal bias in the platform’s censorship decisions, seemingly working to limit the reach of conservative voices, according to some accusers. YouTube’s parent company, Google, had a case dismissed early last year that accused the video-streaming platform of silencing conservative voices, but because neither Google nor YouTube qualify as “state actors,” they are not subject to the First Amendment.
YouTube has also recently made headlines by removing Alex Jones from the platform and working to prevent conspiratorial content from being as readily shared. Each of these topics has been the subject of debate, with some seeing these decisions as responsible exercises of the platform’s ability to censor negative messaging and others seeing each new policy as an infringement on the free spread of ideas. While not covered by the First Amendment, many contend that digital gathering places like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter have an ethical obligation not to shape the national discourse based on the pervasive politics within each company.
So as debate rages on about what massive platforms like YouTube should be censoring, it seems the focal point of Google’s efforts may have been too squarely within the political domain, as adults are being protected from content that some deem inappropriate, but children are still exposed to objectively horrifying content like the video cited above.
“It makes me angry and sad and frustrated,” Hess told CNN about the video she saw with her son. “I’m a pediatrician, and I’m seeing more and more kids coming in with self harm and suicide attempts. I don’t doubt that social media and things such as this is contributing.”