YouTube’s refusal to remove a song some employees find racist to people of Asian origin has caused a fracas inside the company, the latest clash in a growing national debate about anti-Asian hate.
Workers at Google’s YouTube recently posted on internal message boards to criticize executives who decided against taking down videos featuring the rap song “Meet the Flockers,” which debuted in 2014 from recording artist YG. The track, about a burglary, includes lyrics that encourage the targeting of neighborhoods where Chinese people live.
Over the past year, there’s been a surge in violence against members of Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities, culminating in the fatal shooting of eight people, including six Asian-American women, at three Atlanta area spas on March 16.
The disagreement over “Meet the Flockers” began when some YouTube employees asked the company’s Trust & Safety team to purge the song from the video platform. An executive from that department, and another content policy leader, denied the request in an email to staff on March 22.
“We find this video to be highly offensive and understand it is painful for many to watch, including many in Trust & Safety and especially given the ongoing violence against the Asian community,” the executives wrote. While the lyrics may otherwise violate the company’s hate speech policy, they said YouTube makes exceptions for clips that have an Educational, Documentary, Scientific or Artistic (EDSA) context.
“While we debated this decision at length amongst our policy experts, we made the difficult decision to leave the video up to enforce our policy consistently and avoid setting a precedent that may lead to us having to remove a lot of other music on YouTube,” they added in the email, a copy of which was obtained by Bloomberg.
“YouTube has an open culture and employees are encouraged to share their views, even when they disagree with a decision,” a YouTube spokeswoman said in a statement. “We’ll continue this dialogue as part of our ongoing work to balance openness with protecting the YouTube community at large.” The company asked Bloomberg to keep the executives’ names confidential for security reasons.
In the final quarter of 2020, YouTube said it removed more than 97,000 videos and over 46 million comments for violating the company’s policies on hate speech.
The debate at YouTube is the latest example of Silicon Valley workers and executives being at loggerheads over the societal or moral implications of a company’s business decisions. Alphabet Inc.’s Google has previously faced worker outrage over an effort to build a censored search engine for China, an AI contract with the U.S. military and a giant exit package for an executive accused of sexual misconduct.
While the YouTube decision on “Meet the Flockers” underscores a belief in artistic expression, music is a significant revenue stream for the platform because much of it is ad-supported, including some songs by YG.
In response to the memo from executives, an employee comment on an internal message board racked up more than 430 up-votes from colleagues: “This is your perfect opportunity to demonstrate your leadership as a lead for ‘Racial Justice Initiative.’ Which side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge do you want to be on?” The latter statement refers to Bloody Sunday, when Black civil rights activists marching from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery were brutally attacked by police in 1965.
The YouTube executives pledged to hold a special townhall, coordinated with YouTube’s head of diversity and inclusion, to discuss the issue. That happened on Thursday and employees left the virtual meeting unsatisfied. They took to Memegen, Google’s internal meme generator page, to ridicule their bosses.
“# of direct answers in a Townhall ZERO,” was the text of one meme plastered over a gif of former U.S. President Bill Clinton saying the word, “zero.” More than 160 colleagues liked the post.
Workers especially criticized one executive’s statement that his wife is Asian-American during the townhall.
“Asian wives are not a credential,” one employee wrote. The message was superimposed on a photo of woman wearing a T-shirt that read, “I don’t need to know about your Asian wife.”
“‘Someone I know is Asian,’” one staffer wrote on a cartoon image. “Is this a valid excuse for why the video is allowed to stay on YouTube?”
Read the full email explaining YouTube’s rationale here:
Thank you for raising this issue. We lead YouTube’s Trust & Safety and Content Policy teams that are responsible for creating and enforcing the content policies that govern YouTube.
We’ll start by saying we find this video to be highly offensive and understand it is painful for many to watch, including many in Trust & Safety and especially given the ongoing violence against the Asian community. One of the biggest challenges of working in Trust & Safety is that sometimes we have to leave up content we disagree with or find offensive.
Our hate speech policy prohibits content promoting violence or hatred against protected groups, for attributes like race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity and expression. Sometimes videos that otherwise violate our policies are allowed to stay up if they have Educational, Documentary, Scientific or Artistic context. This is what allows us to preserve things like stand up comedy routines containing offensive material or even raw, sometimes violent news footage shared by journalists or NGOs.
In this case, this video receives an EDSA exception as a musical performance. While EDSA is not a free pass for any content, there are likely thousands of music videos that would otherwise violate policies including Sex & Nudity, Violent or Graphic Content and Hate Speech were it not for these sorts of EDSA exceptions. As a result, removing this video would have far-reaching implications for other musical content containing similarly violent or offensive lyrics, in genres ranging from rap to rock. While we debated this decision at length amongst our policy experts, we made the difficult decision to leave the video up to enforce our policy consistently and avoid setting a precedent that may lead to us having to remove a lot of other music on YouTube.
We can always do more to improve our hate and harassment policies. We frequently engage with our ERGs while developing these policies, and will continue to do so: We also realize that responding to a bug isn’t enough. To that end, we’re working with our Head of Diversity & Inclusion and others now to set up the right forum to hear your questions and concerns on how we can better make YouTube a more inclusive platform.
These are difficult lines to draw and we will continue working to try to get this right. Thanks again for raising this issue.