On YouTube, engagement is king. The platform, which thrives on its dual status as both a social media network and news space, pays creators handsomely for making videos that get large amounts of views and interactions from any given audience. To keep the worst out, the sheer influx of content is moderated with a series of community guidelines that are intended to “make YouTube a safer community” while still giving creators freedom, according to the site.
But a new investigation by research firm Bot Sentinel found at least two dozen YouTube channels with “flagrant” policy violations were allowed to continue posting without censure from YouTube moderators. Even more alarming: they’re still getting paid.
In an exclusive interview, Bot Sentinel founder Christopher Bouzy tells Rolling Stone that the report uncovered a pattern of unchecked hate speech, misogyny, racism, and targeted harassment singularly focused on famous and identifiable women. The most mentioned women in the channels were Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, and actress Amber Heard, both of whom have remained extremely vocal about the long-term mental and emotional effects of targeted harassment. (While the report notes that Bot Sentinel has been hired by Heard’s team in the past, to determine how much of the online hate was organic, they write that “no one hired Bot Sentinel to compile and publish this report.”) In a review of just five single-purpose hate channels focused entirely on Markle, Bot Sentinel estimated the channels receive a combined $42,000 in monthly payments. Since all of the videos run with advertisements, it is understood that YouTube also receives a share of the profits.
“YouTube is to blame,” Bouzy tells Rolling Stone. “A lot of these folks would not do what they’re doing if YouTube was not rewarding them. And let’s be clear here, they are rewarding them. When you allow these folks to monetize this content and you’re the company that is paying them, at the end of the day, you’re pretty much facilitating the harassment, the vitriol that we’re currently seeing.”
When contacted for comment, a YouTube spokesperson, who has not seen the report, said that the site takes these sorts of violations seriously: “We’re committed to rigorously enforcing these policies equally for all creators, and encourage any user to flag content they believe violates our Community Guidelines.”
Under Youtube’s current community guidelines, the site prohibits “malicious insults” focused on famous or identifiable individuals or based on people’s appearances or status (like race, or being a survivor of domestic abuse). But according to the report, channels that focus their content on reactions and opinions of Markle and Heard are often allowed to post defamatory content entirely unchecked. Others employ deceptive practices, like including thumbnails that don’t correlate to a video’s content in order to get past moderators. According to the report, these channels aren’t slipping under the radar — they’re commonplace.
At least 29 YouTube channels were allowed to monetize content that contained harmful, defamatory, and threatening language toward Markle, according to the report. An additional 22 channels posted at least 30,000 videos that made up 80 percent of all negative anti-Meghan titles on YouTube, like “Booed At Buckingkham! Meg puce with rage as Mourners screamed LOUDEST BOOED Meg BACK as Queen’s dead” and “SHE IS UNWELCOME! Meghan CAN’T HIDE DESPAIR Over ABSENCE In Scotland After QUEEN DEATH REPORT.”
The single-purpose hate channels, focused solely on anti-Markle sentiments, mentioned negative and defamatory remarks toward Markle in 94 percet of all their content. According to the report, three top producing channels mention Markle’s name at least 15,000 times in videos that have received a combined 76 million views. In comparison, Bouzy says Catherine the Princess of Wales is mentioned less than 3,000 times in videos discussing the royal family and most references are “overwhelmingly positive.”
Cashing in on the public’s morbid fascination with the Johnny Deep trial, one creator made over 128 videos making hurtful comments about Heard’s body and defamatory claims about her testimony in the trial. Within the videos, Heard’s name was mentioned over six thousand times, according to the report. Another YouTuber continually posts policy-violating threats against Markle and has yet to be removed from the site. In one live video, the YouTuber expressed his belief that Markle deserves to be “strangled to death” and said as recently as Monday that Markle and her husband, Prince Harry, should be “shot at dawn.” Bouzy tells Rolling Stone that he personally reported the videos multiple times to both YouTube and an individual at Google but the videos have remained up. Less than an hour after a request for comment on multiple specific videos, YouTube pulled at least two videos down for violating the site’s policy on harassment and bullying.
“Upon review, we removed two videos shared by Rolling Stone for violating our harassment and cyberbullying policies, which prohibit targeting an individual with threats or prolonged and malicious insults based on protected attributes,” the YouTube spokesperson says, adding that they were still reviewing two additional videos flagged by Rolling Stone and said they will take “appropriate action” if the content violates Community Guidelines.
The report also detailed what it called “egregious cases” of copyright infringement and plagiarism from anti-Markle and Royal family-focused YouTube channels. According to the report, at least 22 channels published thousands of videos made by converting news articles to audio with text-to-speech tools. A majority of the 34,000 videos did not credit the articles or news organizations they were taken from. The videos received over 441 million views.
Why should this matter to the average person? According to Bouzy, a lack of follow-through with Youtube content moderation only puts the average person in more danger. In addition to these videos pushing a narrative of racism and misogyny that could twist a viewer’s worldview, Bouzy believes unchecked policies mean a higher likelihood of targeted harassment towards all people, like journalists or private individuals. In releasing the report, Bouzy tells Rolling Stone that he’s not trying to target free speech. He just wants Youtube to enforce its own policies.
“I think a platform as big as YouTube with the billions of views, they have a responsibility now,” Bouzy says. “You know, this is not 1999. This is not the early days of the internet. A lot of folks consume their news on these platforms. And whether it’s YouTube, whether it’s Twitter, whether it’s Facebook, they have a responsibility now to protect their users from some of this toxic stuff that’s been put out there. And if they’re not willing to do that, we need legislation to push them in that direction.”
This story has been updated to include that Bot Sentinel had previously been a client of Amber Heard’s legal team.