YouTube is a fantastic site, even though there’s nothing especially remarkable about the site itself. It’s simply a platform for videos and is only as good as the content on it, but it was the first site to really make it easy to upload videos and hence it took off.
Today, more than five billion YouTube videos are watched every day, and whatever your interests are, it’s inconceivable that anyone could go to the site and not find anything that appeals to them. Recent years have seen it evolve to offer services like audio captioning and live video.
One thing that hasn’t evolved, however, is the comments people leave on the videos they watch. In most cases these remain at best moronic and irrelevant, at worst bigoted and offensive, and are a real dirty stain on an otherwise excellent online resource.
I had a sobering reminder of this on Tuesday. During my break, I was watching the World Cup 2018 qualifying match between Australia and Syria live on The AFC Hub, the YouTube account of the Asian Football Confederation. The match itself was exciting, but I kept finding my attention diverted towards the Live Comments section to the right of the screen. What was appearing on there was the most braindead, obnoxious, inflammatory stream of drivel I’ve ever seen in my life.
I took a few screenshots just to give you an idea of the sort of insults and opinions being traded, but these weren’t specially selected. You could have taken a screenshot at any moment while the game was being played and found something similar.
Disappointingly, although not surprisingly, the hatred seemed to start with YouTubers associating Syria with the so-called Islamic State and terrorism, which then stemmed into general bashing of Islam and the Middle East. By no means, though, was the abuse limited to the two teams playing football, and it quickly descended into a free-for-all of racism. Keyboard warriors bashed out nastiness about France, Russia, Africa, you name it. In fact, if you read through the comments for the duration of the match, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d had something unpleasant to say about every nation, creed and religion on the planet.
Why are YouTube comments so terrible?
I’m certainly not the first person to notice that YouTube comments are of dubious quality. It’s hard to ignore. Look up any video clip of The Office (the UK or US version) and you’ll see reams of trans-Atlantic xenophobia about which country’s version is better and how stupid the other country is for not realising it. Look up any popular football or American football video and you’ll see similar bickering about which version of football is the correct one, often resorting to homophobia to make the point.
The New Statesman notes that YouTube has no moderators, is used heavily by children and is more anonymous than the likes of Facebook and Twitter. Plus, comments with plenty of interactions tend to be given priority placement in the comments section, and nothing gets people reacting like offensive statements.
What can be done about this?
I’m not normally big on censorship. I don’t really mind if a group of individuals want to meet up and trade racist insults at each other in some dark corner of the internet.
But this isn’t some dark corner of the internet, this is YouTube – the second most visited site on the web. There were more than 22,000 viewers watching that video, and they should not have to see this kind of material while doing something as innocuous as watching a football match.
In fact, if these people had been using this sort of language at an actual football match, they would likely have been ejected, banned and possibly prosecuted. Google-owned YouTube has plenty of money behind it and should be taking an acting role in identifying the culprits (which shouldn’t be that hard as they all have YouTube accounts) and stopping this behaviour thriving. If it can’t or won’t do this, YouTube itself should be punished, just as a football club or association that failed to control its troublemakers would be.
If outrageous taunts and slurs like these go ignored and unchallenged, they become normalised and accepted, and we come to see extremism every day. Is it therefore any surprise that Donald Trump managed to tweet his way to the White House with his big-mouthed, bullying soundbites of sexism? That a small minority of xenophobes was probably enough to swing the Brexit vote? That the far-right is enjoying a surge of popularity in developed European countries like France and Germany?
YouTube comments aren’t universally this bad. One of the better examples I’ve seen is the video for the lost ’90s classic ‘Not An Addict’ by K’s Choice. In keeping with the theme of the song, commenters are sharing stories of their experiences of drug addiction, how the song helped them through it, how long they’ve been ‘clean’ and messages of support for one another. It’s perhaps a rare example of how the anonymity of the internet can lead people to be open and honest in positive ways. Superb and inspiring, I think, as is the song itself.
This is the standard YouTube needs to work towards – high-quality, meaningful discussion with respect and empathy for other users. To achieve this, it needs to do more than just sit back and let people talk.