Editor's note: As of Monday morning (Israel Standard Time), Palestinian Media Watch's YouTube channel "Palwatch" has been reinstated.
Justice Louis Brandeis of the US Supreme Court once said “Sunlight is the best
This is often used to justify “more speech” as the only
solution to “hate speech.”
In November, as parliamentarians and experts
from over 40 countries gathered in Canada for the second meeting of the
Interparliamentary Coalition for Combatting Anti-Semitism, there was a growing
concern at rising anti-Semitism, and an increased acceptance that more than
sunlight was needed in response.
At the gathering, I presented as part of
an experts panel on hate speech online. One point I raised was the problem of
YouTube videos that do not by themselves constitute hate, but which attract
An example I gave was a YouTube clip of Sacha Baron
Cohen’s song “Throw the Jew Down the Well.”
The most popular comment on
the video the morning I presented, as voted by YouTube viewers, read: “Lets
[sic] genocide them by burning them! But this time, lets [sic] actually do
Should Sacha Baron Cohen or YouTube take this clip down if this is
what it inspires? Should the comments be closed to viewers? The answer is
unclear, but allowing this to continue is not a good thing and seeing how
popular it is leaves me feeling very uncomfortable.
THERE IS also a clear
problem with hate groups, such as “theytnazism” on YouTube.
this to YouTube in February, and on November 22 – 10 months later – it was still
active. The group includes a “list of people we hate and we want to kill.” It
was a short list of “1. Blacks, 2. Jews, 3. Indians.”
I then included it
in a set of slides for a conference on anti-Semitism run by the World Zionist
Organisation in France earlier this month and suddenly the group was gone. I
doubt that was a coincidence, especially as the rest of my collection of similar
groups (reported at the same time) are still active. One of these, with giant
swastikas in the background, declares it is God’s will to murder all
The problem is not that YouTube never steps in. The problem
is they are liable to step in only when there is public exposure of content they
wrongly ignored, or when political pressure is applied.
seems to have started giving in to pressure to remove videos and channels that
expose and educate against hate.
A few months ago, for example, efforts
were made to shut down the YouTube presence of the Middle East Media Research
Institute (MEMRI). The institute provides the English-speaking world with
insight into the Mideast media. Some of the exposure is not welcome by those who
say one thing in English to a Western audience and another thing at
The MEMRI debacle seems to have been resolved, but YouTube is now
going after Palestinian Media Watch (PMW) which fulfills a similar role, focused
exclusively on the Palestinian media.
PMW monitors, translates and shares
examples of incitement. It was PMW that exposed the use of a Mickey Mouse
character inciting hate and violence on the Hamas TV children’s show “The
Pioneers of Tomorrow.”
That story created shock waves around the world,
leading to discussions in the Western mainstream media and at the UN of the link
between incitement in the media and terrorism.
PMW’s violation appears to
be that it was posting “hate material.”
There is no doubt that it was.
However, like MEMRI, that material was not shared for the purpose of incitement,
but to expose and counter the spread of hate. Some commentators have speculated
that it is not the hate against Jews, Israelis and Americans – as shown in MEMRI
and PMW videos – that is the problem, but rather the fact that the videos might
cause a backlash against those promoting such hate.
Any argument that
uses free speech to prevent the exposure of hate speech is inherently deeply
YouTube needs to get its act together.
What it has created
is a haven for hate, devoid of sunlight. Its policy seems inconsistent,
ineffective and only selectively enforced. It is working against community
expectations and the public interest. Ignoring illegal content, while removing
the very sunlight needed to expose those spreading hate, creates a volatile
Social media is built on concepts of security and trust.
When these start to go, opportunities for competitors are created. It may be too
early to call this the beginning of the end for YouTube, but unless it gets its
policies right, and properly enforces them, we may well see this megalith begin
to slide downhill.
The writer is an expert in social media and online
hate. He is director of the Community Internet Engagement Project and Co-Chair
of the Online Anti-Semitism working group for the Global Forum to Combat