By Matt Taibbi
America’s burgeoning censorship movement had a great week. The White House jumped on board, with a matter-of-fact announcement that it was now helping Facebook flag “problematic posts”:
“We’re flagging problematic posts for Facebook that spread disinformation,” the president’s press secretary wrote, unabashedly, in her Twitter account.
In another ominous development, Politico reported that “Biden-allied groups, including the Democratic National Committee,” were planning to:
“Engage fact-checkers more aggressively and work with SMS carriers to dispel misinformation about vaccines that is sent over social media and text messages. The goal is to ensure that people who may have difficulty getting a vaccination because of issues like transportation see those barriers lessened or removed entirely.”
For those who may find such developments concerning, there was solace: at least no one is policing our private thoughts. Those are still our own, correct?
Not quite, learned satirical filmmaker, YouTuber, and journalist Matt Orfalea. He’s been involved in several different slapstick-dystopian stories just in the last month or so, none more absurd than a series of YouTube warnings and strikes he received from YouTube for content not one person ever saw, or could see.
Orfalea was working on a video involving a story covered in this space, YouTube’s demonetization of podcaster Bret Weinstein and its removal of Senate testimony by Dr. Pierre Kory. He uploaded a series of rough cuts to his YouTube channel, but kept them locked and private, as part of his normal routine. Like many YouTube content creators, Orfalea uploads videos but keeps them locked while he applies for monetization. In other words, he’s keeping material private because he’s essentially checking with YouTube to see if there are problems with the content before he makes it public.
At 7:28 p.m. on June 14, Orfalea received a warning from YouTube for three of those rough cuts. YouTube said the unseen videos violated its community standards by spreading “misinformation” but did not say what that misinformation was. It explained he had received “strike one” by the websites standard. Three strikes and your out.
Freaked out, and not wanting to further incur the wrath of YouTube — Orfalea makes a good part of his living via the channel — he deleted a long list of other rough cuts archived in non-public fashion. The next morning, at at 5:42 AM, he received an official strike on his channel, which resulted in a one-week ban and left him two strikes away from removal under YouTube’s three-strikes system. The catch? The strike was for one of the cuts he’d already deleted.
“I mean, it’s like a thought crime,” Orfalea says now, laughing in amazement. “How could I possibly be sending striking misinformation or any kind of information with a video that was never public. And then I had already deleted on my own accord?” YouTube was now going back in time to issue punishments for having once considered publishing transgressive video, in this case clips of things like Kory’s Senate testimony.
A few weeks after that, Orfalea got word from YouTube that they were demonetizing his channel and threatening him with another strike over seven year-old material. The reason? The content violated YouTube’s “violent criminal organizations” policy!
The video in question was a spoof commercial made using a clip of infamous spree killer Elliot Rodger, who murdered six people and injured fourteen others near the University of California at Santa Barbara campus in 2014. After the attacks, video came out of Rodger talking about “enjoying a nice Vanilla latte” from Starbucks. You can still find this video all over YouTube. Orfalea, back then, made a joke commercial called “Starbucks Makes You Evil.” It’s just the Rodger video with a banner at the end, reading:
Starbucks. Insanely overpriced beverages, for psychopaths.
Why YouTube took a sudden interest in a clearly satirical video was not explained, but Orfalea appealed the decision. YouTube then admitted it made an error, but left hundreds of his other videos un-monetized. “It’s a seven year old video. Why would this happen now? he asks. “You can see it’s a simple commercial parody.”
Subsequently, Orfalea did a livestream with former KING reporter Alison Morrow, in which they discussed the absurdity of the platforms’ moderation policies. Among other things, they cited two older clips from mainstream organizations that seemingly violate YouTube policies.
One showed NBC reporter Tom Costello saying that masks are useful if you’re sick or someone in your family is sick, but “in a public place, not so much.” This seemed to conflict with Google’s rule against “claims that masks do not play a role in preventing the contraction or transmission of COVID-19.”
The other video showed CNN’s Sanjay Gupta saying of coronavirus news, “It shouldn’t alarm [people] that much,” and “the vast majority of people aren’t going to get sick.” Gupta also made the same observation Trump did, comparing Covid-19 to influenza: “This has reminded people of flu a little bit.” This would seem to be a violation of YouTube’s rule against “Claims that the symptoms, death rates, or contagiousness of COVID-19 are less severe or equally as severe as the common cold or seasonal flu.”
They were old clips, but as YouTube demonstrated with the Elliot Rodger episode, oldness is no defense. YouTube moved swiftly, banning/removing Morrow’s video on the grounds that it constituted “misinformation.”
Again, the question revolved around a pair of videos from CNN and NBC that YouTube had not removed elsewhere on its website, yet in the context of the lesser-known Morrow’s livestream, the same clips of Holt and Gupta talking were now punishable as medical misinformation. The double-standard was undisguised. Under some public pressure, YouTube reversed its decision on Morrow, only to turn around and delete Orfalea’s own video on the same subject.
Orfalea is no stranger to issues with YouTube. Five years ago, PBS selectively edited an interview Judy Woodruff conducted with Green Party candidate Jill Stein before it uploaded what viewers thought was the “full” version to YouTube. In fact, the PBS/YouTube upload had edited out a long section of a Stein answer railing against Hillary Clinton’s advocacy for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Orfalea made a video comparing the two versions that you can see here.
More recently, he made the video seen at the top of this page, noting that Facebook suppressed the hashtag #Revolution at the same time Mark Zuckerberg was releasing his famed cornball video of himself riding an electric hydrofoil surfboard on the Fourth of July, to the dulcet tunes of John Denver.
Orfalea has a sense of humor, and tries to create content with a light tone, but there’s a serious angle to all of these episodes. This is especially true in light of the Biden administration’s moves this week, which show an increasing determination to have Internet platforms crack down on speech even between individuals — even pre-publication material. I asked him to elaborate:
Matt Taibbi: How did you violate the “violent criminal organizations” rule?
Orfalea: It’s crazy. It’s just a 13-second video, a clip of Elliot Rodger, the Santa Barbara shooter. I saw a clip of him bragging about his Starbucks, drinking a latte in a car. And I just thought that was darkly hilarious that you have this terrible person and he’s promoting Starbucks. And of course, it’s the last person anybody would ever want in a commercial for their product.
They’re saying it’s associated or involved with violent criminals in some way. Violent criminal organizations — which is weird because the only organization in that video is Starbucks.
Matt Taibbi: Do you make your living on YouTube? Does this affect your ability to support yourself?
Orfalea: On so many levels. Not 100% of my income is from YouTube — some comes from Patreon, some comes from freelance work I get as a result of YouTube. But if I can’t upload any of my livestream videos, I’m screwed.
Taibbi: What went through your mind when you saw the White House announcement about working with Facebook?
Orfalea: You have all these people who’ve been complaining about fascism since Trump, and then this is actual, by-definition, fascism. According to the classic definition, it includes the merging of corporate and state power.
Look, I’ve done a lot of videos that are very critical of Biden. So the thought does go through my head, “Is this why my channel was targeted?” Now that Jen Psaki admitted that the government does have this direct relationship with the social media companies, picking targets, telling them who needs to be [flagged], it’s hard not to think about it.
Taibbi: Why should anyone care if a hashtag is suppressed on Facebook?
Orfalea: It’s funny. I’d just been looking into how China censors their internet when that #revolution censorship on Facebook happened. And there are just so many similarities. There’s Harvard research from 2013 that says about China: they actually let a lot of criticism of the government go through. That’s not their main concern.
Their main concern is to stop anything that will lead to “collective expression.” And that’s what hashtags are. They’re a collective expression. And they lead to real-world collective action. It just seems like we’re really mimicking Chinese censorship to a “T” now.
Taibbi: The “American Political Science Review” article you refer to says, “Some of the most highly censored events are not criticisms or even discussions of national policies, but rather highly localized collective expressions that represent or threaten group formation.” So their idea is that the Chinese are trying to prevent “group formation.” Isn’t that a fanciful read of the situation, to compare it to us? We’re not China.
Orfalea: People in the U.S. seem able to recognize that China’s censorship of the internet is bad. They say: “It’s so authoritarian, tyrannical, terrible, a human rights violation.” Everyone sees that, but then when it happens to us, here, we say, “Oh, but it’s a private company doing it.” What people don’t realize is the majority of censorship in China is being carried out by private companies.
Rebecca MacKinnon, former CNN Bureau chief for Beijing and Tokyo, wrote a book called Consent of the Network that lays all this out. She says, “This is one of the features of Chinese internet censorship and surveillance—that it’s actually carried out primarily by private sector companies, by the tech platforms and services, not by the police. And that the companies that run China’s internet services and platforms are acting as an extension of state power.”
The people who make that argument don’t realize how close we are to the same model. There are two layers. Everyone’s familiar with “The Great Firewall of China,” where they’re blocking out foreign websites. Well, the US does that too. We just shut down Press TV, which is Iran’s PBS, for instance. We mimic that first layer as well, and now there’s also the second layer, internally, that involves private companies doing most of the censorship.