YOUTUBE COMMENT THREADS were never exactly the place to go for the cut and thrust of stimulating debate, and now there's less chance for them to surprise us. YouTube has taken the unusual step of disabling all comments on any videos its algorithms detect as having children in them.
Or rather, it would be unusual if it weren't for two events last week. The first was a Wired investigation that showed suspected paedophiles tipping each other off to child content via the comments. That probably got parent company Google's attention, but it took the second part - advertisers including AT&T, Nestle and Hasbro suspending their ads - to really concentrate YouTube's mind and force a response.
"Nothing is more important to us than ensuring the safety of young people on the platform," wrote YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki on Twitter. Although presumably, profits are also right up there, considering Alphabet has the resources to hire a lot more human helpers, too.
Recently, there have been some deeply concerning incidents regarding child safety on YouTube. Nothing is more important to us than ensuring the safety of young people on the platform. More on the steps we're taking to better protect children & families: https://t.co/5ZYaMrMpsI— Susan Wojcicki (@SusanWojcicki) February 28, 2019
In a blog post, YouTube explained how the new changes will be implemented. First of all, videos featuring very young children will have comments automatically disabled. Videos featuring older children will generally allow comments, but the block will also apply to "videos featuring older minors that could be at risk of attracting predatory behavior." It'll be interesting to see how an algorithm interprets that clear-as-mud instruction.
People who make their money from YouTube videos are understandably uneasy about the changes - after all, comments are a part of the algorithm that decides what videos to recommend, and which ones to leave unloved and unwatched.
It's probably for that reason that YouTube has said it will grant an exception to "a small number of creators," but it's not a blank cheque.
"These channels will be required to actively moderate their comments, beyond just using our moderation tools, and demonstrate a low risk of predatory behaviour," the post explains. "We will work with them directly and our goal is to grow this number over time as our ability to catch violative comments continues to improve."
Of course, these changes won't prevent paedophiles watching videos with children in them, but it will mean they have to organise somewhere else - and crucially somewhere beyond YouTube's jurisdiction. Making the paedophiles someone else's problem is probably just enough to get those lucrative advertisers back onside, even if it does little to lessen the site's overall appeal to sex offenders. µ
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