YouTube content creators have become increasingly aware that some videos tackling LGBT+ issues are being inexplicably censored when users switch on YouTube’s ‘Restricted Mode’, an optional tool used to filter out offensive content, even when those videos are family-friendly.
According to Google, which owns YouTube, Restricted Mode is meant to “screen out potentially objectionable content that you may prefer not to see or don’t want others in your family to see on YouTube” and works by using “community flagging, age-restrictions, and other signals to identify and filter out potentially inappropriate content.” It’s off by default and can be turned on or off on each page, but it can also be locked to prevent changes on that browser.
British YouTuber Rowan Ellis, who creates videos from a “feminist and queer perspective,” posted her own video addressing the issue, after she found dozens of her videos fell victim to the process. Ellis, who notes that at least 40 of her videos are being blocked by the filter, worries that the censoring of harmless LGBT+ content implies that there’s something inherently offensive about the Rainbow community.
She also argues that YouTube’s family-friendly filter is part of a larger issue of the sexualization of queer and transgender people. Her video was quickly restricted.
“Videos about LGBT+ life, love, history and friendships are no more inappropriate than videos with straight couples or telling the history of straight figures,” she says, “Yet they are apparently being treated differently.”
Ellis says that while she doesn’t know why this is happening, it’s troubling regardless, because it implies “there is a bias somewhere within that process equating LGBT+ with being not family-friendly.”
Regardless of how innocent or unintentional the ‘hows’ or ‘whys’ are, the effects cannot be ignored.
Our February cover girls Tegan & Sara have discovered that several of their music videos disappeared too when their channel is viewed in restricted mode.
If you put @YouTube on restricted mode a bunch of our music videos disappear. I checked myself. LGBTQ people shouldn’t be restricted. SAD!
— Tegan and Sara (@teganandsara) March 19, 2017
YouTubers and viewers are discovering more and more content disappearing.
Trans content creator SeaineLove points out that her family-friendly video “I Am Transgender,” in which she even censors her swear words, is now restricted. Seaine told Gizmodo that she felt her video was “pretty G rated,” and that she simply wanted other LGBT+ youth to “be able to watch my videos and go ‘Hey, I feel the same way! That’s how I am too! Wow, that inspires me to be myself!’”
NeonFiona, whose videos largely aim to normalize bisexuality, says that her videos about girlfriends have been restricted while those about boyfriends remain visible. She also posted side-by-side screenshots showing which videos were restricted. Titles including words like ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, and ‘bisexual’ were hidden.
Just looked at my videos with the “restricted mode” on. Seeing a bit of a theme here…
— fiona ✨ (@neonfiona) March 16, 2017
“Kids who want to know about different orientations and definitions and about the history of LGBT+ people can’t access that when their videos are being restricted,” NeonFiona says. “Restricting these videos makes it harder for these kids to find information they need and the community that they’ve been missing.”
“If it’s about protecting children, this isn’t protecting children,” says popular gay YouTuber Calum McSwiggan in a new video. “If anything, it’s making things more difficult for them. There are LGBT+ children all over the world who are taking their own lives because they don’t feel comfortable with themselves. For them, being able to go onto YouTube and see other LGBT+ people, for some people that is a life line. That saves lives.”
Michael Buckley, whose channel is largely erased in restricted mode, including an advice video in which he tries to help young gay people feel comfortable with their sexuality, released a video accusing YouTube of restricting LGBT+ videos because they believe the content is inherently not family-friendly.
In a statement, a Google spokesperson told Gizmodo that the feature is optional, and noted that videos that discuss sexuality may trip it up.
“Restricted Mode is an optional feature used by a very small subset of users who want to have a more limited YouTube experience,” the spokesperson said.
“Some videos that cover subjects like health, politics and sexuality may not appear for users and institutions that choose to use this feature.”
While the spokesperson noted that the feature is fully optional, the feature’s own help page warns that “Computers in libraries, universities, and other public institutions may have Restricted Mode enabled by the system administrator.” That could pose a problem for kids whose main access to the internet is through computers at school.
Not all LGBT+-themed content is blocked in this view and it’s looking likely that the suppression of this content is not quite intentional, and more likely the result of an ineffective, inconsistent, or inadequate algorithm. Whatever the reason, this certainly doesn’t send a good message to Rainbow content creators who see this as a clear signal about their place on the site and in culture.
YouTube has celebrated LGBT+ content in the past, notably with the 2015 launch of its #ProudToLove campaign.
On Sunday night, the Twitter account for the YouTube Creators page tweeted the following statement that offered a little more detail on the filtering but didn’t explain how some of the more innocuous videos that got caught in the filter wound up there.
A message to our community … pic.twitter.com/oHNiiI7CVs
— YouTube Creators (@YTCreators) March 20, 2017