By: Leon Yin and Aaron Sankin
Second in a two-part series
Last June, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki made a big promise to help Black YouTubers.
“We’re committed to doing better as a platform to center and amplify Black voices and perspectives,” she wrote in a blog post, announcing a $100 million fund to support them. “At YouTube, we believe Black lives matter and we all need to do more to dismantle systemic racism.”
But an investigation by The Markup found that YouTube parent company Google blocks advertisers from using dozens of social and racial justice terms, including Black Lives Matter, to find YouTube videos and channels upon which to advertise.
At the same time, Google offered advertisers hundreds of millions of choices for YouTube videos and channels related to White supremacist and other hate terms when we began our investigation, including “all lives matter”—a phrase frequently used as a dismissive rejoinder to Black Lives Matter—and “White lives matter”—which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as both a neo-Nazi group and “a racist response to the civil rights movement Black Lives Matter.”
Google’s ad buying platform Google Ads also blocks the term “Black power,” a phrase associated with the African American civil rights movement but offered more than 100 million YouTube videos and channels it said were related to the White supremacist phrase “White power.”
“Why would they do that?” asked 19-year-old YouTuber Jada Jones, who is Black and Asian. She’s posted videos since she was in middle school, one to raise money for a charity helping Black transgender women. “It just doesn’t make any sense. It’s like this shady, under-the-table-type stuff, where they’ll just make it a little harder. Why?”
Google Doubles Down
Google spokesperson Christopher Lawton declined to answer any questions for this story but took no issue with our investigation or findings. After reviewing them, the company did not lift its ban on the social and racial justice terms we shared, but it did block the hate terms that we had pointed out were in contradiction with them, including “White lives matter” and “White power.”
The company also responded by blocking even more of the 62 social and racial justice terms on our list. When we began our investigation, Google Ads only blocked a third of them for searches. Now it blocks more than 80 percent, adding dozens of terms to its blocklist, including “Black in Tech,” “Black excellence,” and “antiracism.”
This increased tightening is in contrast to a reported increase in companies coming out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“It’s concerning broadly,” said Jay Tandan, the U.S. Digital Marketing Manager for Ben & Jerry’s, “but also that handcuffs us and makes us work with one arm tied behind our back.” The politically minded ice cream producer has publicly supported the Black Lives Matter movement for years, including co-producing a podcast series last year entitled “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America.”
“We want to be reaching the people who are interested in Black Lives Matter content,” Tandan said, “so we can drive actions toward the policies that we seek to lift up.”
Blocking advertisers’ ability to target social justice videos could affect some YouTubers’ bottom lines: The company shares some of the nearly $20 billion YouTube collects in ad revenue each year with YouTubers who have signed up and whose videos the company has deemed eligible for ads.
Among the videos that advertisers can’t find searching for Black Lives Matter on Google Ads are a music video for a song called “Black Lives Matter” by the rapper Dax, a video showing how to say the slogan in 32 different languages, and news coverage of the movement from mainstream news organizations, including NBC and an Australian public broadcaster. Also hidden: Black Lives Matter fundraising videos from an a cappella group and a home fitness instructor, among others.
Brandi Collins-Dexter, a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy studying disinformation targeted at black communities, said this glimpse into how Google manages its platform suggests the company’s investments in building relationships with civil rights communities are “a lot of lip-service.”
We created our list of social and racial justice terms by asking for recommendations from four advocacy groups—Color of Change, MediaJustice, Mijente, and Muslim Advocates—and winnowing down their suggestions to the most unambiguous terms with the help of researchers at the Shorenstein Center’s Technology and Social Change Project.
Other social and racial justice terms that Google Ads blocks advertisers from searching include “homosexual” and “sex work.”
When we first discovered the blocklist, it prevented advertisers from targeting ads on content related to Muslims more than other religions.
“Muslim fashion” is blocked for ad placements, but “Christian fashion” and “Jewish fashion” were not at first. Both “Muslim parenting” and “Jewish parenting” are blocked, but “Christian parenting” was not, offering millions of videos and channels for ad targeting. At the same time, Google Ads permitted advertisers to use anti-Muslim hate terms like “White sharia” and “civilization jihad” for searches.
“Muslims are being hurt on two fronts because of YouTube,” said Eric Naing, of the nonprofit civil rights group Muslim Advocates. “They are, first of all, being subjected to a torrent of anti-Muslim hate content—and then their positive videos and positive depictions of them are being discouraged on the platform.”
We know that the terms we found were blocked, rather than there being no relevant videos on YouTube, because we ran nonsensical strings of letters through the ad portal and the responses in the code looked different from those we got when we ran terms we knew to be blocked by YouTube’s community guidelines. The blocked social justice terms returned the same responses as profanity and other violations of YouTube’s rules.
When we began sharing our findings with experts for interviews, Google fixed the discrepancy in its treatment of religious terms. Now innocuous words such as “diet,” “fashion” and “parenting” are equally blocked when combined with “Muslim,” “Jewish,” “Buddhist,” or “Christian.”
However, the way Google blocked those and other newly blocked words now make the responses in the code indistinguishable from the responses for gibberish. Because it’s now impossible to know for certain which terms are blocked, Google has shielded itself from future scrutiny of its keyword blocks on Google Ads.
Boycotts and Promises
For years companies have complained about their ads running next to extremist or offensive content on YouTube. They even boycotted the platform over hate videos in 2017. To help companies avoid embarrassment, an emerging field called “brand safety” began drawing up lists of terms companies should steer clear of when placing digital ads. Some news outlets have complained that, as a result, ads have dried up on some articles on their websites, including those related to “Black Lives Matter” and “Black people.”
Google’s advertising policies state that the company prevents advertisers from using “identity and belief” to target ads because it wants “ads to reflect a user’s interests rather than more personal interpretations of their fundamental identity” and out of concern that the targeting categories could be “used to stigmatize an individual.”
Among the questions Lawton, the Google spokesperson, wouldn’t answer was whether the company had any record of the social or racial justice terms on our list being used for discriminatory or inappropriate ad targeting.
“In my opinion, brand safety technology is fundamentally anti-democratic,” said Nandini Jammi, who gained notoriety for alerting brands when their ads appeared on the right-wing news site Breitbart. She now publishes a newsletter deeply critical of the brand safety industry and runs the consulting firm Check My Ads.
Her big beef is that keyword advertising bans—be it an advertiser’s or Google’s—are typically secret. They happen behind the scenes, often through an algorithm, and she says they quietly starve important conversations of revenue.
“We don’t see what is being blocked and we don’t know why it’s being blocked,” Jammi said. “There is no way for us to challenge a decision of a brand safety vendor because we can’t see it.”
To be sure, Google Ads’ Black Lives Matter keyword block also could limit advertisers’ ability to find some videos that are critical of the movement, including one entitled, “ ‘Black Lives Matter’ Is Not Helping Blacks” by PragerU, a conservative nonprofit. The top channel suggested by Google Ads when searching for “BlackLivesMatter,” with no spaces, was by right-wing media personality Steven Crowder, whose channel YouTube has blocked from running ads in the past for homophobic statements. In March, Crowder posted a video on YouTube mocking Black farmers that the progressive advocacy group Media Matters called “wildly racist.”
Platform moderation researcher Robyn Caplan of Data & Society said she’s surprised by Google’s decision to ban social and racial justice terms for ad placements.
“Why are they not allowing Black Lives Matter content to be monetized?” she wondered aloud. “I just don’t get it.”
Jones, the teen YouTuber, said she finds it ironic that YouTube tries to stop companies from finding Black Lives Matter videos for ads because from her perspective, many companies seem interested in the topic. The skincare company Curology signed her up for an influencer marketing deal after she posted a Black Lives Matter fundraising video.
Jones talks plainly about standing up for her values in one video. “I’m tired of having to say, ‘All lives don’t matter until Black Lives Matter,’ ” she said. “If you say ‘all lives matter’ right now, it means you’re discrediting the entire fact that we’re trying to push this movement further and that we are trying to move forward with something that’s very prevalent and very obvious—the kind of privilege that can trample over us.”
She said Google’s decision to double-down, blocking even more social justice terms after The Markup contacted the company, suggests YouTube’s commitment to creators of color is largely performative. But she said she’s choosing to ignore it and keep putting up videos for her 20,000 followers.
“I’m going to continue creating content because I love to do it,” Jones said. “I have an audience that loves me and supports me, and likewise I love them so much. So why would I stop just because Google and YouTube aren’t supportive of 1,000% of me?”
This article was originally published on The Markup and was republished under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license.