The apparent motive in Tuesday’s shooting at YouTube’s headquarters is shining a light on the video-sharing platform’s complicated relationship with its most dedicated users – so-called “creators” who earn a share of the advertising revenue for their videos.
Nasim Najafi Aghdam travelled to the company’s Silicon Valley campus and opened fire, shooting three people before killing herself, because she was “upset with the policies and practices of YouTube,” police said Wednesday.
Aghdam’s precise motivation for opening fire on innocent people will likely never be known. Information about her life and background is still scant beyond her social media presence.
But a website that appears to have been maintained by Aghdam presents a portrait of a frustrated YouTube creator. She apparently maintained multiple YouTube channels, and screenshots of analytics suggest that her viewership had decreased over the course of 2016. One screenshot published on the site shows that one of Aghdam’s channels had been deemed ineligible for “monetization” – the practice whereby YouTube runs ads on user-generated content and shares a portion with creators.
“There is no equal growth opportunity on YOUTUBE or any other video sharing site, your channel will grow if they want to!!!!!” the site reads, in a section that includes a quote from Adolf Hitler. “There is no free speech in real world & you will be suppressed for telling the truth that is not supported by the system.”
Older versions of the site, retrieved via the Internet Archive, include complaints that YouTube was censoring vegan activism and Google was suppressing search traffic to the website.
YouTube did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Creators who rely on the company for income but are not actually employed by YouTube have long complained about the company’s lack of transparency and unilateral changes to standards for advertiser-friendly content.
The company faced backlash in 2016 when a number of high-profile YouTubers received emails notifying them that some of their videos had been demonetized. The company subsequently explained that it had been removing advertisements from some videos for years, but had decided to start notifying creators when a video was deemed not to be advertiser friendly.
In January, the company – which has faced significant pressure from advertisers, the media, and users to crack down on extremist content, misinformation and conspiracy mongering – announced new policies that restricted which channels can be monetized. The change required channels to have 1,000 subscribers and at least 4,000 hours of watch time on their videos over the past 12 months to be eligible for advertising revenue. The company also ramped up its efforts to police content by, among other things, hiring more moderators.
The changes have fueled complaints of censorship from across the political spectrum. Backlash to perceived censorship by YouTube and other social media platforms has been particularly strong on the right, where the firing of the Google engineer James Damore over a controversial memo about gender prompted the establishment of a “free speech tech revolution” aimed at building alternative platforms free from Silicon Valley’s “SJW cultural marxist lunacy”.
The most popular of the rightwing “Alt-tech” sites is Gab, a Twitter-like platform where the most popular posts about the shooting include memes glorifying Aghdam.
“Censorship kills,” wrote Andrew Torba, the chief executive of Gab, in a post Wednesday. “When you silence someone’s means of expression in the form of words, art, and other non-violent ways; many will inevitably become violent. More speech and more free expression are always the answer and preferred.”
In October, the conservative YouTube channel PragerU filed a lawsuit against the platform alleging that its demonetization of certain videos – and age-restrictions of others – amounted to censorship of conservative views. A judge dismissed the suit in March.