YouTubers erupted into a tizzy last weekend when they realized that YouTube’s Restricted mode was blocking many of their videos from search results.
Actually, “tizzy” might not be the right word for what happened: LGBTQ creators noticed that the Restricted-mode algorithm seemed to hide pretty much all LGBTQ-themed videos—including benign, appropriate-for-all-ages content like coming-out stories, makeup tutorials for trans women, and videos about black LGBTQ trailblazers—from public view.
When asked about the policy, YouTube explained: “Some videos that cover subjects like health, politics and sexuality may not appear for users and institutions that choose to use this feature.” But that doesn’t account for the omission of content like the Tegan and Sara music video “U-Turn”—or pretty much the entire video catalog at Everyone is Gay, whose squeaky-clean educational videos are designed to help young queer people feel less alone.
This isn’t the first time a web filter has claimed innocuous LGBTQ content as a casualty, and it won’t be the last. In 2013, Autostraddle tech writer Ali Osworth concluded in her extensively-researched article about web filters that most filtering programs are (probably) not explicitly designed to block LGBTQ content. In fact, the effects of web filtering on queer content tend to merit nothing more than an afterthought. But that’s kind of the problem: YouTube clearly hasn’t considered what effect this filtering policy—however unintentional—might have on isolated LGBTQ youth who rely on resources like coming-out videos and Everyone Is Gay advice vlogs to better understand themselves or feel less alone. The drop in teen suicide rates following the legalization of gay marriage shows us that societal validation can literally save a struggling teenager’s life. Removing resources from a popular website like YouTube will put young lives in danger.
And all this is to say nothing of the discrimination routinely faced by queer artists and filmmakers. In addition to posing a risk to LGBTQ lives, this policy threatens the careers of queer content creators—which in turn will inhibit them from making more queer content—which will in turn impede their ability to help struggling kids feel less alone. By now you can probably see the vicious cycle taking shape as a result of practices like these.
So where do we go from here? Well, YouTube has already announced that it plans to address the problem by making changes to its Restricted-mode filtering policy—but this problem is bigger than one algorithm at one company. We need to change the way we approach content filtering on the internet so that the fate of LGBTQ resources is not an afterthought. We ought to know by now that the inadvertent censorship of benign LGBTQ content is a persistent problem—which means that web-filter companies and content platforms need to treat it as one of their primary concerns when developing new filtering algorithms.
It’s time for us to hard-code it into our brains—and our computer systems—that “lesbian”, “gay”, “bisexual”, and “trans” are not dirty words.