Note: In this article, I will use conservative voices as a focus in examples and analysis because most discussion on the topic has centered on these groups, but there is no reason at all why the same logic could not be applied to liberals, progressives, socialists, anarchists, or any other political group that might use social media as a content platform.
Technology companies’ have faced several recent controversies involving the removal of users and content. The most prominent and controversial case came in the form of a seemingly-coordinated effort by Apple, Facebook, YouTube, and Spotify to block controversial conspiracy theorist and right-wing radio host Alex Jones. The motion was soon followed by Twitter, a company that has already received massive amounts of backlash from conservatives for selective removal of individuals from the service. Such controversy is nothing new: in 2016, right wing “provocateur” Milo Yiannopoulos was removed from Twitter after a string of tweets that were deemed racially-charged. Even before Yiannopoulos’s ban, however, Twitter came under fire for “shadow banning” individuals or preventing their content from showing up in searches and procedurally curated content.
When social media companies make concerted efforts to remove certain voices from their platform, they risk losing screen time from swaths of users, and even losing some users entirely. According to the Pew Research Center, 58 percent of citizens in rural areas and 67 percent of those in suburban areas are social media users. Depending the definitions of “rural” and “suburban,” some 50 percent of American citizens live in such areas. Furthermore, within rural areas, conservatism is more deeply rooted than progressivism, with Trump support averaging 62 percent in the 2016 election. Lastly, 39 percent of social media users report that they use social media services to say that “to stay up-to-date with news and current events.”
These figures point to a crucial fact about the user base of social media platforms: there is a sizeable segment of users looking to receive an unfettered conservative news perspective. According to Statista, Facebook has an estimated 214 million users in America. By simply multiplying the number of people in rural or suburban areas who may have supported Donald Trump by the number of people that use social media for news, one might estimate that some 21.4 million of users would count conservative news as a primary reason for social media usage. In a world where user acquisition is a primary concern for continued success of social media platforms, isolating over 20 million users is highly inadvisable.
The popular retort to arguments about the user base isolation that censorship might cause is that such restrictions exist only at the fringes of politics, but do not extend to the mainstream. Jones and Yiannopoulos might be gone, some would say, but Fox News, National Review, and the vast majority of conservative speakers are not prohibited from sharing content on social media platforms. For every instance of a pro-life advertisement being censored, there are a thousand videos arguing in favor of Donald Trump, tighter borders, tax cuts, or any other number of conservative positions. Social media companies’ tendency toward outright removal of content on either end of the political spectrum is the exception, not the rule, and anyone arguing that InfoWars’ removal will have a massive network effect may be overstepping.
The extent of social media companies’ censorship, however, extends to a practice that content creators fear more than anything: demonetization.
YouTube advertisement revenue is an important (though diminishing) source of income for any individual or company putting content on YouTube. Before merchandise, sponsorships, or Patreon donations, advertisement revenue (which, according to Investopedia, amounts to roughly $7.60 per one thousand views) will be the first mechanism by which creators get paid. By removing the ability of certain individuals to monetize their content, YouTube (and, by extension, other social media companies that the same individuals use to promote blog and video content) might as well be banning them. Without advertisement revenue, many creators will simply cease to exist on the platform.
YouTube, of course, claims that demonetization is not the result of political inclinations or even Terms of Service violations, but advertiser preference. The general argument, then, is that YouTube could never make money from videos that advertisers do not want association with, and so they lose nothing by demonetizing such content.
This line of thinking seems faulty for a few reasons. First, Business Insider reports that YouTube has roughly 1.8 billion users. It is hard to believe that there are no companies whatsoever who might be willing to have their advertisements played before a right-wing video. With such large market access, it might be assumed that there are even companies that would be willing to advertise on the most fringe, conspiracy theory-ridden YouTube videos. In fact, many videos that have been demonetized show the creator promoting a product or company that is sponsoring the show. Interestingly enough, these sponsors are oftentimes Silicon Valley-based startups such as Blue Apron or 23andme, where one would assume that executive and marketing teams have differing political views from those advocated for on the shows that they are sponsoring. If a small news outlet like The Daily Wire can convince a company like Blue Apron to advertise specifically on their content, then it is hard to believe that YouTube is struggling to find advertisers willing to sponsor videos of any political affiliation, let alone basic right-wing content.
Who can say how many advertiser dollars have been passed up by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or any other service because of selective demonetization? This number is hard to gauge, but it is worth noting that, since YouTube takes $.45 for every advertisement revenue dollar, they are potentially passing up $3420 for every million demonetized video views. How many creators have abandoned the platform because they can no longer pay the bills without advertisement revenue? As content creators and their fan bases leave a platform, room opens in the market for an alternative. By facilitating this creator and user exodus, social media companies are encouraging someone else to move in and claim the advertiser dollars that social media companies have decided that they do not want.
Social media companies are more vulnerable than ever before. User growth has stagnated, stock prices are down, and the federal government has begun considering regulation. At such a crucial junction in their development, these companies’ decision to isolate large swaths of users and forego huge sums of advertising dollars is a misstep that could be costly in the long run. Ethical questions aside, there is a clear financial incentive for social media to maintain an open platform for all political and cultural perspectives.