Meet the Censored: Live Streamers
Silicon Valley is shutting down speech loopholes. The latest target: live content
On January 6th, Jon Farina, photographer and videographer for Jordan Chariton’s Status Coup outlet, captured horrifying images. At the Capitol, a pro-Trump mob tried to burst into the building, and a police officer who attempted to intercede was caught in a door. He cried out in pain, but the crowd was indifferent, chanting, “Heave, ho!” as they tried to break in. Farina, in the middle of the physical mayhem as photojournalists often are, caught the scene up close while 30,000 people watched the live feed.
Farina’s footage rocketed around the world, and major press outlets celebrated his work as an example of hard-hitting reporting. CNN did a laudatory story about the freelance photojournalist, with Pamela Brown asking Farina to “bring us inside the mayhem.” Other outlets like USA Today quoted his recollections of that day, and the likes of Steven Colbert on CBS, as well as ABC News, NBC, MSNBC, CNBC, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, the New York Post, the Daily Mail, and others used it as fodder for outraged coverage of the riot:
For a week or so, Status Coup was feted for service on the front lines of responsible journalism. Nearly two weeks later, on January 18th, another Farina live stream was shut down by YouTube, thanks to policies that will make it very difficult for non-corporate media going forward to do live reporting. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that if the incident from the 18th happened earlier, we may never have gotten the Capitol pictures.
On the 18th, Farina was in Richmond, Virginia, where a significant rally of pro-gun protesters was expected. There had been widespread reports warning of unrest. CBS relayed FBI fears of “credible threats of violence,” while the Washington Post said officials were “on edge” ahead of the Martin Luther King Day protest, gearing up for a full-scale assault:
Members of the National Guard are on standby. Plywood covers the windows of the State Capitol. Tall metal barricades surround Capitol Square, with police vehicles idling on pathways just inside locked pedestrian gates. Downtown streets will be closed; signs warning against carrying guns have gone up around the city.
“The violent, lawless insurrection and assault on democracy and its institutions that unfolded last week in Washington, D.C., will not be tolerated in the city of Richmond,” Mayor Levar Stoney warned on Thursday.
The threats may have been credible, but when Farina began live-streaming to an audience of 6,000, the event turned out to be peaceful and unremarkable, though not without interest from a news perspective.
“Frankly, there might have been more press than protesters,” Status Coup’s Chariton said later. “And while it was live, it was pretty informative. Jon talked to 4-5 people, and they pretty much all made it clear that they weren’t Trump supporters, that they didn’t support what happened in the Capitol. They were pretty relaxed compared to the propaganda ahead of time.”
Despite the seeming unremarkableness of the event, it shut down abruptly mid-feed. Chariton assumed something happened on Farina’s end.
“Then I got an email from YouTube, telling me we’d violated their ‘Firearms Policy.’ I wasn’t aware they had a firearms policy.”
Chariton went onto Twitter to announce what happened, and after a few well-known media figures like Krystal Ball and Ryan Grim complained, YouTube restored the content. Other independents covering the rally, however, like Andrew Kimmel, never had their content restored.
The serious consequence of the Virginia episode was not so much the lost coverage of the rally, but what Chariton had to tell Farina after the event. Well-known for covering labor issues, homelessness, and especially the Flint water crisis, Status Coup had been growing, in large part because of live stream content. Now, however, the possibility that YouTube might issue a strike against his channel, or take it down altogether, forced him into a difficult decision. “I had to tell [Farina] not to go live anymore,” he says.
One person at the same rally wasn’t surprised by what happened. Videographer and well-known protest shooter Ford Fischer of News2Share, the first profile subject of “Meet the Censored,” was also in Richmond to shoot the event. He didn’t get taken down by YouTube, but only because he didn’t bother trying to go live.
“I was there on January 18th and didn’t stream it, because I knew it’d get banned,” Fischer says. “I filmed basically the same rally on January 17th and it did get banned.”
The January 17th rally Fischer referenced was a pro-gun rally in Columbus, Ohio, that in the wake of the Capitol riot garnered significant advance media coverage. Once again, headlines like “FBI warns of Potential Boogaloo Violence During January 17th Rallies” primed audiences to expect the worst, and also to make a direct connection with the January 6th events. In fact, Twitter cited the coming Ohio rally in its post announcing the closure of Donald Trump’s account, describing the Ohio event as a possible “secondary attack”:
Plans for future armed protests have already begun proliferating on and off-Twitter, including a proposed secondary attack on the US Capitol and state capitol buildings on January 17, 2021.
According to Fischer, the Twitter announcement didn’t exactly make sense, because the protesters in Ohio were more of a libertarian ilk, and, as Farina and Chariton discovered in the Virginia crowd, not so clearly aligned with Trump as Twitter and other media outlets may have imagined. Fischer has frequently covered events involving the gun-toting Boogaloos, whom he describes as anti-authoritarian and less likely to be Trumpists than to profess a pox-on-both-houses attitude to Trump and Joe Biden both (“You might hear something like, ‘Unless you put Ron Paul on the ballot, I’m not voting,’” he says).
Although there’s significant national interest in the group, both among supporters and detractors, Fischer says “I’ve basically stopped trying to live stream rallies involving Boogaloos.” Back on July 4th, 2020, he shot a live stream of a joint armed rally of Boogaloos and Black Lives Matter, protesting together against police violence — here again, we see the significant political differences between Trump supporters and some of these pro-gun groups — only to have the live stream interrupted, on the same grounds that it violated Google’s firearms policy.
Nonetheless, Fischer attempted to shoot the January 17th rally, among other things because of the obvious public interest in the event, which was heavily covered by the mainstream press. Local TV affiliates associated with networks like ABC and CNN covered the January 17th rallies in Columbus and in other locations, even broadcasting live. However, when Fischer tried to live stream, he was cut off in short order by a notice identical to the one received by Chariton. He was reminded that YouTube “does not allow live streams showing someone holding, handling, or transporting a firearm.”
The policy presents obvious head-scratching issues. For one, as Fischer points out, virtually all police carry a firearm, so “there’s obviously some subjectivity in what’s being enforced.” Furthermore, the rule doesn’t seem to apply to major corporate outlets, a double-standard problem that’s a constant in this universe.
In an even more bizarre recent incident, YouTube this past weekend removed video Fischer shot on January 6th — not live footage, but still — of the crowd listening to Donald Trump before the Capitol riot. This time, the grounds were that the content advanced “false claims that widespread fraud errors or glitches affected the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.”
Fischer supposes the issue has to do with the fact that the unedited, single-shot video — which is focused mainly on the crowd reaction — caught Trump’s own words. This might make sense, except that Trump’s speech that day is still on YouTube, as broadcast by several CBS affiliates, among others. As with Farina, Fischer’s Capitol protest footage was picked up by numerous major outlets, including CNN, NBC, CBS, BBC, and others, but the system seems to incentivize independent shooters to distribute footage through corporate outlets only, rather than conveying directly to their own audiences.
“I absolutely think there’s a campaign against independent content creators, especially live,” Fischer says. “Major outlets face no such technical issues.”
This makes any attempt to build an alternative news outlet a steep uphill climb, even when there’s a positive audience response, as Chariton has found out. Formerly with The Young Turks, Chariton’s niche is national news from a left/progressive perspective, with special emphasis on the area where corporate outlets once had a near-monopoly, e.g. on-location production of images and reporting.
Typically, alternative media outlets can’t afford to travel much and often have to rely on wire services and commercial coverage for primary source material, especially for expensive beats like the presidential election. Chariton emphasizes going to hot spots like Flint and to election campaign events to generate original images and video interviews, an innovative alt-media take on national news coverage. Live stream coverage had been a major part of their formula.
The Ohio and Virginia incidents underscore two developments involving platforms like YouTube/Google, Facebook, and Twitter in recent years. The first is the campaign to stress what Google calls “authoritative content,” which up-ranks articles and videos issued by major corporate news outlets like CNN or CBS, while decreasing traffic for independent sites on the left, the right, and in between.
The second has been an effort to close loopholes in the platforms’ content moderation regimes. In the wake of the Capitol riot, this trend intensified. After the “insurrection,” a series of trial-balloon stories appeared in the press, suggesting that Internet nooks and crannies where conspiracy theory and misinformation proliferate might need more aggressive cleaning.
The AP warned that “Apple and Google, among others, have left open a major loophole for this material: Podcasts.” The New York Times meanwhile reported on an exodus of millions of users who, fearing a Big Tech crackdown, jumped to encyrpted sites like Signal and Telegram.
The Times quoted the head of the Association of State Criminal Investigative Agencies, Louis Grever, as saying such sites allow “groups that have an ill intent to plan behind the curtain.” Noting the situation “worried U.S. authorities,” the piece suggested the migration might “inflame the debate” over encryption.
Podcasts, encrypted apps: how about live programming? Pundits had long worried that live stream capability was allowing the broadcast of violence and hate speech. In the hands of alternative media, however, the tool posed another problem, in the form of simply showing offensive reality.
In the cases of people like Fischer and Chariton, however, it’s unclear how platforms like YouTube understand the documentation of political demonstrations. If you film a neo-Nazi running his mouth, should you be banned for covering his hate speech? If you show a gun-rights activist carrying a gun, are you yourself engaging in pro-gun activism?
For independent outlets like Status Coup, these questions pose a serious problem. Because they’re dependent financially on platforms like YouTube to reach subscribers, they can’t afford to take the risk of being shut down. But how can alternative media operate if it doesn’t know exactly where the lines are? Also, how can such outlets add value when its one advantage over corporate media — flexibility, and willingness to cover topics outside the mainstream — is limited by the fear of consequences from making independent-minded editorial decisions?
“It’s pretty horrible,” Chariton said, “if we have to consider not doing our jobs, out of fear that YouTube is going to remove our content, or remove our channel without warning (like they’ve begun doing to other, smaller channels)."
The standard response to complaints about incidents like this is that YouTube and Google are private companies, and no one has a right to a platform on a private space. Chariton acknowledges this and concedes there are alternative platforms, like Rokfin, a video-sharing alternative to YouTube.
For the foreseeable future anyway, however, it would be nearly impossible to build a successful alternative video-based channel without the assent of the small handful of major tech platforms that dominate media. “People live on YouTube and Facebook,” is how Chariton puts it.
I asked him a few more questions about the future of live content, and what happened on January 18th:
TK: How has the ability to produce live content affected your business?
JC: Status Coup was up 20,000 subscribers since November, in large part because we were covering stories like the “Stop the Steal” movement and other issues related to the election. I’d say 95% of that content was live content. We’ve done a lot of stuff, from coverage of GM’s decision to lay off 15,000 workers to the epidemic of homelessness in Seattle, to repeated reporting trips in Flint covering the ongoing water crisis. It’s a major part of the business. It costs two to three grand for us to take a trip somewhere, and it’s already tight, but if we’re restricted in any way from doing live, that’s a blow because it brings in a significant amount of our revenue (which we need to then fund future in-the-field reporting trips).
TK: What happened in Virginia to affect your decision-making about live content going forward?
JC: I had to tell my cameraman not to go live… They’ve already shown they’re willing to take down some outlets entirely, without warning. The email YouTube sent me, I felt they could consider that a warning, and the next time, they could either give us a copyright strike, or remove us. I just can’t afford to take that risk.
TK: Do you see this as part of a wider effort to close informational loopholes at these platforms?
JC: It’s already documented that YouTube has been hiding independent channels in a cave, while elevating “authoritative” channels like — according to YouTube — CNN and Fox News. That’s Silicon Valley basically just saying outright, “We’re elevating some sources at the expense of others…” Unless you’re a major outlet that has a line to YouTube, you don’t have any way of clearing up these episodes. It’s easier to talk to someone at the CIA than it is to actually reach a human being at YouTube.
TK: What are the implications of an incident like this for alternative media?
JC: First of all, it’s worth pointing out, the only reason my content was restored is that I threw a shit-fit on Twitter, and people like Krystal Ball and Ryan Grim complained. But people like Andrew Kimmel did not have their content restored, proving there’s basically no rhyme or reason to this. It’s arbitrary. We’ve come to a place where you’d almost have to clear your decisions with YouTube ahead of time to feel completely safe.
I understand, there must be some limits. If someone like Alex Jones is saying, “Go get your guns, get out there,” that’s really dangerous.
But this, this is beyond a slippery slope. It’s a cliff. If they start pulling live streams or issuing strikes like this, it’s basically a death sentence for outlets like ours.