The curse of verification for tech platforms has always been that it’s a tacit endorsement. If you’re YouTube and you grant that almighty check mark designating a verified account to somebody like, say, Steven Crowder, a right-wing commentator who enjoys using his channel to hurl slurs like “lispy queer” and “anchor baby” at a gay Latino Vox journalist, then you’re also saying, silently, that you’re okay with what he’s saying. YouTube later followed up with a statement, “even if a video remains on our site, it doesn’t mean we endorse/support that viewpoint.” Crowder’s channel remains active and verified.
On Thursday, YouTube notified some creators they will be losing their verification status come October. It immediately caused an outcry, particularly on Twitter, among the YouTube community. The notification, sent via email, informed creators that their channels no longer met the criteria for verification. YouTube included having a name that could be confused for another channel or having a large audience on the platform as reasons a channel should be verified. This was upsetting to some creators who felt their verification was being removed even though they already clearly meet those benchmarks. “I guess >1.6 MILLION subs and an extremely large online presence at 14 years old doesn’t mean jack. Why don’t you just come to CO and ACTUALLY slap me in the face @YouTube,” tweeted Makenna Kelly, a 14-year-old, Colorado-based influencer.
Steven Crowder has not tweeted about the purge, but he did retweet a plea from Daniel Keem, the creator of YouTube channel Keemstar, which regularly posts videos about influencer and platform drama, telling YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki that “creators need a win.” YouTube stressed in a release that no creators have lost their check mark yet and everyone still has time to appeal before the changes take effect. Still, this did not preempt the confusion on Thursday, as people on Twitter claimed major creators like PewDiePie and Jake Paul had lost their check marks. Paul had previously lost his verification after he changed his handle, the New York Times reported, and PewDiePie doesn’t appear verified if you search for him on the YouTube mobile app because no accounts appear verified on YouTube’s mobile app. (YouTube said it is updating this as well in the coming weeks.)
“Through our research, we found that viewers often associated the checkmark with an endorsement of content, not identity,” YouTube said in a statement explaining the changes. (Duh.) Prior to this week, any channel with over 100,000 subscribers was automatically verified. Now, YouTube says it will judge channels using a new set of criteria, including “authenticity” and “prominence.” “Does this channel belong to the real creator, artist, public figure or company it claims to represent,” YouTube explained in a blog post. “Does this channel represent a well-known or highly searched creator, artist, public figure or company?” October’s verification system, YouTube also said, will have a “new look that helps distinguish the official channel of the creator, celebrity or brand it represents.” A YouTube spokesperson also said the new design will correct for people adding a check mark emoji to the end of their channel name as a dupe for the real deal.
We won’t know until October whose channels will actually wind up losing their verified status. And while communities of creators are feeling smarted this week, YouTube’s retroactive appeal process makes sense given the scope of the platform. It likely wasn’t about to commit the time and resources needed to have YouTube verify each and every channel when it’s easier to put that onus on the creators, forcing them to do the work of proving who they are and what they make and just how many people care about it. But that also points to a larger issue on YouTube. Even with a redesign, it seems unlikely YouTube will be able to convince people a verification is just YouTube’s way of saying we can confirm this person is who they say they are and not also saying we stand by this person’s content.
Steven Crowder’s channel was eventually demonetized after the journalist he repeatedly harassed, Carlos Maza, refused to back down on Twitter. (Maza described the experience in detail on Twitter, including the time his personal information was doxxed by Crowder’s fans.) But this was not before YouTube fumbled the entire situation in its attempts to do as little as possible and hope people would drop the topic. (YouTube, in a further bungling, said the channel could be re-monetized if Crowder removed a link from his videos where he sells “Socialism Is For Fags” shirts with the a in “Fags” is replaced with a cartoon fig. Later, YouTube clarified it meant Crowder would have to do a number of things, including the shirt removal. And through all this, Crowder’s channel remained verified.
If it can’t shake the perceived link between verification and approval, YouTube should just stop trying. Verify everyone. Make anybody using YouTube prove who they are and what they are creating. (This isn’t a new idea. I’ve made similar arguments for other platforms, like Twitter, in the past.) It’s reductive, sure, but if everybody is special, nobody is. It would eliminate YouTube’s unwitting support of hate-speech mongers and racists and bigots. (Which it is becoming more and more clear isn’t all that unwitting. YouTube moderators speaking with the Washington Post recently said their attempts to remove ads from videos violating the platform’s Terms of Service were ignored for certain creators, including Crowder, PewPieDie, and Logan Paul. But that’s another discussion for another day.)
Would verifying everyone further piss off the creator community and possibly hurt their current business models? Yes. Being verified on YouTube, as it currently operates, means being seen as more legitimate by brands. It means people are more likely to find your videos in search or be served them by the recommendation algorithm. But all that is not what YouTube wants its verification system to be about, at least according to the updates to the updates to the news it issued this week about the forthcoming changes. It wants the system to be taken literally. YouTube, as of 2018, has 1.8 billion monthly active users. It’s also got a hell of misinformation problem, from anti-vaxxers to flat Earthers to that whole 2016 election, uh, thing. Making everyone verify who they are could only benefit the platform. That way, when it says verification is only meant to be interpreted as a positive ID and nothing more, YouTube could actually mean it.