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What you can’t say on YouTube

By Helen Lewis

10 Mar 2023 · 7 min read

Editor's Note

An essayist for The Atlantic shows how YouTube's content creators struggle with the platform's opaque content moderation rules—and how easy it is to set off an "AI trip wire" with one wrong word.

Recently, on a YouTube channel, I said something terrible, but I don’t know what it was. The main subject of discussion—my reporting on the power of online gurus—was not intrinsically offensive. It might have been something about the comedian turned provocateur Russell Brand’s previous heroin addiction, or child-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. I know it wasn’t the word Nazi, because we carefully avoided that. Whatever it was, it was enough to get the interview demonetized, meaning no ads could be placed against it, and my host received no revenue from it.

“It does start to drive you mad,” says Andrew Gold, whose channel, On the Edge, was the place where I committed my unknowable offense. Like many full-time YouTubers, he relies on the Google-owned site’s AdSense program, which gives him a cut of revenues from the advertisements inserted before and during his interviews. When launching a new episode, Gold explained to me, “you get a green dollar sign when it’s monetizable, and it goes yellow if it’s not.” Creators can contest these rulings, but that takes time—and most videos receive the majority of their views in the first hours after launch. So it’s better to avoid the yellow dollar sign in the first place. If you want to make money off of YouTube, you need to watch what you say.

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