YouTube: A New Regulatory Agency for Gun Control?

October 14, 2017

When one thinks of online entertainment, many domains, such as Hulu, Netflix, and Buzzfeed come to mind. However, few websites have as much clout, recognition, and daily traffic as does YouTube. YouTube, whose users watch nearly 1 billion hours of video per day, has become a staple in the online presence of billions of users around the world. As a result, YouTube has routinely been able to both mold cultural trends and bring divisive issues into the mainstream consciousness by providing a platform of broad and easily accessible content. Nowhere has this been more relevant than in the past week when a gunman opened fire on 58 people in Las Vegas, making the incident the deadliest mass shooting in United States history. As the country grapples with the ramifications of this tragic event, the reality is that with such mass proliferation of weapons in this country – an estimated 310 million to be exact – gun violence will continue to be a recurring event in the United States. Nevertheless, technological companies are starting to think of ways they can help make a difference. Some companies have chosen to modify the searchable content advertised on their platforms. YouTube became one such company this past week, after deciding to modify its algorithms in the wake of the Las Vegas shootings.
The changes to YouTube’s algorithm impact its search engine features, making videos that are more “authoritative” in nature to appear at the top of the search results bar over other content. Although authoritative was not defined by the company, numerous sources have reported that this move is designed to filter out content such as conspiracy theories, fake news and misinformation, and deceptive information to individuals in a bid to keep users away from some of the darkest material on the Internet. While this change had been floating around in YouTube headquarters for some time, the catalyst was when after the mass shooting, “videos propagating conspiracy theories and misinformation started climbing the ranks in YouTube’s search results.” For example, immediately after the shooting, “the fifth result for ‘Las Vegas shooting’ on YouTube was a video titled, ‘Proof Las Vegas Shooting Was a FALSE FLAG attack — Shooter on 4th Floor,’” which had been profusely repudiated by investigators.
Apart from changing its algorithm, YouTube has also taken action against the proliferation of weapons videos available for viewership on the platform. Most notably, in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting, YouTube moved to ban all “bump stock” videos. A “bump stock” is a weapon modification that can be added to a semi-automatic rifle making the weapon fire at a more heightened speed. This increase in automation makes the weapon incredibly lethal as it allows bullets to be fired at a near militaristic level. Part of the reason that made the Las Vegas shooting so lethal was the result of 17 weapons being modified with these “bump stocks” by the shooter. Immediately following the incident, individuals around the world flocked to YouTube to watch how they too could modify their weapons via a countless number of tutorial videos. Citing YouTube’s content guidelines which prohibit “content that intends to incite violence or encourage dangerous or illegal activities that have an inherent risk of serious physical harm or death,” company executives believe that this will help clean up dangerous content on the website.
While this is a step in the right direction for YouTube, the reality is that there are still an enormous number of violent videos available on the website, including those of “bump stocks.” The cold hard truth is that it will simply be impossible for YouTube or other websites to remove all items that could be seen as “dangerous” content on their platforms. While YouTube does pledge strict adherence to their content guidelines, in actuality, videos will slip through the cracks, and diligent users will always be able to find the content they desire. Nevertheless, it is imperative that pressure is continued to be put on YouTube and search engines such as Google and Yahoo to filter out misleading and dangerous content from their databases.

If our federal government fails to provide a responsible legislative solution ending accessibility to dangerous weapons and modifications, then technological companies such as YouTube might be the answer to providing reasonable regulation going forward.