Floating through a moderation storm, YouTube has spent much of 2018 promising to more readily police the content on its site. In April, the Google-owned media giant brought the hammer down on pot.
For years, YouTube has been home to so many creators, and so much content, that policing it completely has been beyond the company's thousands of moderators. In recent months the site has been forced to reconsider its approach.
In November, YouTube addressed a shocking child exploitation problem that saw users posting exploitative videos featuring children. Later, YouTube cracked down on hate speech and "unsafe" content, causing many right-wing YouTubers and gun activists to leave for other platforms.
Now, the tech giant is tightening its grip on cannabis creators, hundreds of whom have built successful, money-making channels on the site. The difference this time? Nobody in the cannabis community knows why.
Dontae, the creator of cannabis-focused channel Loaded Up Entertainment, saw the crackdown coming ahead of time. He told BuzzFeed News that YouTube began flagging his channel's videos in early April, in the lead-up to World Weed Day on April 20.
On YouTube for two years, Loaded Up had over 100,000 subscribers, had received silver play button awards from the platform, and was even sent a letter from the YouTube CEO congratulating them on the success.
"YouTube is becoming more ad-friendly, and I think this is part of that," he said.
Dontae believes the efforts to shut down his channel began as part of a demonetisation strategy. "For every video I would try to monetise, YouTube would demonitise three," he said. "It was weird."
Eventually, multiple videos began getting flagged as inappropriate by YouTube, and the Loaded Up channel was finally terminated by YouTube in late April.
Multiple cannabis content creators who spoke to BuzzFeed News mentioned YouTuber Logan Paul's infamous "suicide forest" video as a pivotal moment in the way YouTube monitored content. [The company says it is increasing the number of moderators from 8,000 to 10,000 in 2018]. At the turn of the new year Paul uploaded a video that showed footage of a dead body in Japan's Aokigahara, a forest at the base of Mt. Fuji.
The video and the controversy that followed brought into sharp focus YouTube's growing content crisis.
Of the weed channels caught up in the current situation, some have been around for years, nurturing audiences of over 200,000, while others have just a few hundred subscribers.
YouTube's official line is that the content was removed and the channels terminated because the platform prohibits content "offering the sale of certain highly regulated substances, like marijuana".
"When we're made aware of this type of content, we remove it," a Google spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
But that still doesn't explain why the crackdown is happening now, and if the platform plans on having a space for cannabis-related content from those who are creating videos in areas where the drug is legal.
Users are also forbidden from linking to sites that sell these products and, while users who think their channels have mistakenly been shutdown can appeal, the process isn't easy.
Video-based cannabis content existed pre-YouTube. Jodie Emery is an activist and politician based in Canada. Her husband, Marc, created the web-based video site Pot TV in 2000. Eventually, the site made its way to YouTube, but was temporarily suspended in mid-April.
"Maybe it was just a massive sweep of anything controversial," she told BuzzFeed News.
Emery said that over the years a giant library of information about cannabis had been published online.
"Any war on cannabis is a war on cannabis information," she said. "If people have access to information on how to grow their own weed, and they're being educated about the truth about cannabis, how long before government and others start thinking that's not OK? That's going to become an issue."
Caelan Hart ran a channel called The Cannaisseur. He told BuzzFeed News YouTube sent him an email in late April saying his account had been suspended because it contained "violent and/or dangerous content" and had "repeated severe violations". He said he had only been sent one video violation notice.
"I appealed that night – which they only give you 1,000 characters for – and they upheld the suspension," he said. "At this point, I'm looking into other video platforms, or possibly self-hosting."
Hart might not have to look far. Already, competitors to YouTube have popped up vying to become the new home for cannabis creators. One of those is The WeedTube. Its creator Arend Lenderink was also a prominent vlogger on YouTube.
The WeedTube wasn't always going to be a "YouTube for Weed", and originally the plan was to have the site work in tandem with YouTube creators, acting in a similar way to Patreon, a place for creators to offer more exclusive content for cash.
"When YouTube started terminating accounts, we knew we had to step in," Lenderink told BuzzFeed News.
Within a week of it being rushed to a live site, WeedTube had ads on its platform. "It was launched out of necessity," he said. "So many people were coming over. We had four signups a minute for three days."
Lenderink says he had 199,000 subscribers on YouTube when his channel was taken down. He hasn't received his silver plaque yet but he anticipates that, due to what he suspects is YouTube's automated award-giving response, he should receive it any day now.
"I guess I'll smoke weed out of it," he said. "And you can quote me on that."
Brad Esposito is a news reporter for BuzzFeed and is based in Sydney, Australia.
Contact Brad Esposito at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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