Digital tantrums on YouTube

From animal rights activists to worried teachers to pro-monarchist Thais: demands for censorship on the popular video-sharing site are getting louder.

Sarah Boyes

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YouTube, the video-sharing metropolis where anyone can upload and view film clips, and which was acquired by Google last year for a rumoured £900million, has been called on to remove ‘animal cruelty clips’ from its pages. As the London Times recently reported (1), viewers were aghast and distressed at several videos showing pythons killing goats and chickens, live mice being attacked by piranha fishes and a kitten being lobbed off a building, mostly to soundtracks of upbeat Eighties dance music and delighted whooping from onlookers.

This is the latest in a long line of outraged calls for aspects of YouTube to be censored. British teachers have attempted to protect children from ‘cyber-bullying’ by restricting access to the site (2); Japanese studios requested the removal of Hentai (the more violent strain of manga) episodes on grounds of copyright infringement (3); and there are restrictions in Thailand on what kind of videos can be posted about the monarchy there (4).

I ventured on to YouTube to see the latest headline-hogging cruel material for myself. A quick search for ‘python goat’ threw up a promising video called, well, ‘snake vs goat’. Cut to shaky home footage of a giant python in a big glass cage, nose to nose with an innocuous-looking whiter-than-white goat. Darting suddenly to clamp its jaws around its lunch’s neck, the snake slowly coils its giant body round the goat’s torso, squeezing it to death. In the background, a group of what sounds like American men commentate. The cameraman – presumably the pet’s owner – happily chirps in, ‘Even a human being couldn’t get out of that’, before accurately predicting the moment the goat will start kicking. His friends start chanting: ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.’

Searching further for ‘animal cruelty’ returned a whole subgenre of pro- and anti American pit bull terrier videos. One showed images of dogs against a hip-hop soundtrack; another informed viewers that animals were not ‘put on earth’ to fight.

It would be interesting to ask those who call for censorship of videos of animals eating other animals what they think keeps a 10-foot python alive. Surely starving a serpent to death by refusing to let it feed, regardless of how fluffy its meals are, would be more akin to animal cruelty? Demands that videos showing animal feeding should be censored smacks of a woolly-minded refusal to acknowledge that (shock!) some animals do indeed eat others. What about advertised feeding times at zoos? Are we supposed to feel sorry for the mice now? In fact, humans both kill and eat animals regularly, but nobody (except PETA perhaps) complains about sepia-tinted footage of people tucking into their Sunday roasts. Neither did people have a problem with David Attenborough’s television series Planet Earth, where he marvelled at the incisiveness of dirty prairie dogs hacking up a graceful gazelle. But then, that was the BBC.

It’s not so much the depiction of goat death or dog fighting itself that provokes groans – after all, some of the most gruesome images of animals appear in the material of animal-rights campaigners. Instead, it’s the fact that these videos have no obvious higher, sufficiently noble purpose that makes them unpalatable for some people. The problem is not so much the depiction of bloody animal feeding but the fact that some people might enjoy it; not the representation of a snake-strangling but the fact that some might get off on it. This fear of viewer enjoyment is based on two ideas: first, that web surfers, largely unregulated and unrestricted, get up to all sorts of perverted things; and second, that if you like watching wicked videos on YouTube then you might also be tempted to carry out in the real world what you have watched on the web. Therefore, YouTube must be censored in order to protect us from our own worst instincts, and to ensure that no one decides to buy a snake or a wild dog and set it on a poor defenceless beast.

You may not care very much whether it’s possible to view snakes eating goats on YouTube. But there is more at stake here than a few weird videos. A minority of egocentric moralisers should not have the power to decide what people can or cannot post on a video-sharing networking site. YouTube is built up through user-generated content, and it is supposedly user-managed. Whether a clip does well (that is, if it comes high on search returns) depends on how many stars users award it, and all potentially irksome clips carry a warning telling viewers to go away if they’re likely to be adversely affected. It’s hard to imagine a more fair and polite way of sharing videos.

However, if you thought the rise of file-sharing sites was a leap in the right direction for a model of self-governance on the web, think again. Sites such as YouTube may overtly espouse the ethos of the ‘politics of participation’, but censorious rules are built into their structures so as to ensure certain sorts of material and viewpoints don’t appear. YouTube, for instance, has a blanket ban on porn. If a video generates a lot of complaints, administrators will remove it; so there is user-generated censorship on YouTube as well as user-generated content. Filters are often built into search engines on content-sharing websites, and on many sites ‘admins’ have the final say on what appears and what doesn’t.

Today, many celebrate Web 2.0’s participatory ethos, only to disparage users when they don’t behave in the way that is expected. The unwieldy nature of the web triggers the cautious and censorious to panic about what harm unruly browsers might be doing to themselves, or to others – or even to cats, goats and snakes.

The Google search engine’s modus operandi is a ‘moderate’ filter, which bans material that might be pornographic – or simply nude. If you search for ‘Nicole Kidman’ on Google images with first the moderate filter and then without a filter, you will find that the first blocks Lucien Freud’s painting of Kidman while the second allows it. While having the option of filtering can be useful, and the role of the ‘admin’ is often practical, having these as the necessary conditions for browsing smacks of covert authoritarianism. And it is crude: it blocks out not only pornographic imagery but also paintings by one of Britain’s most respected living artists.

The World Wide Web has the potential to be an open space for the sharing and interrogation of ideas without any of the moralising and monitoring that is so commonplace in the offline world. It could be a place for the free flow of information between equals and a source of abundant information for whoever wants it. Sadly, it has quickly become prey to the sort of gentle centralised interventionism so prevalent in British politics and society today.

Too many web-users hit ‘complain’ rather than having a discussion and working out rules and regulations for themselves. Instead of appealing to the user community, and devising some way of reaching a collective decision about what is acceptable in people’s shared spaces, the easily upset have digital tantrums and expect the bouncers of cyberspace to come running. Which means that instead of being a radically alternative space for images and information free from the confines of conventions, YouTube and other sites are falling prey to the sensitivity-driven censorship that plagues the real world.

Sarah Boyes is commissioning editor (books) for Culture Wars. She is chairing the debate What Does Music Mean? at the spiked-sponsored Battle of Ideas festival on Sunday 28 October.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild said there’s no need to be afraid of Facebook, but Amol Rajan argued that the social networking site is churning out a generation of navel-gazing pseudo-celebs. Nathalie Rothschild called Second Life a virtual nanny state and Robin Walsh demanded we get a First Life. Rob Lyons asked: Who’s afraid of Manhunt 2?. Or read more at spiked issue Modern life.

(1) Teachers call for YouTube ban over ‘cyber-bullying’, The Observer, 29 July 2007

(3) Japanese protest YouTube for illegal content, Afterdawn.com, 5 December 2006

(4) YouTube ban lifted in Thailand, Big Mouth Media, 3 September 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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