A new investigation by Bot Sentinel—the same research group that unearthed rampant pro-Johnny Depp harassment campaigns in July—offered similarly jarring revelations this week: At least two dozen YouTube channels with “flagrant” policy violations were allowed to continue posting without any consequence from YouTube moderators, and all while still getting paid. Among the most common subject matter of their videos were misogynist lies and attacks on women like Amber Heard and Meghan Markle, who have both been spoken extensively about the heavy toll of online abuse on their well-being. Thousands of videos threatening and making defamatory claims about Heard and Markle, in particular, have remained live, despite violating YouTube’s policies—and there’s evidence the video platform itself profits from this hate.
YouTube says it prohibits “malicious insults” targeting famous or identifiable individuals. Yet, Bot Sentinel estimates that five accounts focused singularly on attacking Markle received a total of $42,000 in monthly payments, with ad profits shared with YouTube. At the height of the defamation trial between Johnny Depp and Heard, one account made over 128 videos about Heard that violated this policy and also made defamatory claims about her.
Bot Sentinel identified one case of a YouTuber who said in his videos that Markle deserves to be “strangled to death,” and said as recently as Monday that Markle and her husband, Prince Harry, should be “shot at dawn”—no action has been taken, despite how Bot Sentinel’s founder, Christopher Bouzy, told Rolling Stone he’d personally reported these videos.
“A lot of these folks would not do what they’re doing if YouTube was not rewarding them. And let’s be clear here, they are rewarding them,” Bouzy said. “When you allow these folks to monetize this content and you’re the company that is paying them, at the end of the day, you’re pretty much facilitating the harassment, the vitriol that we’re currently seeing.”
Many of these videos evade detection from content moderators, Bot Sentinel’s research suggests, through deceptive practices like featuring a thumbnail totally unrelated to the contents of the video.
As someone who’s spent more than five minutes on the internet, none of this is exactly shocking information: Watch one questionable video on YouTube, and suddenly your feed is awash with an endless queue of videos calling domestic violence victims liars, accusing Markle of killing the Queen, hyping up Jordan Peterson for “owning” feminists. But in the continued aftermath of Depp and Heard’s stomach-churning defamation trial, and given that Markle once experienced suicidal ideation over the constant barrage of hate she faced, Bot Sentinel’s findings are especially chilling. These dehumanizing smear campaigns are certainly driven by misogyny, racism, and hate—but they’re also, apparently, driven by profit incentive for platforms like YouTube.
And it’s not just YouTube: In July, Bot Sentinel found that users behind thousands of tweets that included one of four viral hashtags (#AmberHeardIsAnAbuser, #AmberHeardLsAnAbuser, #AmberHeardIsALiar, and #AmberHeardLsALiar) came from accounts that were “dedicated to spamming.” Hateful posts on platforms like YouTube, Twitter, TikTok, Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, and other corners of the internet form an unchecked feedback loop of viral lies and inspiration for more hateful content—and all of these companies profit from this.
Bouzy told Rolling Stone the ramifications of YouTube allowing creators to profit off hate speech and lies—and taking a cut of the money—is dangerous not just because of the toll on wealthy, famous women like Heard and Markle. Lax enforcement of policies also puts “journalists or private individuals” at risk. No one is safe when content creators are financially incentivized to go viral by spewing hate. And if the unsettling success of attack campaigns targeting Heard and Markle reveal anything, it’s that women of color and women who come forward about experiencing sexual violence will be the most vulnerable and unprotected.