YouTube’s decision to suspend News Corp’s Sky News Australia from its service is a small gesture that doesn’t begin to negate the misinformation and fringe ideas that have spread because of the platform.
On Sunday, a Google Australia spokesperson confirmed that Sky News Australia had been temporarily banned from posting videos for a week and been given a strike on their account for posting COVID-19 misinformation.
“We don’t allow content that denies the existence of COVID-19 or that encourages people to use [disproven or unproven COVID-19 treatments] hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin to treat or prevent the virus,” they said.
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This suspension and threat of a future ban is a serious issue for Sky News Australia. Since mid-2019, when the television station pivoted to focusing on creating digital content from its “After Dark” that spread increasingly extreme and fringe right-wing views, Sky News has found an enormous audience online.
Its YouTube channel has 1.86 million subscribers and its videos get an average of 2.3 million views each day. Sky News Australia has become a global vector for spreading right-wing culture war talking points and conspiracy theories.
(It is worth noting that Sky News Australia’s daytime video content, comprising traditional news reporting, remains credible. The content that pushes the boundaries and gets the most reach online is its nighttime opinion content led by hosts like Alan Jones, Rowan Deanm and Cory Bernardi, as well as its digital news operation).
So, is this decision by YouTube a victory for high-quality news online that will drastically improve our information ecosystem? Not exactly.
Beyond the obvious ramifications for Sky News, this decision should be seen as an example of an unaccountable global behemoth with more control over the spread of information than anyone — yes, even more than Rupert Murdoch — which has only now decided to act on a problem that is of its own making.
Sky News Australia’s hard-to-comprehend scale is possible because tech giants have been willing to let it get this big. In 2019, Sky News signed partnerships with YouTube and Facebook (where it is also enormous) which gave it “increased reach” and allowed it to “monetise their trusted news content”, according to new CEO Paul Whittaker.
Sky News is now a member of YouTube Partner Program, along with outlets like ABC News, which allows it to earn directly from the ads running on its videos.
A 2019 algorithm change designed to curb misinformation by limiting fringe channels that supercharged fellow News Corp channel Fox News also benefited Sky News, promoting its fringe opinion content as it would with high quality news from other sources.
Google is actually paying Sky News to promote content. In February this year, Google agreed to pay a “significant” amount to News Corp for inclusion in its News Showcase program — which includes Sky News’ digital articles.
Other than this slap on the wrist, everything else Google has done to this point has stacked the deck to spread Sky News’ content further. For that pleasure, Google has also decided to pay it.
When examined closely, the decision to temporarily suspend the channel may not inspire confidence either.
While Sky News Australia put out an official, standard corporate statement, its digital editor Jack Houghton also penned a piece that compared their suspension to “Holodomor, Auschwitz and Mao”. But beyond the bluster, Houghton claims that the videos that got the channel suspended featured legitimate debate on contentious scientific policy issues.
“The stance taken by some commentators at this network was that masks are not effective in containing outbreaks, particularly when mandated outside in the fresh air,” he wrote. “Some also took issue with the frequency and mechanisms of locking down Australians.”
Houghton also said “most” of the videos removed last year were based on scientific knowledge of the time. That at the very least presents a thorny moderation problem that isn’t so clear-cut: should we remove records of outdated information and punish those publishing it, even as people are viewing it as current?
If that’s the case, that would make the decision to sanction a major Australian publisher seem like overreach. We’ve seen examples of tech companies walking back decisions on banning misinformation before, like when they stopped banning claims that COVID-19 was made by humans.
The bigger point here: a global tech company’s decision to remove a major Australian publisher’s content, to restrict them from reaching their audience and to threaten to remove them all together in the future, is an opaque one.
No one outside of Google and Sky News can see what specific videos were banned, nor the rationale other than that they violated some vague rules on misinformation.
Even if this decision was defensible, the company’s previous decisions to allow Sky News content to remain must also be considered. The platform has set up arbitrary rules for what does and doesn’t warrant being taking down. Misinformation on climate change, for example, isn’t removed. Why one type of fake news about an existential threat is allowed and another isn’t shows the absurdity of the rules that dictate one of the world’s largest sources of information.
Sky News’ stumble may feel like a win for those who abhor the fringe views of its nighttime hosts, but it’s actually another reminder that control over what kind of information is allowed rests in the hands of unelected Silicon Valley tech types. And needless to say, they’re not motivated by concern for the health of Australia’s media ecosystem.
Private Media, the publisher of Crikey, has a licensing agreement with Google News.