YouTube nukes its API and search functionality in response to Christchurch massacre

Google, like other social media platforms, have been under intense pressure over the last few days to prevent people from sharing footage and praise of the Christchurch mass shootings.

YouTube responded by completely breaking its search functionality. As at approximately 5am GMT on 16 March 2019, YouTube completely disabled its date-based search parameters.

A Google employee has confirmed that this is a deliberate move, not a bug:

YouTube is aware the search/sorting functions aren’t working as expected — this is temporary and part of our efforts to better respond, review and remove graphic, violative content from YouTube. Thanks for your patience while we work through this. Will update this thread when these features are working normally again, feel free to subscribe for updates.

In the past, when YouTube has been criticised for sharing too much inflammatory content, it has designed certain search terms as ‘news’. When angry MRAs and trolls were generating large amounts of hateful content about Brie Larson recently, YouTube tweaked its search results to prioritise videos from official news channels.

It seems that this technique is fragile. People may have been able to circumvent it by searching for videos posted in the last few hours or even minutes.

So YouTube just disabled the ability to search by date. Completely. For all keywords. Across both its user interface and its APIs.

Obviously, a lot of developers were upset to suddenly find that their applications that relied on YouTube’s API no longer worked. There are a few open bug reports complaining about the issue.

This is incredibly disappointing for researchers, like us, who are trying to understand how people are using YouTube to communicate.

Obviously YouTube is under a lot of pressure to fix its algorithms, but preventing people from using the API to even see what is being shared on YouTube is an extreme backwards step in transparency.

We should probably have some sympathy for YouTube, which is desperately trying to figure out how to stop spreading harmful content on its platform. But this move shows just how blunt its technical tools are. Faced with a sudden need to address a problem it has struggled to fix for a long time, the only immediate action it could take was to disable search functionality across the platform. Apparently it’s working on a more sophisticated approach, but there’s no timeline on when that might be.

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I study the governance of the internet. Law Professor @QUTLaw and @QUTDMRC; Member of @OversightBoard. All views are my own. Author: Lawless (July 2019).

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Nicolas Suzor

Nicolas Suzor

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I study the governance of the internet. Law Professor @QUTLaw and @QUTDMRC; Member of @OversightBoard. All views are my own. Author: Lawless (July 2019).