YouTube has been accused of political censorship by a group of leading Hong Kong content creators who claim the streaming giant has been barring their politically charged video clips — including coronavirus-related content — from reaching advertisers.

Creators such as Phoenix Wong are among a contingent of prominent political commentators and media personalities who monetize their content through the Google-owned platform’s popular partner program. However, Wong and others allege that since January, YouTube has assigned many of their videos a restrictive, “limited or no ads” monetization status, though the company has recently taken steps to diffuse the charges. 

“The original intention for this kind of platform was to support creative freedom and independence, but YouTube is making it difficult for content providers to survive,” Wong tells Variety. 

Videos with the restricted status are generally deemed unsuitable for ads, meaning income is either constrained or barred completely. Such videos are marked with a yellow dollar sign visible only to channel operators.

A discernible trend emerged following the escalation of the coronavirus outbreak in Asia in February, when videos began to link the pandemic with China’s political situation. Some creators estimate that income generated from their videos in February was down 50%-70% compared with previous months. 

YouTube is not available in mainland China, but has become a major media platform in Hong Kong in recent years as more political commentators have gravitated to the video giant, with advertising dollars generated from clips sustaining independent production.

Since June 2019, political commentary and live media coverage of the ongoing Hong Kong pro-democracy protests have been considered the alternative
to traditional mainstream media, with some content garnering more than a million views. 

That same month, YouTube updated its advertiser-friendly content guidelines with new measures covering a range of content that warrants “limited or no ads” status, including hateful content, controversial issues, and sensitive events, classified as “armed conflict,” “death,” “global health crises” and “tragic events.” 

Reviews are conducted by an automated system, and channel operators can appeal and request a human review in the event of disputes.  

Since January, a number of Hong Kong YouTube personalities have alleged  China’s authoritarian politics were the cause of the initial cover-up around the emergence of novel coronavirus in Wuhan, as well as the delay in virus containment. They have also alleged that the Hong Kong government’s refusal to seal borders to mainland China prioritized politics over people’s safety.

Around this time, pro-democracy YouTubers, some of whom have hundreds of thousands of channel subscribers, began raising the issue of demonetization. 

Political commentator Wong tells Variety that he and three other YouTube content creators, including veteran film producer-turned-political commentator Stephen Shiu (“Long Arm of the Law III,” “Sex and Zen”), held a meeting in Hong Kong with representatives from YouTube’s Asia-Pacific regional office on March 3 to discuss the issue. 

Wong, whose February videos have all been given “limited or no ad” status, says he and others were told in the meeting that certain content was being demonetized as a result of an automated review system alongside stringent measures to control the spread of “fake news” and false information related to the coronavirus outbreak, rather than politics. Yet, none of the videos in question was taken down. 

“It is an indirect form of censorship,” says Wong, who also suggests that some Chinese advertisers may have looked to silence commentators unwelcome in the eyes of Beijing. 

Gary Kwan, who runs a channel dedicated to paranormal activity, history and popular culture, says some of his videos referencing Hong Kong protests have been demonetized since June 2019. However, also since that time, his nonpolitical videos discussing movie classics such as Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis,” feng shui and the Albert Camus novel “The Plague” have also been deemed unsuitable for ads. “This shows that YouTube is not censoring the content but censoring the channel,” Kwan alleges. 

YouTube updated its ad guidelines in February with a sensitive events clause, classifying coronavirus as one such example. The company has maintained that it is following global community guidelines and advertising policies, which are not meant to discriminate politically. 

In recent days, the business has promised an about-face concerning coronavirus content. In a March 11 Creator Blog post, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki wrote that the platform has been reviewing monetization policies for videos discussing the virus, and ads will be enabled for select news partners and creators covering the topic. 

While the streaming giant says it will discontinue classifying Covid-19 as sensitive content and expand monetization to more creators in the weeks to come, creators will be asked to report how their content complies with YouTube’s guidelines through a self-certification program on content ownership and channel growth.