YouTube’s cannabis content purge “a huge loss of cultural history”

Why videos focused on home cultivation and cannabis activism are disappearing from the platform

Originally published on The Georgia Straight

‘This video is no longer available because the YouTube account associated with this video has been terminated.’

Imagine seeing that frustrating prompt on videos you’ve hosted on your channel for several years, perhaps even a decade, without notice—or worse, that your channel and the hundreds of hours worth of video content you’ve uploaded have been completely removed.

It’s a cold reality cannabis vloggers and content creators are facing as a recent crackdown on weed-related material slowly decimates channels while disappointing their subscribers.

Several popular cannabis channels including UrbanRemo, Greenbox Grown, Green Flower Media, JorgeCervantes, Mernahuana, and others have been terminated with no explanation from YouTube—and, of course, no opportunity for recourse.

Others, like PotTV, have been lucky enough to keep their channels, but have seen certain videos removed.

According to a report by Herb, YouTube’s apparent purge on cannabis content began in early 2018.

Sources in that story say certain channels were receiving an unusually large number of strikes against their videos resulting in restrictions that included demonetization, blocks on uploading new content, or worse, the termination of entire accounts, in some cases, without any warning.

YouTube’s policy on harmful or dangerous content states that videos considered “to encourage dangerous or illegal activities including bomb making, choking games, hard drug use, or other acts” will not be permitted. However, the policy goes onto say that if a video depicting a “dangerous act” is educational, scientific, or artistic, it may be allowed.

Most of the videos that have been deleted are home-growing tutorials, informative videos about the herb’s medical applications, and forays into the nuances of cannabis and its use—hardly depicting “dangerous” activities or hard drug use, though the question of legality is one that has some activists wondering if there is more to the story.

While Cannabis Culture’s PotTV channel disappeared in April for a few days, Jodie Emery said some of the content later reappeared, with the account still seeing some strange activity.

Emery told the Straight that some members of the online community were worried their content was being deleted to prevent the spread of knowledge on home cultivation.

“With legalization unfolding and a lot of debate about growing your own cannabis at home, there might be an attempt by Canadian companies to erase this information from YouTube—especially in light of the new advertising restrictions [on licensed producers],” she said.

Or, she said, it could be that cannabis content is simply being lumped in with content that is in violation of YouTube’s community policies.

“This is similar to a book-burning,” she said. “When you erase the record of the people and history, it’s an effort to delegitimize people.”

Emery said she was working to collect as much relevant video content as possible and hopes the community can create it’s own platform, “to preserve the info ourselves, and not have to rely on these big corporations.”

VP of sale and business relations at Remo Nutrients, Sandra Colasanti says UrbanRemo—the company’s channel and Canada’s largest on cannabis, with 190,000 subscribers—began receiving a flurry of strikes on several videos, many of which she said did not violate YouTube’s content guidelines, in April.

“One of the videos that they took down, it was called ‘Rasta Parrot’, and it was a video of us filming a parrot in a cage,” she says. “There was no cannabis in it… we weren’t talking about weed, but for some reason, they pegged that one.” It was one of dozens of videos flagged and removed ahead of the termination of the channel.

She says after sending multiple appeals to YouTube, she finally received a response saying that the channel was deactivated because of “spamming” in the comments.

“We don’t spam, and we moderate every single comment,” Colasanti said, noting that even disparaging comments toward Remo’s competitors were not allowed to appear beneath any videos.

“We spend thousands a month to pay for these videos, and this channel is not being monetized in any way,” she said. “At the same time, every single garden in our videos is a federally exempted garden, and all the people that are in the videos are patients.”

A change to YouTube’s algorithm to prevent advertisements from appearing on inappropriate content in 2017 meant that videos the company once made ad revenue on would no longer be monetized.

Colasanti and others in the global cannabis community who have had years of content stripped from their channels believe they were targeted after the company announced in December 2017 that it would hire 10,000 new employees to flag offensive and inappropriate content.

Offering free services and with over 1 billion users, it makes sense that YouTube has for long been the preferred platform for cannabis vloggers and content creators—but with the crackdown continuing, Colasanti says they’ve decided to take their content to Vimeo.

“Our goal has always been to get the message out to the masses, by showing funny, informative stuff, and what’s going on in different parts of the world,” she said, noting that even content the Remo team filmed in Spain—where cannabis use and personal cultivation are decriminalized—had been flagged for removal.

Colasanti said she’d made several attempts at contacting YouTube by phone and email to no avail, and that she feared the impact that the removal of cannabis content from the platform would have on subscribers, many of whom are medical patients or designated growers.

“One subscriber sent me a video message of him crying, he was so upset. These are real people’s lives that are being messed with, and they don’t understand the impact of what they’re doing.”

Another popular channel, Mernahuana, hosted over 400 videos dating back to 2011, and was operated by best-selling author of the Marijuana Smoker’s Guidebook, Matt Mernagh. He told the Straight by phone from Toronto that he woke up to his channel being deleted on New Year’s Day. Much of his content focused on home cultivation and cannabis activism. He believes the take down was generated by bots programmed to flag certain videos.

While he said he’d come to terms with losing his own channel and videos, he expressed sadness over the loss of collective culture in the community.

“It’s a huge, huge loss of culture. I don’t think people realize how much Canadian culture has been decimated in the last six months by YouTube,” he said.

“You just took out our history—tons and tons of cultural history by some of the country’s biggest creators, and it’s gone. If you think about, it’s devestating, so I try not to.”