The Industry

YouTube Has Been Making Changes to Support Victims of Gun Violence. Now It’s a Victim, Too.

YouTube's headquarters with police cars out front on Tuesday.
YouTube’s headquarters is seen with police activity during an active shooter situation in San Bruno, California, on Tuesday.
Josh Edelson/Getty Images

We don’t yet know exactly why a shooter opened fire Tuesday afternoon at YouTube’s headquarters in San Bruno, California, where multiple people were sent to the hospital for gunshot wounds. The suspected shooter killed herself during the incident, according to multiple reports. The Los Angeles Times reports that law enforcement believes the shooting was a “domestic incident,” though the investigation into the shooter’s motives is obviously in its very early stages. (Update, 11:15 p.m.: Numerous outlets are identifying the shooter as Nasim Aghdam.) One thing we do know is that the Google subsidiary has been thinking a lot about gun violence lately—and removing gun-related hoaxes and conspiracy theories as well as other kinds of gun-related content from its platform.

YouTube has emerged as an important node in the national debate around gun violence and gun reform following the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February. Far-right media outfits, like Alex Jones’ InfoWars, used the platform to promote the blatantly false conspiracy theory that David Hogg, one of the student survivors of the shooting who has emerged as a vocal advocate for enacting stricter gun laws, was a “crisis actor” working to sensationalize the news in an effort to strip away gun rights. About a week after the shooting, the No. 1 trending video on YouTube was another video falsely claiming that Hogg is an actor. YouTube took that video down after a report from Motherboard that the video had amassed more than 200,000 views.

YouTube’s response to the Parkland shooting follows a long-standing critique that YouTube and Google are unreliable and misleading sources of news in the immediate aftermaths of national tragedies—mass shootings in particular. The top three YouTube search results immediately following the deadly mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, last November included two right-wing news feeds and a channel created by TruthNews Network, which professed to focus on content related to “Earthquake feed, North Korea & More.” After the Las Vegas shooting in October, Google offered results at the top a search page from the notoriously shady troll site 4chan.

Something has clearly improved. On Tuesday evening, a search for “YouTube shooting” on YouTube surfaced videos from reliable and verified news outlets, with ABC, the Washington Post, and CBS occupying the top three spots.

The changes in how YouTube handles videos about guns and gun violence on its platform aren’t limited to removing conspiracy theories during breaking news events. In March, likely in response to the wave of attention gun violence has received since the Parkland shooting, YouTube said it will ban all videos that link to sites that sell guns or gun accessories, like bump stocks, which are attachments that can be added to semi-automatic rifles to make them fire faster, as well as videos that instruct how to assemble guns. The do-it-yourself gun-making movement has seen tremendous growth as conversations around tightening national restrictions on gun sales have escalated following the Parkland shooting.

In response to YouTube’s ban of videos that link to sites that sell guns and gun accessories, the National Rifle Association slammed the decision on its NRA-TV network as an act of “politically motivated censorship” and encouraged gun enthusiasts to “fire back” and keep putting their videos up on YouTube despite the ban to “let them try to censor it” and “overwhelm these leftists in California.”

This isn’t the first time YouTube has taken this kind of action. After the Las Vegas shooting, in which the shooter used bump stocks to enhance his firearms, YouTube banned videos demonstrating how to install the accessories. And YouTube has banned videos that promote gun sales for years.

There are still improvements Google and YouTube could make, of course. On Google Shopping on Tuesday evening, it was still possible to buy speed magazine loaders for AR-15s and AK-47s. And despite the video-sharing site’s moves to ban videos about gun sales, which was supposed to go in effect this month, on Tuesday evening Slate found multiple videos about buying automatic and semi-automatic rifles, including videos titled “What you need to know when shopping for an AK47 variant” and “AK47 Buyers Guide” and “Top 6 AK 47s Under $800.” The company should take the time it needs to process Tuesday’s horrible incident. And then it should probably consider removing these videos, and any videos like them.