The Tech Transparency Project (TTP) released a report highlighting how YouTube not only fails to age-restrict firearms and violent content, but how its algorithm appears to be pushing such content to children and teens.
The Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund (“Everytown”) has repeatedly called on YouTube to do its part to keep our communities safer, and in particular, to make its platform a safer place for young people. Everytown believes this important research from TTP demonstrates new urgency for YouTube to take action, or if it refuses to, for regulators to step in to protect children and teens on the platform.
YouTube is awash in gun content, often referred to as “GunTube” by firearm enthusiasts. Individuals who come to GunTube—including children and teens—can find videos which glorify assault weapons, show how to modify firearms, and teach viewers how to shoot through bulletproof glass or “win gunfights.” Children who are not old enough to buy a firearm can turn to YouTube to learn virtually anything they’d like to know about guns, including even how to acquire one illegally.
Everytown has been a leader in calling for social media companies to implement and enforce responsible firearms content policies. In December 2021 and May 2022, Everytown sent letters to YouTube, urging the company to take action on videos of extremist content and ghost guns. While YouTube has taken down some of the videos flagged in Everytown research, to date, YouTube has failed to adopt any of the recommended policy changes proposed by Everytown to make the platform safer. In August 2022, Everytown released a research report detailing how content available in online spaces—and on YouTube in particular—provided not only some of the extremist ideological motivation for the white supremacist mass shooter in Buffalo, but the tactical and technical know-how to carry out his attack. In the report, Everytown conducted a non-exhaustive review of YouTube for content that would appear to violate the platform’s own Community Guidelines with respect to the construction, modification, or sale of weapons. The analysis found over 200 readily accessible videos that garnered, collectively, over 40 million views.
The Tech Transparency Project’s Recent Findings
TTP’s report indicates that content from GunTube has also made its way to the screens of children and teens. Their research team created four test accounts on YouTube; two registered as nine-year-old boys and two registered as fourteen-year-old boys. The researchers watched one-hundred gaming videos on all four accounts, then used one account in each age group to engage with YouTube’s recommended videos algorithm, while the other account did not view any videos recommended by the algorithm.
Over a one-month period, the researchers logged each video recommended by the algorithm for all four accounts. Even though all of the accounts were registered to children, YouTube’s algorithm recommended videos glorifying school shootings, instructional videos on how to convert semi-automatic firearms into fully automatic ones, and graphic videos depicting what firearms can do to an imitation human head or torso. For example, the account registered as a fourteen-year-old that used YouTube’s algorithm was shown several school shooting-related videos. And the researchers found that, for the accounts that interacted with YouTube’s algorithm, YouTube served far more firearms and violent content. TTP’s research demonstrates that YouTube must do more to protect children and teens that use its platform.
Everytown Recommendations to YouTube
In order to help remedy some of the disturbing issues illustrated in the TTP report and Everytown’s own research, YouTube can take the following steps to improve the safety of its platform:
YouTube needs to enforce existing Community Guidelines on firearms, particularly with respect to children and guns.
- Many of the videos cited in the TTP report appear to violate existing YouTube Community Guidelines, yet remain on the platform.
- Everytown has been calling on YouTube to improve its content moderation surrounding its firearm policies since December 2021. But as the TTP report demonstrates, videos clearly violative of YouTube’s firearm policy, including videos showing viewers how to convert their semi-automatic firearms into machine guns, remain on the platform.
- Additionally, YouTube’s Child Safety Policy prohibits “showing minors involved in dangerous activities” which includes “using weapons or explosives.” Again, the TTP report identifies videos that evidence YouTube’s failure to enforce its own policies, including one video of a child firing a pistol that has been on YouTube for a year and has over 3 million views.
- YouTube needs to invest more resources into content moderation with respect to guns and child safety, and start actively enforcing its Community Guidelines. This content moderation should be proactive, and not rely solely on community reporting.
YouTube should place age restrictions on firearms content, particularly content that glorifies school shootings, tactical military training videos, and videos that illustrate unsafe firearms handling practices, all of which serve no positive purpose for minors on the platform.
- YouTube should place age restrictions on firearms content on its platform and prevent minors from viewing gun content. Firearms content has no reasonable utility for minors who cannot legally purchase the firearms and accessories featured in these videos.
- As YouTube’s own Community Guidelines state, “Sometimes content doesn’t violate our policies, but it may not be appropriate for viewers under 18. In these cases, we may place an age-restriction on the video.” This includes “[c]ontent containing adults participating in dangerous activities that minors could easily imitate” and content featuring acts that“could lead to serious injury or death” (emphasis added). Guns are the number one cause of death for children and teens in America, and as such, YouTube needs to ensure that firearms content is included in this age-restricted category.
YouTube should stop allowing direct links to websites where individuals can purchase weapons.
- YouTube’s own guidelines note that users should not “post content on YouTube if the purpose is to… sell firearms or certain firearms accessories through direct sales (e.g. private sales by individuals) or links to sites that sell these items” (emphasis added). Yet, YouTube is full of videos promoting websites where individuals can purchase weapons. Links to such sites are also often found in the description or comments of a particular video.
- Any plain reading of YouTube’s guidelines would prohibit using the platform as a medium to sell guns. It’s time for YouTube to stop allowing its platform to become a virtual gun show.
YouTube should remove algorithmic recommendations of firearms videos to minors. The site shouldn’t push firearms to children who aren’t old enough to buy them.
- One of the most troubling findings of the TTP research was that YouTube pushed content on weapons and shootings “at a much higher volume to the users who clicked on the YouTube-recommended videos.” This indicates that interacting with YouTube’s algorithmic suggestions could increase the likelihood of children being served up gun content.
- In the absence of completely age restricting firearm content, YouTube should, at the very least, stop its powerful algorithm from suggesting gun videos to minors.
- YouTube should prevent its algorithm from recommending firearms content to account-holders who are under the age of eighteen, especially content that glorifies gun violence, school shootings, unsafe gun handling, and tactical military advice.
YouTube needs to empower parents to protect their children.
If YouTube refuses to follow the recommendations above and age-restrict firearms content to minors, YouTube should allow parents to opt out of firearms content for the accounts of their children.