The rise of overtly political YouTube ads raises many ethical questions about the neutrality of social media platforms.
Recently, I was about to watch a commentary video on YouTube by a creator called WildSpartanz. The advert that rolled before this video was a piece of Turkish state-sponsored propaganda so clumsy I had to check I had not in fact slipped into a parallel universe where cack-handed whataboutism was considered valid political discourse. I realised I had seen an equally as clumsy advert, but of Polish origin, earlier in the week. I will insert these artistic black spots for your consideration:
The troubling thing is, neither of the videos these appeared before was even vaguely political. I am not Turkish, I am not Polish, I do not live in Turkey, I do not live in Poland or even on mainland Europe. These videos are insidious appeals for the rest of the world to either ignore or normalise prejudices abroad in Turkey and Poland.
TRT World as a channel only uploads videos describing the ‘Turkish Border War’ in a light that casts all Kurdish forces as equivalent to the PKK. The PKK is a Kurdish political paramilitary group recognised as a terrorist organisation by many of Turkey’s allies, they have led a deadly insurgency in southeastern Turkey since the mid-1980s.
However, in Syria, the Movement for a Democratic Society (TEV-DEM), is an umbrella organisation (including the YPG) distinct from the PKK despite sharing Abdullah Ocalan’s founding philosophy of socialism. TEV-DEM embraced Ocalan’s move into federalism and profess no desire to interfere in the affairs of neighbouring countries. Their only stated desires – which they reiterate – are democracy, equality, and the destruction of Daesh.
It does not rest easy with me to think that Recep Erdogan would rather fight the YPG than the barbarians slaughtering religious minorities. The reality of the propaganda adverts being paid for through TRT is that Turkey is nervous a Kurdish enclave against its border would embolden the PKK, they want license to go and clear the enclave by any means. The turnaround on the advertising was quick too: they want to control the narrative surrounding their invasion of Syrian Kurdistan.
Polish Holocaust revisionism
The Polish president Andrzej Duda has signed a bill into law this month, legislation which allows the government to jail anyone who, “publicly and against the facts,” suggests Poland had any involvement in Nazi war crimes committed during World War II. The legislation extends to prohibit the use of the term “Polish death camps”, an exception taken to matters of geography which might strike an outside observer as oddly specific. The Israeli government has, unsurprisingly, strongly criticised the bill, and its signing has only hurt Polish-Israeli relations. The concern is that the bill could serve to excuse individual Poles for their collaboration.
The exact text of the legislation is curious:
“Whoever publicly and untruthfully assigns responsibility or co-responsibility to the Polish Nation or the Polish State for Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich … or for other crimes constituting crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, or war crimes … is subject to a fine or imprisonment for up to three years.” (emphasis added)
The proponents of the bill have claimed it exists to fix errors of perception and prevent defamation but that Polish advert is such an anxious work that it makes one wonder what has got the governing populist, right-wing, Law and Justice Party (PiS) so worried?
The strange requirement that “other crimes” not be referenced appears to be a shield to deflect accusations of anti-Semitism as an existing political force in Poland, in the past and the present. One of these “crimes against peace” could very well be the March 1968 seizure of the possessions of 20,000 Jewish Poles by the Communist government, of which the 50th anniversary is imminent.
Poland is not lily-white; it has a history of anti-Semitism which comes in surges. The debate over this legislation has seen an ugly resurgence which has shocked younger Polish Jews but that their elders are sadly accustomed to. The tired tropes of ‘Jewish greed’ and ‘the enemy within’ are even being employed to silence internal Jewish opposition to the bill, with right-wing outlets accusing Polish Jewish groups of wanting restitutions or not being loyal enough in defending Poland.
In the midst of this deterioration in discourse, the purpose of the “Today, we are still on the side of truth” advert becomes more transparent. It is preemptive propaganda that says – ‘As a nation we were good to the Jews and are still good to the Jews’. The propaganda also creates the discourse of ‘Poles stood with Jews, now Jews in Poland must stand with us’. This is clumsy, sinister, or both, and again something I am deeply uncomfortable with seeing appear in YouTube’s advertising.
Propaganda where it shouldn’t be
There is a material difference between an advert for a fast food restaurant and an advert asking that I not think negatively of Turkey for its military actions. The former is your standard capitalist schlock, the latter wants to change my worldview for the benefit of an anxious government. Google admitted recently that Russian operatives bought advertising on YouTube and distributed disinformation across its other platforms in order to interfere with the 2016 US presidential election.
It seems clear that actual misinformation needs to be weeded out, but is the propaganda I have seen just as damaging? What responsibility have Google and other web companies in keeping their platforms politically neutral? Whilst web companies have a responsibility to remove outright lies, it is difficult for them to determine what constitutes propaganda and what might be a party political broadcast, or charity appeal from left or right leaning group. This might be the start of a rising propaganda culture in online advertising, and if it is, the responsibility probably lies with us as consumers to tell providers we won’t tolerate it.