American News

YouTube Shows Its Concern for My Sanity

Adam Curtis’ latest documentary suggests that our society is dominated by the obsession of conspiring to both create and denounce conspiracy.
YouTube, YouTube news, news on YouTube, Adam Curtis, Can’t Get You Out of My Head, BBC documentaries, culture news, Google YouTube news, business news, Peter Isackson

© JuliusKielaitis / Shutterstock

March 30, 2021 14:09 EDT

Everyone has a personal relationship with YouTube. That’s just the way YouTube works. It is literally the platform that gives you what you — uniquely you and nobody else — want. It “understands” your tastes and needs. Understanding means gauging your unconscious reflexes in a statistically significant way. Most people would agree that, while the platform appears to “think about” each of our choices and anticipate what we want to see next, its obtusity and insensitivity to our real desires regularly become apparent. Why is it offering me a document that is obviously tendentious propaganda from a right-wing Australian TV station? I’m not right wing and I’m not Australian. Perhaps if I watched that video, I would discover that the discourse it contains might provide an example of language worthy of appearing in The Daily Devil’s Dictionary.

Macron’s Campaign to Reveal France’s Historical Sins


The demiurge behind YouTube apparently lacks the acumen gleaned from reading my columns to realize that pure ideological rubbish is far less interesting to deconstruct than the earnest analysis of what the same demiurge apparently deems serious journalism in media such as The New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post or The Guardian. Human readers of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary should realize that, for example, Fox News and MSNBC are already too exaggeratedly tendentious to provide interesting examples of flawed reasoning or subtle hypocrisy, simply because they seem committed to flawed reasoning and skewing reality. That is why — besides the fact that they are painful to watch — I rarely cite the content of those outlets in this column.

As a fan of the work of filmmaker Adam Curtis, I was delighted to discover in January that the BBC was about to release a new series of the journalist’s documentaries, “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.” After dutifully digesting more than four hours of the first four episodes, I casually looked for Part 5, but it never appeared in the list of programs YouTube proposed. When I subsequently went searching in a less casual way, YouTube apparently tricked me into watching the nearly two-hour Part 6. Believing it was Part 5, I watched about half of it, saving the rest for later. When I did come back, perhaps a week later, I was surprised to discover that I had been watching Part 6 rather than Part 5, so I began again searching for Part 5.

It wasn’t easy to find it, requiring an effort of concentrated searching that eventually paid off when the correct video frame appeared. But rather than the familiar BBC title sequence, accompanied by the familiar music with which the other episodes begin — a haunting electronic vibrato fading into a suspenseful cymbal roll — YouTube left me staring at a black screen containing an ominous message obviously intended to dissuade me from watching any further. “The following content,” it informed me, “has been identified by the YouTube community as inappropriate or offensive to some audiences. Viewer discretion is advised.” It did, however, allow me to click on a link labeled, “I understand and wish to proceed.”

After doing so, I accessed perhaps the most powerful recap of our “emotional history of the modern world” (to use Curtis’ own description) I might ever wish to see. Curtis dedicated Part 5 to helping viewers understand why citizens of democracies have lost all faith in their political institutions.

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:


Not suited to the tastes of the masters of the corporate media, including social media, who are committed to dissuading their audience from seeking to understand what lies behind their way of presenting the world  

Contextual Note

Now the work begins of parsing YouTube’s disturbing message that warned me I was entering a danger zone. I learned that suspect content “has been identified.” This passive construction reflects the language of a police investigation into serious crime. If something must be identified, we immediately understand there’s a suspicion of foul play or dysfunctional behavior. The black screen itself reminds us that we are leaving the world of reassuring YouTube light and sound and entering a world of silent, ominous darkness.

Embed from Getty Images

Now I need to know who was responsible for executing this noble task of identifying something evil. It’s the “YouTube community.” That inevitably leads me to wonder what kind of community this is and who its members might be. The term “community” suggests a group of people who habitually do at least some things in common and are aware of their relationships. But a YouTube community is one of isolated individuals watching a screen with no connection to anyone else who might be doing the same thing.

The very idea of the “you” in YouTube” — like the “I” in iPhone — is that it provides a unique experience designed to comfort, consolidate and flatter the consumer’s ego, without regard for the annoying others who, if present, might compromise our sacred individual integrity. Does a “community” of dedicated narcissists have any meaning?

The unique selling point of YouTube is uniqueness. I can see the content I want to see, not what other people think I should want. So, why do I even need a community? And if a real community exists, am I not a part of it? Or is it something that exists beyond the scope of my experience, on a higher moral level?

It sounds as if the community is a committee of people wiser than my poor undiscerning self. It can guide me toward what is “appropriate for consumption.” It’s good to know that such a community exists, but I can’t shake off my curiosity about who precisely the members of the community might be. Is it the corporate directors of YouTube, a government censorship committee, random moralists or some highly-vocal users who oblige YouTube to signal any discourse that, if permitted to exist, should be labeled marginal and suspect?

Historical Note

Things become only slightly clearer with the final phrase, explaining that the community has branded the content as “inappropriate or offensive to some audiences.” This helps me to understand that the message belongs to a category of social and political thinking that emerged in the past few years as a feature of any form of public information, including education: a “trigger warning.”

Decades ago, the media establishment of the US invented the disclaimer, borrowed from the law as a matter of necessity in a land where anyone can attack anyone else for expression of thoughts that deviate from the perceived norm of the community. At the bottom of this page, you can read Fair Observer’s disclaimer of any commitment to what I am writing in this column.

The moment the educational community in the United States transformed the somewhat passive idea of a disclaimer into the active notion of a “trigger warning” marks a turning point in the history of education itself. Disclaimers simply announce a distance between a publication and an individual’s personal opinion. Trigger warnings claim to express concern for the audience as they are designed to “protect vulnerable and traumatised students from harm.” This shift from disclaimer to trigger warning means that what was once considered a recognition of the variety of opinions in an open society has now become the enforcement of actionable moral laws that permit categorizing people who say certain things as outsiders or misfits.

After giving me the warning, “Viewer discretion is advised,” YouTube forces me to click on the link, “I understand and wish to proceed,” which presumably will teach me that I’m either accepting to enter the world of misfits or perhaps may be a misfit myself. In some sense, I am admitting that I may have lost my membership in the YouTube community.

And what the hell do they mean by the “discretion” the community appears to be “advising”? As I watched the film, my sense of discretion was indeed heightened. And in one of the early sequences, I understood why. Adam Curtis used a snippet of the notorious US helicopter attack in Baghdad on Reuters reporters in 2007 that turned Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange into enemies of the US. I clearly shouldn’t be exposed to such unpatriotic rubbish. My sense of discretion should tell me that showing me such content can brand me as unpatriotic.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Support Fair Observer

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.

In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.

We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.

Will you support FO’s journalism?

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

Donation Cycle

Donation Amount

The IRS recognizes Fair Observer as a section 501(c)(3) registered public charity (EIN: 46-4070943), enabling you to claim a tax deduction.

Make Sense of the World

Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

Support Fair Observer

Support Fair Observer by becoming a sustaining member

Become a Member