YouTube’s recent crackdown on inappropriate content has begun to target hobby chemists using the video hosting site. As the platform struggles to moderate the more than 300 hours of video that are uploaded every minute, it is not only purging fake news and terrorist recruitment, but also deleting entire chemistry channels. ‘I’m starting to worry that YouTube might decide that they want to remove all science,’ says NurdRage, a PhD chemist who publishes synthesis videos.
More and more scientists are using social media to engage the public with their work, some even gaining internet stardom by filming everyday lab work. Hobby chemists have taken to Reddit and YouTube to discuss their work with others or share successful experiments. However, some of the hobby chemists’ community’s favourite YouTubers have come under fire for their content, which ranges from syntheses using household chemicals to energetic materials.
‘Seven years I ran the channel for, slowly getting it to 8000 subscribers and 1 million total views. It was gone in less than two hours and I could not stop it,’ says chemistry PhD student Tom from Explosions&Fire about his collection of over 90 videos. In late 2017, he received a strike for a video published four years prior. Strikes are given for content that violates YouTube’s community guidelines. Tom removed the flagged video, but received strikes for another two videos. The channel was suspended and not reinstated despite multiple appeals. He created a new channel, but says that ‘it is only a matter of time before it goes again’.
While Tom’s focus on energetic compounds might have put him in a grey zone of YouTube’s rules around dangerous content, other areas of synthetic chemistry have not been left untouched. In early 2018, a channel called ChemPlayer, run by an anonymous group of chemists, was terminated. It had received three strikes in quick succession for videos on phenylacetic acid synthesis, Grignard reactions and chocolate cake making.
‘You’ve always got to do experiments safely … I don’t think there’s any excuse for showing things that might encourage people to do dangerous experiments,’ say Martyn Poliakoff, a chemist at the University of Nottingham, who also fronts The Periodic Table of Videos that is hosted on YouTube. ‘On the other hand, it’s good to do dangerous experiments safely in way that enables people to see them because they can’t do them at school or at home.’
‘The standards YouTube follows are most of the time fairly opaque,’ says process chemist Chemjobber. He is one of the moderators for Reddit’s chemistry forum, which relies on volunteer moderators, often people who are trained in the subject. YouTube, however, uses algorithms and low-paid workers to trawl through and flag inappropriate videos. ‘Unfortunately, a lot of the chemistry that I do looks to the layman almost indistinguishable from an illegal drug synthesis,’ says NurdRage.
‘What frustrates me is that the system seems to be skewed towards not liking details,’ says Tom of Explosions&Fire. Large popular science channels, he points out, get away with dangerous experiments: from pouring bromine over phones to throwing lumps of sodium into ponds. ‘[But] they won’t talk about the chemicals, they just want to get a cool end result. The thing I don’t like is the idea that information is the danger, more than the act itself.’
When asked if he was worried about other people trying to imitate one of his explosive experiments Tom says he’d ‘be lying if I said I’ve never been kept up at night with this question’. Both he and ChemPlayer highlight the fact that they never include more information than is available on Wikipedia or in textbooks. ‘I realised a lot of people aren’t really interested in doing any of this chemistry themselves – they are interested in having me do it so they don’t have to,’ says NileRed, a trained laboratory technician whose YouTube channel, which has 371,000 subscribers, is now his main source of income. ‘I have had multiple videos taken down and there are topics I don’t cover because of it,’ he adds.
However, Tom says that ‘the community on YouTube now is better than it ever has been’. NurdRage hopes that YouTube will eventually move towards a different vetting process, suggesting a paid service that employs specialist reviewers to evaluate scientific content. ‘What we do as scientists is so far removed from what people hear about through the news, I think it’s great if it can be heard straight from us and see how enthusiastic we are about it,’ he says.
Google, the parent company of YouTube, was asked to comment on how it applies its community guidelines to science demonstration videos but did not respond to inquiries.