Is YouTube Burying our Human Rights Content?

Still from
Laoise Murray
May 29, 2024

How do you make films to reach people in the farthest corners of the world?

The Why Foundation, a small human rights NGO based in Copenhagen, has been trying to answer this question for the past twenty years.

Danish film producer Mette Hoffmann Meyer established the organisation in 2004. She is driven by a simple mission: to engage people and defend human rights through the power of storytelling.

They share award-winning stories for free on social media or through broadcasting partnerships. In particular,  helps them to reach new audiences in areas with limited access to information. As a platform that has captured the world’s attention, it attracts creators like The Why with a vision of using video to make the world a better place.

Their English-language channel dates back to the golden era of YouTube, and now has over 100,000 subscribers. They have since created separate channels for Russian and Arabic language films, to break into new audiences.

The Why's best YouTube videos detail experiences of modern slavery, and highlight the power of education and democracy. They have interviewed famous authors like Margaret Atwood and Chistina Lamb.

But YouTube has not made it easy for The Why.

The organisation faces an ever-mounting pile of “junk food” content on social media platforms that obscures and relegates their high-quality documentary films.  The Why's media manager, was shocked when YouTube removed the geo-blocking option that allowed them to share films with liencing restrictions.

The third bullet came when the organisation was prevented from advertising its channel in certain hard-to-reach regions. Without promotion, the Russian channel is struggling to achieve its potential.

The YouTube Economy

Why is it so difficult to succeed on YouTube? Like many social media platforms, YouTube uses a complicated system to match viewers to videos based on their viewing history. It gives very little control to creators. Each time a creator uploads, they must pray to the algorithm gods that their video gets the attention it deserves.

The result is that success is skewed. Professor Bernhard Rieder of the University of Amsterdam described in a recent interview how the YouTube platform acts as a "designed market" where a few channels do extremely well and millions of other channels don’t get a look in.

The YouTube Economy: Graphic by Laoise Murray

Virality is inconsistent. For example, The Why's most-watched film, The Secret Slaves of the Middle East, used to receive about 5000 views a day. Now it only gets 100.

So is the system fair? Susan Bishop, a researcher into YouTube algorithms argued in a 2018 paper that it isn't: the platform is trying to maximise its profits at all times. She wrote how the platform “scaffolds videos consistent with the company’s commercial goals” while punishing videos that don't generate advertising revenue.

To rebalance the scales somewhat, in 2019 YouTube instigated its Raise and Reduce policy to remove content that violates their policies and amplify authoritative voices as sources of news and information.

Four years later, one look at an average user's suggestion page shows that the platform is still unhealthy. Whether by accident or on purpose, most videos produced in the mid-2020s are short, have clickbait titles and involve dramatic topics.

While the policy means that mainstream news organisations have regained control over their viewership, small media organisations with a leftist worldview have suffered. Long-form, nuanced and serious content like The Why's documentaries are faced with a difficult choice: adapt or die.

But what if there's a third way?

Despite these claims, it’s impossible to know exactly what is causing channels like The Why's to lose favour on the platform. We can see the results but not the decisions that created them. A “black box” holds all the evidence, and there is a reason why YouTube wants to keep it that way. They don't want any of the responsibility.

“They have the motivation but we have no evidence of their crime,” says Professor Rieder.

YouTube's lack of algorithmic transparency has been controversial for many years. Finally, in 2024, the European Union introduced legislation to force platforms to open up about the algorithmic systems that determine what we see daily - if not hourly.

While this is a move in the right direction, the battle between David and Goliath continues. And it won't stop until YouTube accepts its responsibilities.

Media organisations no longer have the power to decide how and which information is disseminated. Everyone is a journalist. Platforms choose the most important thing that people should see and discuss.

VICE has already called out the platform: "YouTube, whether its policymakers and executives like it or not, is already an arbiter of speech, not merely a technology company." Perhaps it's time for us all to follow.


Lange likes to imagine a world where YouTube makes it easier for viewers to reach high-quality, long-form videos that educate them about issues they never knew existed. He imagines how creators who want to make a positive change could collaborate with the platform rather than work despite it. He imagines the incredible positive impact that a platform with 2.49 billion monthly active users could have.

But at the moment, The Why just want someone to talk to at YouTube.

“Youtube is an important tool that we use to share human rights focused documentaries with people all over the world, but it has become increasingly difficult for us to reach the viewers. Many of the functions within YouTube that we use to reach people have been taken away, and as a non-profit it has been impossible to plead our case to anyone.” - Martin Lange.

(We reached out to a contact at YouTube for comment, but they have not responded).

What’s a Rich Text element?

The rich text element allows you to create and format headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, images, and video all in one place instead of having to add and format them individually. Just double-click and easily create content.

Static and dynamic content editing

Static and dynamic content editing

Static and dynamic content editing

Static and dynamic content editing

Static and dynamic content editing
Static and dynamic content editing

A rich text element can be used with static or dynamic content. For static content, just drop it into any page and begin editing. For dynamic content, add a rich text field to any collection and then connect a rich text element to that field in the settings panel. Voila!

How to customize formatting for each rich text

Headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, figures, images, and figure captions can all be styled after a class is added to the rich text element using the "When inside of" nested selector system.

More news

More news