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'Don't feed the trolls': Racism on YouTube

Doug Gross, CNN
On YouTube's
On YouTube's "Black Nerd Comedy," Andre Meadows often focuses on '80s and '90s pop culture such as the Power Rangers.
  • Among YouTube content creators who are minorities, race remains a troubling issue
  • Commenters on YouTube videos can be vicious with racist comments
  • A panel addressing racial issues on YouTube was held Sunday at South by Southwest

Austin, Texas (CNN) -- In five years on YouTube, Francesca Ramsey says, only one of the nearly 200 videos she's posted has been explicitly about race.

Yet when the actress, comedian and video blogger hosted a meet-up with fans here at the South by Southwest Interactive festival, only three out of about 150 of them were white.

Of course that one video, "S**t White Girls Say ... to Black Girls," has accounted for nearly 10 million of the roughly 18 million views her videos have gotten, combined.

"It's a double-edged sword," said Ramsey. "It's opened a lot of doors for me, but I know that because of that video, there are some people who are never going to watch my videos and are never going to give me a chance and see that I'm so much more than that video."

Ramsey spoke Sunday on a panel addressing racism and race issues on YouTube, the Web's No. 1 video site. Viewing of online video has surged, with YouTube attracting 800 million unique visitors a year. In 2011, the site saw a mind-boggling 1 trillion-plus views.

But among the content creators posting to YouTube who are ethnic minorities, race remains a troubling issue. Drawing a large fan base is a challenge, and commenters on YouTube videos can be vicious.

Of the top 100 most popular YouTube channels that aren't industry-sponsored, there is one black creator, four Asians and one of Middle Eastern descent, according to Web researcher Jenny Unghba Korn. Expanding that to the top 200 adds two more African-Americans, two Asians and one user from India.

"Everyone gets hate comments on YouTube," said Andre Meadows, the creator of the Black Nerd Comedy channel. "You can make the most wonderful video in the world and you will get 'Fake!' and 'Gay!'"

But for minority creators, "when you get comments, it seems to be targeted toward race almost immediately. A lot of people get 'dumb video, stupid video' -- but with mine it immediately goes to racial slurs."

YouTube has the reputation of hosting some of the nastiest comments on the Web. YouTube says it's mindful of its users' concerns, and works to help them manage, or remove, hateful comments on videos.

"YouTube's guidelines against hate speech and harassment apply to comments as well as videos," a YouTube spokesperson told CNN. "We encourage people to flag inappropriate comments using the Help & Safety Tool so that we can remove anything that breaks the rules. We also give video owners tools for managing comments on their channels -- they can moderate comments, remove individual comments, or disable commenting completely."

But Korn, a researcher who focuses on cultural issues online, said the site is not unique.

"YouTube in and of itself isn't some special device," she said. "It's actually a reflection of the culture that we're in right now. There's a reason that folks feel empowered to say things online that they would not say in person. In person, you almost want to dare them to say something like that, because they wouldn't get away with it."

Ramsey thinks the nature of YouTube just makes the hate easier.

"On Facebook, you have to like my page," she said. "On Twitter, I get a lot of negativity, but usually it's only if I'm talking about top trending topics and people are just trolling those.

"(YouTube) is such a visual medium. If I have a blog, you don't need to know what race I am. If you watch my videos, you know I'm a black woman."

Ramsey and Meadows both said their initial reaction was to respond to haters.

"I have a bad habit that sometimes I do fire back," Meadows said. "I'm a jokester. Someone will misspell something and it's like I cannot not say something."

But ultimately, they both said that instead of trying to fight racist comments, they now just ignore them. Ramsey says she's created an e-mail filter that sends any message with racial slurs directly to trash. Meadows called the "block" button "the most amazing button" on YouTube.

Is there a solution other than just hiding from the hate? Both say nurturing your own community of fans helps.

"If someone comes in with that kind of craziness, my audience will go after them," Meadows said. "They police my comment section for me."

Ramsey has begun posting the nastiest racial comments she gets on her Facebook page.

"We laugh at them," she said. "We laugh at the bad spelling. We laugh at how stupid it is."

Along those lines, she's resolved to ignore the trolls and, instead, respond more to comments from her loyal followers.

"My New Year's resolution was not to feed the trolls," she said. "For every time you respond, you're taking time away from the fans who love you. How bad does it make my fans feel that I didn't take the time to talk to them, but I took the time to talk to this awful person?"

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