YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki weighs in on misinformation at Davos
It’s a precarious time for tech CEOs whose businesses have to juggle misinformation, free speech, and demands from employees to take a stand on global and domestic issues. For YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, those responsibilities come on top of her efforts to grow the company with new competitors vying for screen time, the war in Ukraine, and an economic downturn that many predict will become a recession.
All of those issues, and many others, came up in a wide-ranging conversation Wojcicki had with Fortune Editor-in-Chief Alyson Shontell at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Tuesday. As Shontell noted, YouTube would rank at number 121 on the Fortune 500 if it was a standalone company, with Wojcicki being only one of 45 female executives on the list. With employees across all industries demanding that leadership speak out more strongly on social issues, it’s only natural that YouTube and Google employees would look to Wojcicki to chime in on the Supreme Court’s draft decision that would overturn Roe vs. Wade.
When asked about the Court’s pending ruling, Wojcicki highlighted the dilemma many executives face in voicing their own opinions, representing a company, and answering to a massive consumer base that spans the ideological spectrum.
“My stance is that women should have a choice when they become a mother. I believe that’s really important. I believe that reproductive rights are human rights and to take away a law and a right that we’ve had for almost 50 years will be a big setback for women. But that’s my personal view,” she said. “Running a company that really focuses on free speech, we want to make sure that we’re enabling a broad set of opinions that everyone has a right to express their point of view, provided they meet our community guidelines.”
Given that the legislation is still in draft form, she noted that the company is waiting on the final wording of the legislation before taking any official stances.
“Once we saw it, we started to look and try to anticipate what kind of changes that would have for our business, for our employees,” she said. “What kind of benefits would we want to offer to employees who could be in states where abortion is no longer allowed? Or what implications could that have for our advertising business, maybe? Content misinformation, there could be ways that could be spun. For example, people saying, ‘Oh, abortion is not allowed in this state,’ when it really is. This has led us to realize that there’s going to be a lot of work for us to understand what this legislation is and what are the right ways for us to comply with it.”
The misinformation surrounding the United States’ changing abortion laws is just one facet of the problem YouTube, Google, and their parent company Alphabet are trying to combat. Wojcicki pointed out that misinformation will always be around so long as there are incentives to create it, so the unit’s main task is to stay ahead of the bad-faith content creators without crossing the line into censorship.
“There are a number of different ways that we look at this,” she said. “The first would be from a policy standpoint. We would look at content that we would think about in terms of being violative of our policies.”
If you look at COVID, she suggested, YouTube came up with 10 different policies that the platform said would be deemed violating—like saying that COVID came from something other than a virus. Wojcicki said YouTube did see people attacking 5G equipment because they thought that it was causing COVID. That would be an example of content that would be removed.
The second viewpoint, she continued, would be raising up authoritative information. “If you are dealing with a sensitive subject like news, health, science, we are going to make sure that what we’re recommending is coming from a trusted, well-known publisher that can be reliable,” she said.
“The third is making sure that if there’s borderline content that technically meets our policy but is lower quality, that’s content that we basically will not recommend to our users,” Wojcicki explained. “Our users could still access it, but they will not recommend it. Lastly, we’re really careful about what we monetize. For example, with regard to climate change, we don’t monetize any kind of climate change material, so there’s no incentive for you to keep publishing that material that is propagating something that is generally understood as not accurate information.”
The responsibilities of publishing accurate and valuable information were only heightened by the invasion of Ukraine, which led to tough decisions on violent content, banning Russia’s state-sponsored media, and continuing to do business inside the country. Again, Wojcicki said that their focus is on guiding people towards authoritative content and removing anything that trivializes or downplays the verifiable violence and destruction that’s occuring.
“What we’re really seeing in this is conflict is that information does play a key role,” she said. “The reason we’re still serving in Russia and we believe that is important is that we’re able to deliver independent news into Russia. We believe it’s really important to be able to help citizens know what’s going on and have perspectives from the outside world. We’ve also seen YouTube be used for all kinds of other humanitarian reasons like medical doctors serving patients on the battlefield, education of kids in Ukrainian language, so we definitely are all really important humanitarian cases, too.”
On lighter topics, Wojcicki touted her company’s increased success in attracting creators of short-form videos and growing their shopping efforts. In the latter area, she cited a survey that said 85% of people will go to YouTube to research products, in addition to many who are tutorials and creative ideas for using them.
“What we’re really wanting to do is just connect the ability to see them in the video to how to buy them,” she said. “What we’re doing is enabling videos to actually link to specific products. I don’t think about us as competing directly with retailers like Amazon. I think about us being a way for you to find products that you’re already researching and also find and discover more goods. YouTube is sight, sound, and motion. It’s an opportunity to explore, see, and feel, so we’re hopeful that more users and brands will work with us to make it easy to purchase.”
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