YouTube deleted at least three nootropics channels over the past three days, leaving members of the community confused and worried that a larger crackdown is coming.
Steve Cronin was a typical nootropics YouTuber. He experimented on himself with various substances, many of which are available without a prescription at Whole Foods or GNC.
Nootropics usually refer to a wide range of substances including prescription drugs including Ritalin and over-the-counter supplements like aniracetam, which can be bought online. Many of them are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which means they are not tested for safety or efficacy. There are anecdotal reports of addiction and harm, as well as uncomfortable side effects such as nausea. However, most of the substances are legal, and their use is increasingly mainstream. Nootropics companies like HVMN, formerly Nootrobox, and Bulletproof have raised millions from Silicon Valley investors.
Cronin’s YouTube channel was up to about 22,000 subscribers when he received a notice from YouTube about one of his videos, “Relax and Improve Your Sleep with Natural Calm Magnesium.” The notice said the video had been removed for violating YouTube’s community guidelines, but didn’t specify further.
The video was a review for the product, which he bought at Whole Foods, Cronin said in an email. “Nothing illegal, no medical advice offered, I’ve always been incredibly careful about this,” he said.
YouTube removed the video and issued a strike. Strikes expire after three months, but if a YouTuber gets three at a time, their channel gets deleted. Cronin set 101 of his videos—about a fourth of his oeuvre—to private, hoping that would deter YouTube from issuing more strikes. He appealed the strike against the magnesium video and got it reversed. Still, he received two more strikes, against a video titled “My Current Daily Nootropics Stack” and one called “Increase Your Energy with Adrafinil | Star Nootropics,” even though the latter had been set to private. To avoid his third simultaneous strike, he deleted 236 videos that showed products or mentioned nootropics—but YouTube still suspended his uploading privileges on Sunday. Late Sunday night, YouTube issued another strike for “Increase Your Concentration & Memory with Oxiracetam by Star Nootropics” and deleted his channel.
YouTube also removed Ryan Michael Ballow’s channel Cortex Labs Nootropics, which had more than 7,000 subscribers. Ballow sent Motherboard screenshots of the emails from YouTube showing that he received the first notice of a strike on a video at the same time as his channel was terminated. He also continued to receive at least a dozen apparently redundant notifications of termination or suspension from YouTube throughout the weekend. “The strikes are a mix between Modafinil (prescription compound) videos (of which there are very few), and utterly innocuous videos about cholinergic Nootropics (Nootropics that affect the neurotransmitter acetylcholine),” he said in an email.
Cronin’s termination notice. Image: Steve Cronin
Jonathan Roseland’s channel Limitless Mindset, which had more than 600 videos and 13,000 subscribers, was also removed.
The nootropics YouTubers don’t know why YouTube penalized them. YouTube’s community guidelines prohibit harmful or dangerous content, including “hard drug use,” which seems like the most likely reason. Ballow believes it’s either “pharmaceutical industry influence” or some other elements within YouTube’s leadership decided to target nootropics specifically. “It’s all extremely fishy, and demonstrates a continued censorship trend with YouTube,” he said in an email.
Roseland guessed his channel got flagged because he made videos about kratom, an opioid-like substance that has been linked to deaths and is coming under increased government regulation. Other kratom videos have apparently been removed. But Ballow said he’s never posted a video about kratom, and a search for “kratom” on YouTube pulls up countless results, including reviews. Similarly, searching for nootropics, magnesium, aniracetam, oxiracetam, and Modafinil showed no shortage of videos, including reviews.
It’s hard to know why the channels were removed since YouTube declined to clarify specifics with the creators and did not respond to a request for comment. YouTube allows creators to appeal enforcement decisions, but Ballow’s appeal was rejected.
The rejection notice did not clearly state which guidelines were violated, but it pointed to another potential violation. YouTube “included a paragraph that states that if the sole purpose of your YouTube videos is to drive people off of the platform, said videos break the rules,” Ballow said. He interpreted this to mean the fact that his videos directed viewers to other websites to buy products. “We do promote product during videos, but so does hundreds of thousands of other people, and the content is disproportionately educational/scientific nootropics content…. Cronin did not pitch as aggressively as we did, but yet, he’s still gone. And they’re merely making reasons up for it, and trying to make it fit the frame of breaking community policy/guidelines.”
YouTube has started policing content more strictly after a wave of bad press that including reports that ads were running against racist or offensive videos; revelations of disturbing children’s content; and its promotion of conspiracy theory videos after the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
YouTube’s scale obviously makes it difficult to monitor, a problem the company tackles through a combination of machine learning-powered algorithms and human moderators. Errors are inevitable, however, and YouTube has admitted it inadvertently penalized videos from LGBTQ creators and conservatives.
Removals are devastating for creators who spend years building a fanbase on YouTube— especially when people like Alex Jones, who promotes an enormous swath of harmful conspiracy theories as well as nootropics-like supplements, are allowed to remain.