YouTube managers had no way to predict Nasim Aghdam would go on a bloody rampage, but they had plenty of reasons to fear that someone like her might one day show up, say former employees.
Aghdam was the 38-year-old, disgruntled YouTube video creator who arrived at the company's San Bruno, California, headquarters on April 3 and began blasting away with a 9mm handgun. She wounded three staffers before she killed herself. Police say leading up to the shooting Aghdam, from San Diego, believed YouTube sought to censor her and ruin her life.
This kind of violence is unprecedented in YouTube's 13-year-history, though Aghdam's anger and paranoia aren't unique among the millions of people who create and post videos to the site, according to five former YouTube employees. In exclusive interviews, they told Business Insider that going back to the service's earliest days, frustrated creators — seething over one of YouTube's policy changes or the other — have threatened staffers with violence.
Typically the threats were delivered via email. At least once, a video creator confronted a YouTube employee face-to-face and promised he would "destroy" him. In another instance, a man enraged by the suspension of his account, promised to harm Mia Quagliarello, YouTube's first community manager, and her family. The person created a crude web page that was filled with menacing images and slurs against Quagliarello and her family. In an interview, Quagliarello said company managers considered the situation serious enough to station an armed guard outside her home for three days.
"I forwarded (the threats) to Google security and they took it super seriously," said Quagliarello, who worked at YouTube from 2006 to 2011. "They sent over someone, like an ex-cop type, to sit on my block, like 24-7."
Neither Google, which owns YouTube, nor YouTube responded to requests for comment.
Before Aghdam arrived, all the threats turned out to be just that: threats. All the employees interviewed said they knew of no other time when a creator tried to physically harm a YouTube employee. At this point, the indications are that Aghdam's attack was the kind of event that has become all too familiar in American society: an isolated act committed by a person with a shaky grip on reality.
People who may have developed an unhealthy dependency isn't a problem exclusive to YouTube, the former employees said. At least three of those interviewed have worked at some of the other top social networks and say employees there have also received threats.
As online services like Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat have emerged as broadcast mediums for the masses, in many cases offering tools and financial incentives that make it easy for anyone to try their hand at building a career as a viral star, the potential for problems increases.
"When you have a platform that serves everyone, there are going to be people who are emotionally unstable," said a former YouTube employee who requested anonymity. "Whenever platforms change, you get a lot of emails, some of them are rational. Some of them are irrational."
In the case of YouTube, the world's largest video-sharing site, the Google-owned company has a reputation as a star-maker. Anyone with the ability to attract viewers has the chance at generating notoriety and a share of ad revenue. As YouTube's following has expanded and revenues ballooned, the opportunities for amateur videographers has also grown. In recent years, this has resulted in more and more people becoming financially and emotionally dependent on the service, say the former employees.
So, what happens when the spigot is turned off? Often in YouTube's history, managers have tried making improvements to the site. Sometimes these changes have led to reduced viewership and ad money for videographers.
YouTube has been dealing with the problem for at least nine years, going back to a 2009 homepage redesign. Although YouTube was not formally sharing ad revenue with video creators at the time, the currency of video "views" was incredibly valuable to people seeking a path to mainstream stardom. After a YouTube product manager published a blog post announcing the 2009 homepage changes, he was barraged with angry notes in the comments section — including at least one death threat, say several people with knowledge of the matter.
Former YouTube staffers say that too often in such situations, irrational people try to take out their frustrations on YouTube's workers.
Eric Meyerson, a former head of YouTube's advertiser and creator marketing departments, said a male video creator approached him during a 2013 YouTube event at Google's offices in Santa Monica.
"He was in a really bad frame of mind," said Meyerson, who worked for YouTube from 2010 to 2013. "He said something to the effect that ‘If you keep fucking with my channel I’m going to destroy you. I’m going to hurt you,' and he implied that he was going to take it out on employees of YouTube... although it was a threat and obviously I want to take it seriously, we were used to a lot of volatility among the creator community."
A year ago, revelations surfaced that ads appearing at YouTube from respectable companies were running alongside such fare as recruiting videos for terrorist groups and commentaries that included hate speech. YouTube responded by removing material that advertisers might find unappealing — part of a series of rule changes known as called "demonetization." Apparently, Aghdam's clips, mostly focused on fitness and animal rights, were caught up in the purge. She claimed the new policies were designed to censor her.
This type of thinking may seem paranoid but it's not unique among video creators, according to Meyerson. He said that though the vast majority of creators respond to changes at YouTube in a reasonable fashion, a fringe element always sees conspiracies and plots in every move made by the company's leadership.
"That’s a fairly typical complaint among creators," Meyerson said. "My stuff isn’t that bad. Why am I getting demonetized? People think it's because of their political views. Conservatives are especially paranoid about this. I’m being demonetized because I’m a conservative and Google is a bunch of liberals...(When) YouTube decided to demonetize controversial content, they happened to affect the most passionate people who had the most intense ideas. Whether it was about guns or controversial opinions."
One former employee who requested anonymity, said that though he never saw any violence, he was accosted several times. He said people would wait outside YouTube's offices to speak with employees about changes to the homepage or algorithm that was affecting them.
"One time there was a guy in a suit who drove from Los Angeles," said the source. "He had my LinkedIn page open and he knew who I was. He wanted to talk to someone about his channel I think. That's the only time I really got scared because this guy knew who I was...when I heard about the shooting, that was my first thought. That it was one of those people hanging around outside."
Apparently such threats were common enough to prompt Google security to implement a reporting procedure, or an "escalation path," for employees to follow, according to another source who also preferred to remain anonymous.
Both Meyerson and Quagliarello said they always felt safe at YouTube's headquarters and that the company's security team takes the job seriously. One unnamed source made it a point to applaud the efforts of Marty Lev, the former vice president of security at Google who left the company in 2016 and is now head of physical security at Amazon Web Services.
Whatever security YouTube had before, it's about to get stronger. Alphabet has said following Aghdam's attack that it will increase security at its offices.
Asked if it would bother her to drive past YouTube's headquarters and see that the campus resembles a bunker or fortification, Quagliarello, YouTube's former community manager, said: "It would make me feel sad, but at the same time I’ve been thinking that we need more security in (Silicon Valley). I feel like we’ve been pretty laid back here. Unfortunately I think it’s time to buckle up."