Personal Tech

The YouTube crackdown on fake news: Promoting bonkers Florida school shooting conspiracies

Google, you're doing a heck of a job

By Kieren McCarthy in San Francisco

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Comment YouTube is under fire again for promoting fake news, despite promising repeatedly in recent weeks that it is improving its systems to limit the exposure to false information.

On Wednesday, the number-one video on the web giant's "trending" page – where it spotlights the most current or relevant content – was a video claiming that one of the students who has publicly called for gun control measures following a shooting at their high school earlier this week was, in fact, a paid actor.

A search on the name of the student – David Hogg – also revealed a long list of similar videos promoting what has become a common conspiracy in right-wing circles: that critics of specific policies are paid "crisis actors." There is no truth to the claims and they have no basis in fact.

David Hogg is in fact a student at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, USA, where 17 classmates and teachers were shot and killed by a former student on February 14 – and Hogg was present when the shooting took place. But the decision by Hogg and several other students to go public with demands for gun control legislation has put them at the center of press attention and in the middle of one of the most contentious issues in US society.

In this case, the video that appeared at the top of YouTube's trending list used footage from last August from a local CBS TV station. Hogg appeared in the story, which covered an altercation between a lifeguard and a friend of Hogg's. He filmed the exchange and that formed the basis of a short news piece.

That was sufficient to peg the "crisis actor" conspiracy and the trending video was subtitled "David Hogg, the actor." Given the high profile of the trending video slot, it attracted immediate attention and condemnation and YouTube moved swiftly to remove the video.

Oops?

A company spokesman explained the video had appeared in error: "This video should never have appeared in Trending. Because the video contained footage from an authoritative news source, our system misclassified it. As soon as we became aware of the video, we removed it from Trending and from YouTube for violating our policies. We are working to improve our systems moving forward."

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But some uncomfortable facts remain: the video was posted by a Mike M with the username "1234mukk" whose YouTube channel has just 1,274 subscribers – most of which subscribed after his video was flagged by YouTube.

How did a fake news video posted by a user with virtually no profile become the number one trending video on one of the internet's most popular websites?

The answer is almost certainly because of the actions of other YouTube users. Given the obscure nature of the video and easily disprovable claim that Hogg is a paid actor, the video can only have been subject to a concerted promotion effort on the part of a large number of users.

Which is, of course, the exact behavior that has been repeatedly identified as the result of Russian trolls using fake accounts to promote divisive content. That behavior formed the basis of a recent indictment by special prosecutor Robert Mueller over Russian interference in the US presidential election.

Despite months of in-depth investigations into the distortion of social media platforms, and several formal hearings by lawmakers in both the US and UK, it appears that Google-owned YouTube remains unable to prevent the manipulation of its own systems.

It's impossible to know how troll-bots continue to bypass the company's best efforts because YouTube refuses to provide any information about its ranking mechanisms.

How it works

All we do know is that this particular fake video was removed manually by YouTube, and that it found its way to the top of its trending list through an automated algorithm. Beyond that, despite repeat requests, YouTube has refused to give any insights into its systems' failure, even going so far as to obfuscate the issue.

Asked how videos appear on the trending tab, the company said it looks at "several factors" which "include" view count, rate of growth of views and age of the video. That would point to an organized effort by a large number of fake user accounts to click on this video, and similar videos promoting the same and related conspiracies.

Just last week, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki mocked competitor Facebook and its plans to encourage users to post more video content. On stage at a media conference, Wojcicki said that the social media giant "should get back to baby pictures and sharing."

Despite refusing to give any information about how it intends to combat such abuse now and in future, there are indicators that YouTube is willing to take a stronger approach than in the past.

One YouTuber with more than 150,000 subscribers, David Seaman, posted a video Wednesday complaining that the company has removed all ads from his 500+ videos after he started posting about David Hogg on his channel.

While YouTube appears unable to prevent its systems from being gamed, it is clearly trying to remove the financial incentive for some users to weigh in on controversial topics or to post offensive content.

Logan's Run

Last month, the company took similar action against one of its most-followed users, Logan Paul, who boasts 16 million followers. Paul was removed from the company's "Google preferred" program and plans to pay him to create original content were put on hold after an outcry over a video in which he mocked suicide victims while standing next to a recently deceased corpse.

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When Paul subsequently posted another offensive video, YouTube responded by "demonetizing" his videos i.e. take off ads and so preventing him from receiving any money from his videos.

This new policy was explained in a blog post by the company's VP of product management Ariel Bardin, who complained about "the egregious actions of a handful of YouTubers" and said that in such cases in future it would "suspend a channel’s ability to serve ads" and "may remove a channel’s eligibility to be recommended on YouTube, such as appearing on our home page, trending tab or watch next."

He went on to note that "in the past, we felt our responses to some of these situations were slow and didn't always address our broader community’s concerns."

Despite its determined effort to only apply controls after the fact, and keep human intervention to an absolute minimum, YouTube is going to have to reflect on the fact that its service was used to falsely slander a teenager who has been recently traumatized by a mass shooting at their school, and consider the fact that its response to this situation was to promote the effort in its most high-profile slot.

At some point, YouTube has to stop hiding behind its automated algorithm argument and adopt some degree of responsibility for what appears on its platform and the role it plays in highlighting its worst examples. ®

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