YouTube Under Fire

YouTube. What is it good for?

Not for making a living, apparently. According to new research by Matthias Bärtl of Offenburg University of Applied Sciences in Offenburg, Germany, 96.5 percent of YouTubers trying to make money from their videos won’t earn enough from advertising to exceed the official U.S. poverty line of $12,140 a year.

That’s in part due to YouTube’s low advertising rates, but mostly due to the fact that a tiny slice of videos grab nearly all of the views. According to Bärtl, 3 percent of most-viewed channels in 2016 attracted almost 90 percent of all views.

There’s a broken heart for every “like” on YouTube.

While Bärtl’s research may say more about the unwarranted expectations of most YouTubers than about anything YouTube itself is doing, another new study this week cast the Google-owned site in a more sinister light.

Last week, YouTube came under criticism after a video promoting a conspiracy theory about 17-year old David Hogg, a survivor of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., who emerged as a prominent representative of the students pushing for stricter gun laws, became the top trending clip on the platform.

But according to research published this week by Jonathan Albright of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, the promotion of the smear against Hogg was the predictable result of YouTube’s design.

A search for “crisis actor” videos by Albright returned several hundred results. He then obtained the “next up” recommendations for each, yielding a network of nearly 9,000 related conspiracy-themed videos.

While crackpots and abuses have long found a home on YouTube (as well as other social-media sites) Albright argues in a post on Medium that the design of YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, as well as its own financial interests, all but guarantee that conspiracy-theory videos like the attack on Hogg will get promoted.

Every time there’s a mass shooting or terror event, due to the subsequent backlash, this YouTube conspiracy genre grows in size and economic value. The search and recommendation algorithms will naturally ensure these videos are connected and thus have more reach.

In other words, due to the increasing depth of the content offerings and ongoing optimization of YouTube’s algorithms, it’s getting harder to counter these types of campaigns with real, factual information.

I hate to take the dystopian route, but YouTube’s role in spreading this “crisis actor” content and hosting thousands of false videos is akin to a parasitic relationship with the public. This genre of videos is especially troublesome, since the content has targeted (individual) effects as well as the potential to trigger mass public reactions [sic].

That’s a tough charge, but not the only one YouTube faced this week. On Tuesday, CISAC, the international confederation of author’s rights organizations, released a study prepared by University of Texas economist Stan Liebowitz examining the impact of the safe harbor provisions in the Digital Millennial Copyright Act and their counterparts in the European Union’s E-Commerce Directive on music rights holders, taking particular note of YouTube’s reliance on those protections.

While much of Liebowitz’s analysis simply rehashes rights owners’ long-standing complaints about YouTube’s alleged “value grab,” albeit with a scholarly gloss, his report ups the ante by leveling a new charge: YouTube’s Content ID system, which Google touts as providing rights owners the tools to monetize their content that appears on the site, ain’t all its cracked up to be, or could be.

Although copyright owners should have a duty to provide YouTube with information about their copyrighted works before they could claim copyright infringement, once such information were provided, normal copyright law, without the safe harbor, would provide the proper incentives for YouTube to make sure that its Content ID worked better than any alternative…One of the main impediments to this solution, however, is Google’s incentive, which is to make YouTube’s voluntary filtering system only accurate enough to silence critics of its treatment of copyright holders, as opposed to actually eliminating infringing files…

If Google wants to claim to be going above and beyond the requirements of the DMCA, it is merely necessary for it to provide a Content ID system that works moderately well, since any such system is voluntary. In fact, it would be surprising if Content ID worked as well as Google could make it, since such a Content ID system would weaken YouTube’s bargaining position with the copyright holders with whom it does business.

If Content ID worked as Google suggests, meaning almost perfectly, copyright owners who thought they were being underpaid by YouTube would remove their material from YouTube since YouTube’s users would no longer have access to those copyrighted works, as Google claims in the above quote. As we shall soon see, however, the current Content ID system is insufficiently accurate to remove YouTube’s superior bargaining position, which is why YouTube is fighting to keep the safe harbor which it would not need with a more accurate Content ID system.

That’s pretty close to an allegation of bad faith.

And if all that weren’t enough, the Securities and Exchange Commission has been asking questions of YouTube’s parent company, Alphabet, about how it reports the video site’s financial results.

YouTube’s public relations staff has its work cut out for it.