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Has YouTube become a breeding ground for sensational content?

YouTube has pulled a conspiracy video which rose to the top of Trending page after it was found to be a conspiracy video involving a survivor of the recent Parkland shooting in the United States.

According to a YouTube spokesperson, the video should never have appeared on its Trending page. Because the video contained footage from an authoritative news source, its system had 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,” the spokesperson added.

According to Adweek, the conspiracy video had used footage from a CBS Los Angeles video to suggest that one of the shooting’s survivors, David Hogg, was an actor and not an actual student at the school. The video has since been deleted, a quick check by Marketing found.

This is not the first time YouTube has run into issues surrounding the type of content which surfaces on its Trending page. Most recently, in an interview with renowned YouTube content creator Casey Neistat, Robert Kyncl, chief business officer at YouTube, addressed questions on how videos such as Logan Paul’s notorious suicide forest video made it to the the front page of the YouTube trending platform.

In response, Kyncl said that “there were no simple answers”, except that there was a lot of interest in the video. He added that there were many searches for the video around the world on YouTube, which was how it landed on the front page.

On top of grilling Kyncl over the recent changes brewing at YouTube following the Paul controversy, Neistat also questioned Kyncl on concerns surrounding the cultures being created on the platform. This included the rise of content which is sensational or “dramatic” which is the driving force behind said culture. He said “Drama is rewarded with views, drama is rewarded with attention, drama is rewarded ultimately with dollars.”

Several industry players Marketing spoke to agreed with Neistat’s comments.  In a conversation with Marketing, Kelvin Sim, general manager at Society, said that the “high” felt for creators will always be gaining views – and a quick way to do so would be creating drama.

I suppose we can’t fully blame them as there is demand for these types of content. As it was rightfully quoted by Kyncl, the ecosystem survives because creators produce content that generates views. These views are in turn monetised by YouTube through their advertisers. It is a vicious cycle but it’s a business model that works for them,” Sim added.

For Lee Kai Xin, interactive director at Wild, it is a “chicken and egg situation” on the topic of YouTube becoming a platform for sensational content. She added that it is a fact that sensational content draws eyeballs, which translate into revenue for many creators, which motivates to create more sensational content.

Unless YouTube takes an active position to curate and deprioritise such content, the vicious cycle of supply and demand will fuel the creation of it.

Also weighing in on the situation was Chloe Neo, managing director, OMD Singapore, who added that being controversial is also one of the tactics many publishers and content makers use to rise above the noise and grab attention. This is something which is observed across different media platforms, especially on the social media front such as YouTube, which boasts an average monthly video view count of over 1 billion.

“YouTube is no doubt leveraged as a strong distribution channel by many content makers to catapult themselves for either personal fame or financial gains. The commercial revenue sharing model of YouTube where content makers are rewarded based on the number of views increases their motivation to create content that would allow them to cut through the video clutter.

However, being sensational can be both a good and a bad thing. Neo explained that sensational videos with credible, sensible content are able to bring about heightened public interest and in turn, help to raise awareness on worthy causes and a meaningful social agenda.

Conversely, videos with questionable and outrageous content have bad societal impact and influence. This is especially among younger social media users and viewers who are more vulnerable with their higher consumption and trust in social media. Neo added:

Incidents such as Logan Paul or the exploitative videos of children, take advantage of guidelines which see content makers being expected to exercise self-governance.  

“It doesn’t help that social media platforms are also subject to lesser restrictions and scrutiny from the media authorities across the world, as many of these social media platforms are defined as a distribution platform and not as content producers,” Neo said.

However, most media networks such as TV, radio and newspapers which produce or commission the content directly and are subject to stringent scrutiny and punitive measures. This is for their use of any controversial content, language, even if it’s implied and not explicit.

That being said, Neo said that today, having moderation mechanisms such as content curation though review teams and AI are not enough. This is because there were videos that slipped past the stringent standards of YouTube Kids despite the checks in place.

As such, Neo is of the view that industry and legislative bodies should seriously reconsider the public responsibilities of social media platforms as well as the content producers who use these platform.

“It’s a shared responsibility between the platform owner who permits the distribution of such controversial content and the user who has abused the use of these social media platforms,” Neo added.

Regaining the full trust of advertisers

When asked about how YouTube can earn back the full trust of advertisers, given recent brushes with brand safety concerns and controversial influencer content, Society’s Sim said it was hard, but not impossible. This is by ensuring that YouTube vigilantly reviews and change guidelines to ensure that any damaging incident is not replicated, and ensure more stringent protocols are enforced moving forward.

However the nature of the platform and industry is that there is always a moving goal post as there isn’t any real governance on digital content across the board.

It is also important to note that with the mantra YouTube is built on, it would be tough for it to stringently police content while preaching free speech and opportunity, Sim explained. He added that at the end of day, advertisers are getting wiser. As such, an entity as large as YouTube needs to understand that governance is expected, not hoped.

“Outcomes such as Logan Paul’s send a clear message that YouTube is moving in the right direction. So it’s a start,” Sim added.

Meanwhile, Wild’s Lee is of the view that YouTube seems to be more reactive than proactive with the current situation, when it comes to earning back the trust of advertisers.

“I don’t think trust is being eroded given that this is the first time such an issue was thrown into the spotlight. But to prevent trust from being eroded, YouTube needs to proactively line up measures on how to manage a similar situation in future,” Lee explained.

She added that YouTube “took way too long to decide whether to take down the Logan Paul video” but with clear parameters, such a decision can and should be made swiftly. In addition, YouTube needs to also make a clear stance on where it stands on such ethically questionable content.

“Google’s motto is ‘do the right thing’ so to make revenue off such content seems to be incongruent with that,” Lee said.

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