Future Tense

YouTube Is Struggling to Deal With the Conspiracy Theory Videos That Flood the Site

Screenshot of a YouTube video on the Alex Jones channel about how the Sandy Hook Massacre was a “A DHS Illusion”
Screenshot of a YouTube video on the Alex Jones channel about how the Sandy Hook Massacre was a “A DHS Illusion”
YouTube/The Alex Jones Channel

YouTube can’t seem to figure out what to do with videos espousing nonsensical theories around mass shooting events.

Alex Jones, the infamous conspiracy theorist, radio host, and owner of InfoWars, got a slap on the wrist from YouTube last Wednesday after posting a video that alleged survivors of the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida, were paid actors. The video, titled, “David Hogg Can’t Remember His Lines In TV Interview,” apparently violated YouTube’s guidelines against bullying and was removed, according to a CNN report. That counted as a “strike” against the Alex Jones Channel, which boasts 2.3 million subscribers. And under YouTube’s community guidelines, the Alex Jones Channel risks being suspended for two weeks if it gets one more strike in the next three months. Two more strikes and the channel may be terminated for good.

But Jones’ video wasn’t the only one YouTube took down last Wednesday that claimed David Hogg was an actor. Following reports from CNN and Motherboard, YouTube also removed the No. 1 trending video that day, “DAVID HOGG THE ACTOR….,” which had amassed hundreds of thousands of views before YouTube took it down. By late Wednesday afternoon, the site appeared to have conducted a purge. At least five of the videos I had found earlier in the day that claimed Hogg was an actor were gone. Those false conspiracy theory videos, however, had saturated the top results on YouTube when searching for “David Hogg” and had amassed thousands of views before they were removed.

It’s an ugly game of whack-a-mole, and YouTube seems to be losing. On Sunday, the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, Jonathan Albright, published a Medium post about the videos that come up if you search YouTube for “crisis actor.” His analysis generated nearly 9,000 videos. The vast majority of the video “titles … are a mixture of shocking, vile and promotional,” Albright wrote in his report. “Themes include rape game jokes, shock reality social experiments, celebrity pedophilia, ‘false flag’ rants, and terror-related conspiracy theories dating back to the Oklahoma City attack in 1995.”

This isn’t, sadly, a new phenomenon. After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, when a gunman killed 20 children and six adult school staff, Jones made multiple videos about how “crisis actors” were used after the shooting to advocate for gun control, too. As of Monday evening, those videos are still up, under titles like “Crisis Actors Used at Sandy Hook! Special Report” and “Retired FBI Agent Investigates Sandy Hook: MEGA MASSIVE COVER UP.”

I asked YouTube whether it plans to remove any of those videos and whether that would retroactively count as strikes against the company’s community guidelines. But YouTube didn’t provide a response by the time of publication. (I will update if I hear back.)

YouTube has long been a central hub for conspiracy theories. Video bloggers use the platform’s monetization system to profit off peddling what often amounts to demonstrably false claims. And when you watch one YouTube video trumpeting a false news narrative, you’re likely to be led down a rabbit hole as the website recommends more videos that corroborate the last conspiracy theory or introduce another conspiracy theory.

Taking down the videos about Hogg was a good move. But If the company truly plans to abide by its three-strike rule now, the people who have become pros at making these conspiracy theory videos over the years will just get savvier about navigating the YouTube rules—for instance, by avoiding targeting individuals, so they can’t be caught up by the anti-bullying guideline. YouTube may have to do more than enforce community policies to stop the long-standing scourge of conspiracy theories on YouTube. It have to begin making some real editorial decisions.