Earlier today, a video appearing in YouTube’s trending videos feed, meant to surface the most popular content to the platform’s estimated 1 billion users, featured content suggested a survivor of the Florida school shooting was a “crisis actor.” The term is used in conspiracy circles to describe someone paid to pretend they’d been involved in a life-threatening situation for ideological reasons, such as anti-gun lobbying. It’s unclear how long it remained available before YouTube took the video down.
If this sounds like a familiar problem, it’s because YouTube has been criticised for promoting conspiracist content before—most recently in the wake of October’s Las Vegas shooting. At that time, far-right ghouls merely suggested the incident which left 59 dead and over 800 injured simply did not happen, a “false flag” manufactured for reasons unknown. This time around, flailing attempts to discredit the testimony of a teenager who experienced the brutal murder of his classmates has pointed to everything from his father’s former employment in the FBI to his appearance in California last summer as “evidence” he’s an anti-gun operative.
It should be noted that some of these conspiracies have the support of people like President Trump's son.
The most virulent strains of this delusional thinking even suggest Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was some sort of armed facility. After the video which reached YouTube’s trending videos category was taken down, another upload from the same channel—which remains available, and features videos promoting the popular “chemtrails” conspiracy theory—claimed:
They Try to tell me lots of Public schools have guns. I prove them wrong! The news is all lies. Propaganda for the sheep to feed on! It’s time to show this was a military school and the Media is ignoring the fact they train them with guns then call for civilians to lose theirs!
This isn’t the first time the platform’s trending videos module has been a source of public embarrassment recently. Last month, professional jackass Logan Paul uploaded an inappropriately light-hearted vlog from Japan’s “suicide forest” that featured the body of a man who had hung himself in that video’s thumbnail image. It quickly became a trending video before Paul—not YouTube—took it down.
In an email to Gizmodo, the platform claimed that the trending videos section is not moderated by humans, and due to its constantly changing nature, cannot be.
Loudly and publicly, YouTube has made floundering efforts at curtailing activities by users that would upset the advertisers which allow the video broadcasting community to exist at all—and who have threatened to pull funding many, many times. Largely it’s been a rearrangement of deck chairs on Google’s video vessel.
YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki claimed in December that the platform would be staffing up to accommodate over 10,000 human moderators. Following the Logan Paul controversy, top creators enrolled in YouTube’s “preferred advertising” would have all their uploads reviewed by human editors. Earlier this month, a much-maligned update added a warning to all news channels which received government funding, regardless of their trustworthiness. This all follows a push, starting last August, to “quarantine” extremist content.
Clearly, it isn’t working.
A YouTube spokesperson provided the following statement to Gizmodo (emphasis ours) about the conspiracy-peddling video which reached #1 on trending earlier today:
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.
YouTube, as any number of platforms have been waking up to in recent months, put effort into acquiring users and keeping them addicted—but little thought into what behaviour they were fostering by doing so. It’s clearly trying to do better, but it’s not trying hard enough or smart enough.
Searches for videos related to the shooting suggest the event was a “false flag” or the product of “crisis actors.” The names of David Hogg and other survivors continue to surface content on YouTube which claims their reactions to the mass killings in Parkland are bought and paid for. These conspiracies have led to death threats directed at people who narrowly avoided being murdered in cold blood. At least some of that blame lies with YouTube.