A foreign spammer channel on YouTube earned millions of views by spreading American political disinformation
Most of the videos it shared had revenue-generating ads
A YouTube channel that previously shared only nonpolitical foreign content posted more than two dozen videos over a nine-day span spreading obvious disinformation about American politics, and most of them appeared to carry ads, meaning YouTube was benefiting financially. Some of these videos, which were posted between February 10 and 19, were publicly accessible for more than a week before they were taken down for violating YouTube’s Terms of Service. By then, the false content had collectively received more than 4.4 million views.
The episode shows how disinformation can be monetized, incentivized by a platform’s advertising policies, and quickly gain traction on one of the biggest social media platforms.
The channel, called “Congress Times,” was created in 2018 and describes itself as a “news network.” Through early February, the channel posted exclusively nonpolitical content in a language that appears to be Indonesian, particularly about fish. The account also may be based in Indonesia: Its contact email address uses the same username (“ifish.motion”) as an Instagram channel that appears to be based in Indonesia and that also links to the “Congress Times” YouTube channel. A Google search of that Instagram account’s name shows that the “Congress Times” channel used to have a different name unrelated to politics.
Between February 10 and 19, the channel posted only about American politics, featuring more than two dozen right-wing videos with false headlines about American political figures. The headlines usually included fake quotes and events, and the corresponding videos showed something else entirely. Most of the videos carried ads and thus made money for the creator and YouTube. And while the videos have since been taken down, the views of them seem to have remained in the channel’s total view count. Among the false videos were:
A video with a false headline saying that Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) had been “kicked out of Congress” had more than 660,000 views (it also had more than 40,000 Facebook engagements and received thousands of upvotes on the pro-Trump subreddit “r/The_Donald”).
- A video primarily showing Vice President Mike Pence talking about Iran and U.S. security was posted with a false headline about a “final verdict” from a federal judge that supposedly had House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) “crying.” It had more than 448,000 views.
- A video with a false headline saying that Pelosi had been “kicked out of Congress” had more than 423,000 views (and was shared by a former State Department official). Another video falsely claiming Pelosi was warned by a judge that she would be jailed for “treason” had more than 258,000 views.
- A video with a false headline saying that former Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC) “grill[ed]” Omar “till she had a nervous breakdown,” which actually just showed two remarks Gowdy made with a barely 30-second clip of Omar talking, had more than 130,000 views.
A video with a false headline saying that Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) told Pelosi she would “pay for your sins” for ripping up President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech, which was actually two clips of Stefanik and other congressional Republicans talking to the media and criticizing Trump’s impeachment, had more than 163,000 views.
The disinformation helped the channel’s bottom line: There was a major spike in total views and earnings, as the channel went from earning less than $10 a day on average to earning up to potentially thousands of dollars per day, and its total-ever view count more than quadrupled, according to social media analytics site Social Blade.
Additionally, the channel posted links below many of the videos to supposed petitions to remove certain congressional Democrats from office, telling people to “sign now!” But the links actually go to a site called “Truth Reveals,” which is full of misleading right-wing hyperpartisan clickbait. The site also carries Google AdSense, which allows it to monetize its content. Another account on Reddit created just last October has also repeatedly spammed links to Truth Reveals in multiple subreddits.
This was not the first foreign spam operation on YouTube: In December, CNN reported that a network of channels on the platform that were likely based in Southeast Asia had “racked up millions of views on false and inflammatory videos over several months.” And the platform continues to struggle to find and take down these disinformation operations -- some of which make money from ads -- before they get a significant number of views.