Hey YouTube: You’ve Got a Problem with Your Shorts

Greetings! Hope all is well out in the world with my six readers. I just returned from a delightful trip to Berlin, where I slept in a pleasant garden cabin near the outskirts of the now-closed Tegel Airport. The weather was warm, the beer was cold, and Berlin was especially welcoming on my first visit outside of Winter.

I read (a little) and largely unplugged from the internet. My cellphones (if used at all) were used to take photos.

Berlin, a city I’ve long been fascinated with, is an especially wonderful place to visit when one doesn’t have much of a travel itinerary in mind. From the Cold War and Reagan’s 1987 speech at the Brandenburg gate, to Lou Reed and Iggy Pop and David Bowie all living in the city in the 1970's, Berlin has long dominated my imagination more than any other European city.

Sister Midnight.

Learning more about my past — and discovering, much to my surprise, some German ancestry — has made me feel all the more connected to Germany. My visit didn’t disappoint, and I hope to return again soon. At the end of the day, who doesn’t want to live like Stephen Malkmus?

German language books about Putin, Russian, and the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Book for sale in a Berlin bookstore. July 2022.

So, back at it! Before I left for Germany I had spent a not insignificant amount of time pondering an old missing persons case from the early 1980's. I kept looking at one far-off possibility with the expectation that, just perhaps, lightning might strike twice. I was certain, after going through Websleuths and Reddit threads, that I alone spotted this low hanging fruit of possibility.

Was I right?

In this instance, no.

Which now leaves me with a new unidentified person case that is all the more baffling. The more things change, the more things stay — well, you know the drill.

Besides a failed missing person identification quest, I’ve also been wading through the absolutely astounding amount of violent content associated with Nigerian twitter. This quest is, as you can probably imagine, about as depressing to investigate as any task I can think of.

Failed missing person /John Doe identification quests — amateur investigations of influence campaigns on Twitter; if anyone gets caught up in strange ruts it’s me.

Pardon me for a moment as I shuffle through which album I bought I in 1994 I still listen to.

So, on a related note, and without much further ado, i’d like the add my voice the chorus of folks who express this opinion about YouTube’s Shorts:

Tweet expressing a view which I share — YouTube Shorts has a little discussed downside: it’s a major conduit for misinformation.
Yes. Take a few minutes to browse YouTube Shorts and you’ll be deluged with content of questionable origins.
An over exaggeration: but there’s a kernel of truth with the sentiment.

YES. I wholeheartedly agree.

In my humble opinion, the mechanics of YouTube’s new Shorts feature is contributing to a whole flood of dis and misinformation campaigns on the platform. Virtually every time I have mindlessly scrolled through YouTube Shorts, I eventually stop and wonder aloud how in the world I was fed such a bizarre collection of pro-Putin and pro-Trump clips, kernels of Elon Musk’s supposed business wisdom and even 3 Percenter recruitment videos.

The 111 Percenters were a military cosplay group of guys who love guns and who’ve never done an actual thing to question authority in their lives. Naturally, they were infatuated with Donald Trump. This group disbanded after the January 6th coup attempt. Someone uploaded celebratory old videos of theirs to YouTube Shorts just weeks after January 6th. I was repeatedly recommended this particular video.

Take a look at this YouTube Shorts, which comes to us via a suspect Russian language media account:

This account, called Политика24, has had much more success having their YouTube Shorts videos viewed than their regular content. I believe that they are successfully using the mechanics of the YouTube Shorts apparatus to get these videos to the eyeballs of Russian language speakers. This account is using Donation Alerts (a very suspect fundraising method) to raise money for their pro-Kremlin, pro-Russian invasion content.

The fascist “Z” symbol is used in the profile picture and the banner ad. The Ribbon of Saint George in a Z shape is also used on the profile detail page.
As I have written about before, Donation Alerts is often used by dubious Russian language accounts on social media to raise money. This is likely not an attempt to raise money for a particular media outfit (especially judging by poor quality and stolen content) but is instead a means of getting around sanctions.

The video mentioned above is a doozy — and it manages to use a number of different tricks to slip in a conspiracy theory about COVID and the war in Ukraine. You kind of have to admire the chutzpah required to craft a video that contains both COVID dis info and Russian war disinformation simultaneously. You know, especially since YouTube and social media claim to be committed to combating both.

Now, I don’t think this video would last very long on Twitter or Instagram — ̶a̶n̶a̶l̶-̶r̶e̶t̶e̶n̶t̶i̶v̶e̶ concerned digital citizens would dutifully report it and it would be removed.

But the breakneck pace of videos on YouTube Shorts enables these videos to thrive. Party because, much like TikTok, once you’ve watched one of these videos it’s off to the races with the next video.

Note to a media outlet looking to make an interesting video: get a group of baby boomers (or people in their 40s or 50s) into a room, and film them as they try to “report” a video that they might have found objectionable on YouTube Shorts or TikTok. I could see how hilarity would ensue when Google’s legal department realizes that user-based “content moderation” with a video-sharing platform that runs faster than a gerbil on meth just isn’t really plausible.

Ok, here’s the video. I know it’s in the Russian language, and features spooky audio effects lifted from a Hollywood trailer. But, take a moment to look how they organized it. Namely, the use of Russian (Cyrillic) text that quickly flashes on screen. This is used because it makes fact checking — and the process of reporting — all the more difficult:

I’ll provide a quick summation of how this video manages to inject a whiff of disinformation beautifully, and in a way that is likely to mean that this video is to never be removed, even though it implies the kind of COVID and Ukraine war disinformation that YouTube has pledged to remove from the service.

The video flashes an image of Jeffrey Sachs, and mentions his May 2022 press conference about the origins of COVID. Sachs, who has no training in medicine or disease, is an economist. He’s calling for an independent review of the origins of COVID, with the implication being that it leaked from a lab in China. His argument is not all that different from the ones that people like Rand Paul have been saying for years. The video treats this as is this is unprecedented and rarely reported news in the US media -which obviously the creators behind this Russian video don’t watch, since US politicians and media outlets have been nearly alone in the world in pushing the lab leak hypothesis.

Text on screen describes the allegations about the origins of COVID-19 brought forth by American professor Jeffery Sachs.

The video then discusses a March 31st, 2022 Vanity Fair article by Katherine Eban. If you’ve followed the COVID story at all, you’d know that the US media hasn’t shied away from promoting a less than likely theory (this “gain of function” hypothesis) over the more plausible zoonotic transmission theory.

Regardless, the Russian language video claims that “no one” has reported these details in the US media.

YouTube Shorts video with Hollywood trailer style music and effects mentions a Vanity Fair article about the hunt for the origins of COVID.

And the video ends with some panache and bit of hyperbole — connected questions surround the origins of COVID with….

The outro of the video links questions surround the origins of COVID-19 to the bogus reports of biolabs in Ukraine. This is an OLD Soviet tactic.

They end the video by linking questions about the origins of COVID, with the bogus Ukraine bio labs story. YouTube pledge to crack down on nonsense Russian propaganda (such as the bio labs story) and on fake COVID-19 information.

I’ve reported this video:

Extremely difficult for any less-than-tech savvy end user to report a bad YouTube Shorts video.

This is just kind of the tip of the iceberg in terms of horrendously bad YouTube Shorts videos, and I really should start a public spreadsheet. Or maybe i’ll just crack open a German beer and fire up my favorite album from 1994.

Until next time.

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