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Decode

Why YouTube Remains A Fertile Ground For Electoral Disinformation

There are layers of opacity around YouTube ads, making it nearly impossible to find harmful ads, and track the source of funds.

By - Archis Chowdhury | 7 April 2024 11:20 AM GMT

At the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, millions of YouTube users were watching videos in Greek and Arabic that encouraged them to boycott vaccinations or treat their COVID-19 infections with bogus cures. For years before this, several YouTube videos had already promoted false cures for cancer.

The video sharing giant wasn’t doing much to combat its problem of misinformation. So, two years ago, a global coalition of 80 fact-checking organisations, including BOOM, wrote a letter to YouTube, telling them they are not doing enough to tackle the spread of falsehoods on its platform.

But turns out, it is still a fertile ground for disinformation, which can be amplified through YouTube ads.

Electoral Disinfo-laden Ads Approved

An investigation by Access Now and Global Witness has found that ahead of the general elections in India, YouTube is approving ads purporting baseless allegations of electoral fraud, lies about voting procedures, and attacks on the integrity of the electoral process.

The two organisations working in the realm of digital rights submitted 48 advertisements in English, Hindi, and Telugu containing content prohibited by YouTube’s advertising and elections misinformation policies. “The platform approved every single ad for publication,” they said in their report.

English and Hindi samples of the test ads that were approved by YouTube during the course of the investigation.
Click here for source
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The organisations withdrew the ads after YouTube’s approval, before they could be published. The ad content included voter suppression through false information on changes to the voting age, instructions to vote by text message, and incitement to prevent certain groups from voting.

"We looked at YouTube's ad policies and trends in misinformation, to see what content infringed these policies. This was done to test whether YouTube would approve content that it claimed to disallow," Shruti Narayan, Asia Pacific Policy Fellow at Access Now told Decode.

With 462 million users, India has the largest YouTube audience among countries. And that means misleading content on such a platform especially during elections can be dangerous.

For instance, one of their misleading ads said, “The Election Commission has disqualified the largest opposition parties from standing in the 2024 elections. Their votes will not be counted.” It got approved within 24 hours of submitting it.

“The platform’s inability to detect and restrict content that is designed to undermine electoral integrity and that clearly violates its own policies presents serious concerns about the platform’s vulnerability to information operations and manipulation campaigns,” the report noted.

Henry Peck, Campaigner, Digital threats at Global Witness told Decode, "Once these ads are approved, they're good to go. As advertisers we could reschedule the ads to be pushed out sooner and rapidly be visible to users. This process is designed with little friction in order to facilitate more advertising on the platform."

In its response, YouTube defended itself on the basis of these ads not actually being published.

“Our enforcement process has multiple layers to ensure ads comply with our policies, and just because an ad passes an initial technical check does not mean it won’t be blocked or removed by our enforcement systems if it violates our policies. In this case, the ads were deleted before our remaining enforcement reviews could take place,” read YouTube’s parent company Google’s response, as included in the report.

But Peck doesn’t quite buy it. "I don't think their apparent process of subsequent reviews is clear or effective. Once the ads get published, the damage can quickly be done, and any further reviews at that point may already be too late,” he told Decode.

So why did Access Now and Global Witness have to create their own ads instead of identifying the misleading ads on the platform? The answer lies in YouTube’s mess of ‘transparency on paid content’.

The Opacity Of YouTube Ads 

Google’s Ad Transparency Center allows users to look through the ads on its platforms, along with the details on advertisers, and the locations being targeted. It also contains a section specific to YouTube.

However, once you opt to “Explore paid promotions on YouTube”, you are faced with a search bar “to view videos with active paid product placements, sponsorships, and endorsements”. This poses a strong limitation to study and investigate paid ads on YouTube, as it requires prior knowledge of existing ads to be able to search for it.

Furthermore, searching with keywords, users are provided a list of search results, with limited options in the filters to customise the search. Details on advertisers, along with the amount paid for the ads, are also not visible.

This creates layers of opacity around YouTube ads, making it nearly impossible to find harmful ads, and track the source of funds. This poses a significant risk for Indian voters who head to polls in a matter of weeks, with more trust on YouTube than on mainstream media sources.