YouTube Vows to ‘Improve Our Systems’ After Conspiracy Video Rises to No. 1 on Trending

The clip, since taken down, is the latest algorithm fail

YouTube's Trending tab Wednesday morning, before the video at the top was removed YouTube
Headshot of David Cohen

On Wednesday morning, YouTube’s No. 1 trending video used footage from a CBS Los Angeles video to suggest that David Hogg, one of the survivors of last week’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., was an actor and not an actual student at the school.

“This video should never have appeared in Trending,” said a YouTube spokesperson. “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.”

The since-deleted video suggested that based on a video posted by Hoggs last August, he was a “crisis actor.” Hoggs’ video, which was picked up by the local CBS affiliate, showed a confrontation with a lifeguard in Redondo Beach, Calif. According to Motherboard, commenters on the trending video (which itself included the description “DAVID HOGG THE ACTOR”) suggested that Hogg was “bought and paid by CNN and George Soros” to push for changes to the laws on gun ownership.

The Up Next column on the right-hand side of the trending video provided links to similar content, including another now-deleted clip entitled “David Hogg Can’t Remember His Lines When Interviewed for Florida [S]chool [S]hooting,” which claimed that Hogg was “practicing his lines” for interviews after last week’s shooting.

Hogg told CNN that while he grew up in California, his family moved to Florida “several years ago,” and Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ TV-production offerings were a major factor in choosing the school. He added that he was visiting friends in California at the time of the confrontation with the lifeguard.

This isn’t the first time YouTube has had issues with its trending videos and Up Next column. Before last month’s controversial video by Logan Paul featuring a suicide victim in Japan was removed by YouTube, Paul Lewis of The Guardian explored the trending section and found similar problems.

“This conveyor belt of clips, which auto-play by default, are designed to seduce us to spend more time on Google’s video broadcasting platform,” wrote Lewis. “I was curious where they might lead. The answer was a slew of videos of men mocking distraught teenage fans of Logan Paul, followed by CCTV footage of children stealing things and, a few clicks later, a video of children having their teeth pulled out with bizarre, homemade contraptions.”

YouTube said its Trending tab is curated by algorithms,with no human involvement; the algorithm weighs several factors, including view count, growth rate in views and length of time the video has been live.

The company added that while humans help “train” the algorithms, it would be impossible for humans to curate the frequently updating Trending tabs from all around the world.

In January, the Google-owned site announced three steps to protect advertisers from their ads appearing alongside questionable or problematic content: manual screening of videos for Google Preferred channels (YouTube’s program that allows brands to run ads only against the most popular 5 percent of content); requiring 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 hours of watch time in a one-year period, rather than relying solely on view counts; and introducing a three-tiered system for media buys.

Earlier that month, the company removed Paul’s channel from Google Preferred. According to Joan E. Solsman of CNET, CEO Susan Wojcicki explained at the Code Media conference that Paul was allowed to remain on YouTube because of the site’s three-strikes rule, meaning that he had not committed three infractions against YouTube’s official policies.

At the time, Wojcicki made a comment about Facebook that she would probably like to take back right now: “They should get back to baby pictures.” David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.