Yes, it’s another Last Week in Digital Media “The Late Edition” as I have missed my usual late Sunday afternoon publishing deadline. I couldn’t miss this week given all the news around Brand Safety, so starting with that news first.
Reader Advisory: The news related to this most recent YouTube incident includes references to predatory behavior and disturbing content. All links are to relevant editorial or news coverage only, but reader discretion is advised.
- On Monday (2/18) a reddit post by Matt Watson identified predatory behavior on YouTube targeting preteens. Watson also made a YouTube video summarizing his findings, which went from 842,000 views on Monday to just shy of 3MM by the time of writing this Sunday (2/24).
- The behavior Watson identified is criminal and unacceptable. In the case of YouTube, the problem was exacerbated because ads were running in front of the content. The response from the advertising community was swift – with numerous advertisers suspending their YouTube advertising.
- While confidentiality means I can’t share specifics of actions taken to protect advertisers, I can say Google responded rapidly to the concerns raised. Even if it is more-than-frustrating that Google didn’t catch and prevent this themselves.
- Publicly, Google confirmed over 400 channels were deleted, as too were 10’s of millions of comments, as well as suspending monetization (Google keeps updating the content on that link, so it’s worth bookmarking and checking back often). The latter two (2) steps were also taken on videos that could be at risk of being targeted by predators. Some innocent channels and content were deleted as Google stated it was acting “in an abundance of caution”.
- It is clear that Google understood the gravity of the situation, not just from an advertising perspective but the full legal and ethical implications. This includes reporting illegal behavior to NCMEC so that proper action can be taken by relevant law enforcement. In Google’s words “No form of content that endangers minors is acceptable to us.”
- Just a month prior, AT&T announced they were returning to YouTube, but in light of the recent incident a spokesperson for AT&T told the BBC “Until Google [which owns YouTube] can protect our brand from offensive content of any kind, we are removing all advertising from YouTube“.
- Unrelated to the above issue but coincidentally timed during the same week (2/19), Google did update the YouTube strike system that could result in channel termination. Now 3 strikes in any 90 day period can result in account termination. The new rules come into effect Feb 25.
Editorial: The past week underscores the need for further improvements in how 3rd Party Verification works on YouTube and on all User Generated Content (UGC) environments. There is also a real need for continued safety improvements by Google themselves. I am deliberate when I call this “safety”, not “brand safety”, as, without question, the type of content and behavior has no place (regardless of advertising). From an agency perspective, there are legitimate questions on why some of the content passed safety checks, how YouTube classified some of the content, and why it allowed it to be monetized. All of this needs to be addressed and you should talk to your relevant Google/YouTube account lead to understand what steps are being taken.
Looking ahead, the abuse of the comment system is disturbing because it doesn’t require sophisticated techniques to make content “unsafe”. YouTube is already struggling to combat “dislike mobs” who mass thumb down videos. Inappropriate comments, dislike mobs, etc. are behaviors that are easy to replicate with bots (see what happened to the FCC and Net Neutrality comments system). I am not an apologist for or excusing YouTube’s problems from last week. I am left wondering what bad actors will take from this event and use it to undermine legitimate content or debate by weaponizing comments and other engagement tools.
- All of the above wasn’t the only incident that occurred on YouTube during the week. Buzzfeed also highlighted that anti-vaccination videos were being promoted. The Buzzfeed article came off a letter the previous week by Congressman Adam Schiff (PDF link) asking what Google was doing to stop surfacing disinformation. All of which culminated in a YouTube blog post later in the week (somewhat lost in all the other issues) detailing efforts being made to “reduce recommendation of content that could misinform in harmful ways“.
- If you’re still following all of this, there’s a confluence of issues here – as in both cases, YouTube’s algorithm was recommending similar either inappropriate or misinformed content to users. This demonstrates the issues are not just about content, but also how Google’s systems are geared to effectively amplifying questionable content once a user heads down the wrong path.
On to the other news you may have missed during the week:
- Roku reported Q4 results, announcing 27.1MM active accounts as well as ad revenue growth (PDF link). This may put Roku just shy of Amazon, who reported around 30MM Fire TV devices during CES. Although devices is not a fair proxy for accounts, for context a 2018 study suggesting it’s 2.8 smart TV devices per home, which would put a dent in Fire TV user numbers.
- Pinterest has reportedly filed to IPO according to multiple sources. It’s reported that Pinterest will be seeing a US$12B valuation. Last year, Pinterest reported 250MM users and that it was approaching US$1B in ad revenue.
- twitter has opened applications for beta testing their new UI that makes it easier to track threaded conversation. For now, the beta is for iOS users only (even though users of any device OS are eligible to apply). Threaded conversations could be interesting for brands and marketers, making it easier for everyone to see and follow how brands engage with their customers on the platform.
- Charter Communications, who operator Spectrum cable, have launched their own OTT offering called “Spectrum Essentials“. The US$15 a month package is only available to Spectrum internet-only subscribers who don’t want a traditional cable box or cable commitment.
- the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce sent a letter to Mark Zuckerberg (PDF link) requesting a briefing about Facebook’s privacy practices, specifically around health care and health-related groups. The ask comes after accusations that Facebook shared health data despite it being positioned as anonymous. Facebook has until March 1 to respond.
Thanks for being patient with the late publishing of the blog this week and I hope you have a great week.