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Unethical growth hacks: A look into the growing Youtube news bot epidemic

Youtube is littered with sketchy mass-produced videos made by automated bots, and Google is doing almost nothing to stop it.

Credit to user 5187396 on Pixabay

When my team and I built Snapzu, a community platform for bloggers and creators (and their audiences), we really had no idea exactly what type of content people would be submitting to build-up their profiles and “tribes” in an effort to get their names out.

But one particular recently submitted video caught my attention. Take a quick peek at it just below:

At first glance it looks like a standard clip of a news story about some recent drama on a reality TV show, but after a few seconds it becomes pretty clear that something just isn’t right.

The video’s voice-over, while mostly comprehensible, sounds like BonziBuddy’s undesired successor, while low resolution images float around resembling some sort of ancient screen saver.

“What the hell is this? Who in their right mind would make something like this? And why would anyone watch it?”

These were the questions ricocheting around in my skull as I pressed the down vote button.

If you check out the rest of the parent Youtube channel, you can immediately notice that there are literally hundreds of other similar videos just like it. Brand new videos are constantly “generated” from recent news sources, and posted every few minutes, and all of them always follow the same pattern.

It always starts off with that cringe-worthy 80’s style intro, followed by the same robotic voice-over and floating low quality images.

“OK, so we’ve seen weirder Youtube channels lately, what’s the big deal?”

For starters, all of the content being used to create the videos is completely ripped off countless popular news sources such as the BBC, ABC and Reuters.

All the stuff that robot voice is saying? All of the images? Yep, both shamelessly jacked. The people that work hard to write the content and obtain the images don’t even get as much as a mention.

Someone has effectively created a fully automated process running 24/7 that is taking and stripping recent articles, converting them into video format, and posting it on Youtube as their own. And while doing so, they take credit for it and reap all the rewards — such as revenue and influence — that come with it.

Some videos, especially the ones that gain momentum and get popular, even feature a large juicy ad on the bottom, in which Google displays and shares profits with.

Sure, one video with a few thousand views isn’t really that significant, but when you have hundreds of videos being pumped out week after week, you can see how quickly things can add up.

And while many new videos are still awaiting their first dozen views, others are in the tens of thousands. One even amassed almost 50k views in just two days. In total, the channel’s videos have been viewed more than 225,000 times just in the past month, with an average of around 8,000 views per day.

Many of us would kill for those kinds of views and exposure! OK, ok, obviously that’s taking it a bit too far, but you get the point.

While the exact amount that a Youtube video can earn is debatable, most sources familiar with the subject land it somewhere between $1 and $20 per 1000 views depending on various factors. One source says it ends up around $7 on average.

It doesn’t take a career mathematician to suggest that this particular Youtube channel has pocketed its owner a cool sum of around $3,000 over the past two months or so.

And that’s in just a few short months since the channel’s creation, all while doing nothing more than running a script to automatically generate videos using stolen content. I’m sure that this amount will, without a doubt, keep going up as the videos keep piling up and the channel itself gains more clout.

Typically I admire many clever growth “hacks” to build an audience. But this is just plain theft.

Did I mention that there are more than just this one channel? There’s also this one, and this one, both following the same concept. There’s actually many, MANY more.

A new type of fully automated plagiarism has been creeping up and no one is doing anything about it.

In fact, the opposite is happening. Because these are video format, they often get preferred treatment in Google’s search results, as it helps their search results seem more diverse when including video, images, and other non-link content.

So in a time when countless news publications and blogs are barely scraping by, they now also have this growing obstacle deal with.

And if you think it’s tough now, just wait a few more years before it gets out of hand as AI inevitably becomes smarter, faster, and more efficient.

Thanks for reading.

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