A violent mob attacks the U.S. Capitol building and threatens elected officials. Who profits from video streaming the attack? Is it ethical to make money off an event that leaves people dead?
YouTube makes money selling ads with videos created by others and profits from keeping people on its platform to show them more ads. It is a great money-making scheme. The problem is that lax standards and algorithms, optimized to maximize revenue stream videos that leave people dead and democratic institutions vandalized.
Right wing groups love YouTube. They get to share in YouTube’s ad profits and reach more people through YouTube’s recommendation. Advertisers are often unaware where YouTube is showing the ads and the groups they are indirectly funding.
Follow the money
A video of the assault was recorded by RSBN and posted to YouTube where it has been seen over 1,200,000 times. YouTube show ads next to the video and splits the ad revenue with RBSN. How much money is made? Do advertisers know their ads are being shown next to the video of an event where people were killed? What are YouTube’s standards for what videos can be streamed? How well does it follow them? What can be done to prevent firms profiting from videos that desecrate democratic institution and result in deaths?
The YouTube money machine
“YouTube monetizes videos via pre-roll, display and other advertising formats. YouTube gives the content creator 55% of this revenue and takes 45% for itself. Content creators must adhere to advertising guidelines. Content that contains foul language and violence will not have ads placed against them.” – Investopedia
“Don’t post content on YouTube if the purpose of that content is to encourage violence against individuals or groups based on any of the attributes noted above. We don’t allow threats on YouTube, and we treat implied calls for violence as real threats.” – YouTube Support
YouTube still hosts this RSBN video of the violent mob threatening the Vice President and Congressional leaders as they marched upon the Capitol. How well do they follow their own guidelines when there is money to be made?
Online advertising basics
Online ads are shown while people while they are watching something else. The cost of ads is measured as CPM – cost per thousand. An ad that costs $10/CPM means it will cost $10 to show that ad to a thousand people. The price of advertising varies based on how targeted the audience, size and nature of the ad. Advertisers provide their ads to YouTube who determines where and when to show the ads. YouTube serves ads before, during and beside a video.
Pre-roll video: The ad shown before the actual video and viewers cannot skip it ( $15/CPM)
In-line video: Ads which appear as you watch the main video. ($10/CPM)
Banner Ads: Ads that appear beside the video ($5/CPM)
The estimated ad revenue from a single video ($15 + $10 + $5) = $30/CPM
Longer videos are even more lucrative as it gives YouTube the opportunity to serve more ads. The RSBN video is 99 minutes long.
YouTube recommendation engine
YouTube tries to keep viewers on its platform longer in order to serve more paid ads. The YouTube algorithm calculates what someone has watched and recommends other videos for them to watch. YouTube recommends these videos to viewers of the RSBN video.
“Yoo is the legal scholar who believes the president can order a recalcitrant prisoner’s fingernails pulled out and his child’s testicles crushed if that’s what it takes” – Reason
“D’Souza has for decades thrived as an incendiary mouthpiece for a hardline fringe faction of the American right. He was convicted of making illegal campaign donations” – Time
The brilliant engineers at Google/YouTube have obviously programmed their algorithm to suggest that if you are interested in a murderous attack on the Capitol, you are also likely to enjoy comments from Yoo and D’Souza.
According to Pew Research, 81% of viewers use YouTube recommendations to determine what to watch. This algorithm is optimized to keep you watching YouTube and is radicalizing Americans. “When people come to YouTube searching for coronavirus topics, on average 94% of the videos they see in the top 10 results come from high-authority channels”, said Susan Wojcicki, YouTube CEO.
Right Side Broadcasting Network
“Right Side Broadcasting Network, a website best known for its YouTube channel, which has hosted feeds of almost every single Trump rally, town hall, or public appearance since July 2015. RSBN has over 186,000 subscribers on YouTube. MSNBC, by comparison, has 173,000 subscribers. The pro-Trump nature of the feed also attracts some of the real-estate magnate’s uglier followers. RSBN streams often fill up with comments on the sidebar, which often include language that is racially, religiously, and sexually charged. RSBN is donations-based, with donations averaging “roughly” $25 each.” – Business Insider
Estimated revenue from video of the attack
1 video x 1.2m views = 1,200,000
Revenue from video with 1M views = 1,200,000 x $30/CPM = $36,000
Revenue to Google/YouTube = $ 36,000 x 40% = $14,400
Revenue to video producer = $36,000 x 60% = $21,600
RSBN also makes money from ‘donation buttons’ beside the video.
How advertisers can make sure YouTube shows ad with videos that align with their values
“Despite efforts to quash advertisers concerns around brand safety and restore trust, the UK marketing director for Google Ads has admitted the tech giant might never be able to guarantee “100% safety” for brands on YouTube. “I don’t think that’s the reality of the platform,” Nishma Robb explained, her comments coming just weeks after advertisers like AT&T once again froze spend over brand safety concerns.” – The Drum
“M&S has added to Google’s woes by adding its name to a growing list of advertisers now shunning its YouTube platform over the potential to pair up their adverts with extremist material. An increasing number of big name brands, banks and businesses are joining a growing exodus from the platform amidst alarm at a perceived persistent failure to take down extremist content in a timely manner, fueling concerns that they are inadvertently funding terrorist organizations and far-right groups.” – The Drum
“Extremism, misinformation, sociopaths stewarding profit-incentivized algorithms… Record deaths from Covid-19 and the U.S. Capitol overrun by a mob on the same day. Information flow is not a public good but a revenue stream, is it any wonder that disinformation has taken hold? Until there is more competition, meaningful economic penalties, and perp walks, social media firms will continue to do exponentially more harm than Drexel or Enron.” – Prof. Scott Galloway (paraphrased)
Three headlines show Google’s drift to the dark side.
“Google Removes ‘Don’t Be Evil’ Clause From Its Code of Conduct” – Gizmodo
“Google revenue jumps 14% to $46 billion, stock soars” – CNN
“Google fires prominent AI ethicist” – The Verge
It’s time for Google to stop being evil. Or it should be regulated before it does more harm to society and democracy?
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