Whether it’s your email or watching cat videos on YouTube, tech Giant Google is already part of our daily lives.
The subject of YouTube’s latest battle over objectionable content on the popular video site: child exploitation.
Several big-name companies including AT&T and Epic Games, the publisher of massively popular online video game “Fortnite,” have pulled advertisements from the site over concerns their ads were running on videos of young children, primarily girls, on which pedophiles were making objectifying comments.
In the video comments, posters often note the time of the video in which children are in the most exploitative positions while doing gymnastics, playing Twister or doing yoga.
“Until Google can protect our brand from offensive content of any kind, we are removing all advertising from YouTube,” AT&T said in a statement sent to USA TODAY.
AT&T was among several advertisers including Verizon and Johnson & Johnson that pulled its ads from YouTube back in 2017 over concerns about their ads appearing alongside videos promoting terrorism and other offensive content. AT&T had just restarted advertising on YouTube last month, CNBC reported.
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Another defector is Hasbro, which said it is halting its YouTube advertising and has reached out to the website and Google (both are owned by Alphabet) “to understand what actions they are taking to address this issue and prevent such content from appearing on their platform in the future.”
Epic Games also said, in a statement to USA TODAY that “through our advertising agency, we have reached out to Google/YouTube to determine actions they’ll take to eliminate this type of content from their service.”
This advertiser initiative comes after a Wired investigation into child sexual abuse on YouTube found “scores of videos” with children in suggestive positions, and many of the videos had comments numbering in the hundreds of thousands or more.
In addition, video blogger Matt Watson posted a video on YouTube showing how YouTube’s algorithm quickly recommended similar videos after users clicked on a video with comments. His video, also posted on Reddit, has been viewed more than 2.4 million times.
Since then, YouTube says it has disabled comments on tens of millions of videos with minors in them, removed thousands of inappropriate comments on videos featuring minors, and terminated more than 400 channels for inappropriate comments. YouTube also reported illegal comments to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and disabled auto-complete algorithms that made it easy for users to discover such content.
“Any content – including comments – that endangers minors is abhorrent and we have clear policies prohibiting this on YouTube,” the company said in a statement to USA TODAY. “We took immediate action by deleting accounts and channels, reporting illegal activity to authorities and disabling comments on tens of millions of videos that include minors. There’s more to be done, and we continue to work to improve and catch abuse more quickly.”
Also this week, YouTube updated its Community Guidelines about how it polices objectionable content. And the site contacted advertising agencies about its plans to hold YouTube channel operators accountable for moderating comments, Adweek reported.
Regardless of YouTube’s action to improve the situation, offensive and potentially abusive videos can easily be found, said Haley Halverson, vice president of advocacy and outreach at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. “Within two clicks, I was able to enter into a rabbit hole of videos where children are being eroticized by pedophiles and child abusers,” she said in a press release Friday. “The content became more flagrantly sexualized the more I clicked, as the YouTube recommendation algorithm fed me more and more videos with hundreds of thousands, and sometimes millions, of views.”
YouTube continues to “monetize videos that eroticize young children and that serve as hubs for pedophiles to network and trade information and links to more graphic child pornography,” Halverson said. She said she saw ads play on those videos from LinkedIn, O’Reilly Autoparts, Google CS First coding education and curriculum site, and video marketing company Promo, and also saw a YouTube ad survey.
While the comments on some videos may be blocked, the videos remain online, Halverson said. Some of these videos also contain flags for potential sex traffickers or child sexual abusers trying to get in contact with the children in the videos via social media, in addition to pedophiles networking amongst themselves to trade more extreme child sexual abuse images—i.e. child pornography,” she said. “YouTube is putting these children at risk by not removing these videos.”
YouTube has had to deal with this problem before. In November 2017, several major companies including Mars (M&Ms, Snickers) and Mondelez (Oreos, Cadbury), and Diageo (Guinness, Smirnoff vodka, Johnnie Walker scotch whisky), pulled advertisements after an investigation by U.K.’s The Times found comments from hundreds of pedophiles posted on YouTube videos of scantily clad children.
Earlier that year, another Times investigation found major brand ads running on YouTube videos and hate sites created by supporters of terror groups such as the Islamic State. AT&T and other advertisers pulled their business from YouTube and the Google’s ad network.
Since then, YouTube established a 10,000-viewer requirement for creators to earn ad revenue as part of its YouTube Partner Program. The video site increased its technological and human vetting of potentially terrorist content and added warnings to extremist videos and prevented comments on them as a way to make the videos harder to find.
Digital ads are big business for Google, which does not break out its YouTube ad revenues. The company is estimated to get 37 percent of the $129.34 billion U.S. digital ad market this year, according to eMarketer. That’s down slightly from the 38 percent Google garnered in 2018.
YouTube’s size makes it nearly impossible to manage all the content uploaded, according to a recent Video Advertising Bureau study, Risky Business: Exploring Brand Safety on YouTube. “The sheer number of videos results in a platform that is very long tail, consisting of thousands of channels of largely user-generated content with varying degrees of brand safety,” it said. “The threat of inappropriate content also extends to YouTube’s premium content given the lack of transparency and relative creative autonomy of top influencers.”
Follow Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider
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