The NYT bought fake YouTube views for an investigation (and it was super easy)

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Credit: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

ICYMI: The New York Times has taken another look at fake online popularity, this time with an exposé that landed on the front page of Sunday's paper with the headline "The Business of Pumping Up YouTube Views." The piece by Michael H. Keller, retitled "The Flourishing Business of Fake YouTube Views" for the web, follows a January story by the Times, "The Follower Factory," which looked at fake popularity on Twitter.

The new investigation opens by telling the story of a fake-view purveyor from Canada who runs a site called 500views.com:

Martin Vassilev makes a good living selling fake views on YouTube videos. Working from home in Ottawa, he has sold about 15 million views so far this year, putting him on track to bring in more than $200,000, records show. Mr. Vassilev, 32, does not provide the views himself. His website, 500Views.com, connects customers with services that offer views, likes and dislikes generated by computers, not humans.

Vassilev isn't the only view-faking entrepreneur encountered by the Times. Per a small-print methodology explainer at the end of Keller's story,

To test the effectiveness of websites selling fake YouTube views, a New York Times reporter created 13 videos using clips from presidential speeches. The reporter uploaded the videos onto a new channel under his first name and last initial and did not share or post them. Views were bought through nine vendors ... The Times recorded public views daily for at least 30 days before sharing the videos with YouTube. Afterward, The Times created more videos, posted them to a new account and repeated the monitoring process.

Keller's piece offers detailed breakdowns of the results of its experiment. And while he quotes a YouTube exec as saying "Our anomaly detection systems are really good" and cites a YouTube assertion that it works to keep fake views to less than 1 percent of total views (while declining to disclose the specific number of fake views it's blocking), the platform's sheer scale, with its billions of views per day, means that, as Keller notes, "tens of millions of fake views could be making it through daily."

The bottom line: YouTube is playing an endless game of Whac-A-Mole with fake-view purveyors. And at the same time, it's having a hard time preventing those purveyors from buying Google search ads promoting their services, even though such ads violate Google's rules. A fake-view purveyor told the Times that that "one workaround was to misspell the words and submit an ad multiple times if it was denied at first"—and when the Times flagged such ads to YouTube and YouTube removed them, "similar ones returned after two weeks."

Read the full Times exposé here.

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