A screenshot from "P.S. Gay Car," which was taken down by YouTube for suspected bot traffic.
Last December, Google removed a video from YouTube because it suspected the video's view counts were inflated by robots. In the ensuing three months, the video producers and lawyers denying this charge have tried to talk to Google, but have only been met by robotic responses. We are living in the future, ladies and gentlemen, where algorithms attack and there are no humans to hear your plea as you descend into an automated hell.
“I am really surprised to see there is absolutely no way to get a human being to answer your questions” said Pat Stango, the video creator fighting the takedown, in a phone interview. Even digital non-profit group New Media Rights, which picked up the case pro bono, has been “getting automated form and email responses” from the legal department at YouTube and Google. Google stopped sending the automated messages on March 7, said Shaun Spalding, the assistant director at New Media Rights, in a phone interview, perhaps because Google realized after three months of robot responses “the game is up.”
Last December, New York City-based comedy/rock band Fortress of Attitude had their video “P.S. Gay Car” deleted by Google because, the tech giant said, it violated Terms of Service #4 Section H, which basically prohibits the use of robots to artificially inflate video views. The video had been up for a month where it collected roughly 40,000 views after being featured on the Huffington Post, College Humor and Queerty.
YouTube’s robot view problem emerged in 2009, and the practice of paying for likes, subscriber and view-counts, sometimes for as little as $50 for 60,000 views, has become old news among the YouTube crowd. The industry is so lucrative, the teens and young men running these bots off forums like Black Hat SEO are making enough cash to buy new cars or save for college.
Fortress of Attitude denies the use of robots on their videos, writing in a recent blog post about their struggles that “our group policy is that robots are scary and will someday enslave us all, and therefore we do not engage in any activities involving robots—especially activities such as artificially inflating Youtube views.”
What makes this even crazier, says Stango, is that every time his video was featured on a news site, you could see the traffic spike in the Google Analytics data provided to him by Google on his YouTube channel. By Google’s own data, all the views are all accounted for - “you could very easily trace where the views came from” said Stango - with no mysterious robot views from Argentina or Romania.
Spalding thinks Stango’s video was “accidentally flagged” as having robot views during Google’s “clean-up of robo-generated traffic” that began in December 2012. During the sweep, hundreds of YouTubers who never used robots were affected. (Out of all the cases New Media Rights heard, they chose to represent Stango’s because his traffic sources were so clearly laid out.) One of three things happened in the December sweep, explained Spalding: Either “your account got banned, you got a form letter, or you got what Pat got, which is 'we’re taking down your video.'” This process was all automated, of course.
Much of how YouTube handles its day-to-day business is actually automated, from responses to community flags on inappropriate content to copyright enforcement. Last year, when NASA landed its newest Mars Rover on the red planet, a video of the stream was mistakenly removed by a false copyright claim from Scripps News Service. Motherboard's Alex Pasternack spoke with Bob Jacobs, NASA’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Communications, at the time and he explained false copyright claims happen “once a month” for the space agency, because everything from imagery to music can be flagged.
YouTube is a digital giant–72 hours of content uploaded every minute onto the video sharing site–so it makes sense that it would rely on robots to do some of its work. Stango, however, doesn’t think that’s an adequate excuse to having absolutely no humans in the process.
There's an absurdist irony in bots answering queries about the actions of bots taking down videos whose view counts were allegedly inflated by a third party of bots, but that's the future we're in. Still, Stango says Google “owes its users some level of customer service,” especially when you consider that without a healthy community of video creators, YouTube would never have become the third-largest site on the web.