watches YOUTUBE. ALL of the FOLLOWERS are FAKE
Flourishing Business of Fake YouTube Views
can be bought for pennies and delivered in bulk, inflating videos’
popularity and making the social media giant vulnerable to manipulation.
MICHAEL H. KELLER
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.
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. When a supplier cannot
fulfill an order, Mr. Vassilev — like a modern switchboard operator —
quickly connects with another.
can deliver an unlimited amount of views to a video,” Mr. Vassilev said in
an interview. “They’ve tried to stop it for so many years, but they can’t
stop it. There’s always a way around.”
Google, more people search on YouTube than on any other site. It is the
most popular platform among teenagers,according
to a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center, beating out giants like
Facebook and Instagram. With billions of views a day, the video site helps
spur global cultural sensations, spawn careers, sell brands and promote
as other social media companies have been plagued by impostor accounts and
artificial influence campaigns, YouTube has struggled with fake views for
fake-view ecosystem of which Mr. Vassilev is a part can undermine
YouTube’s credibility by manipulating the digital currency that signals
value to users. While YouTube says fake views represent just a tiny
fraction of the total, they still have a significant effect by misleading
consumers and advertisers. Drawing on dozens of interviews, sales records,
and trial purchases of fraudulent views, The New York Times examined how
the marketplace worked and tested YouTube’s ability to detect
views violates YouTube’s terms of service. But Google searches for buying
views turn up hundreds of sites offering “fast” and “easy” ways to
increase a video’s count by 500, 5,000 or even five million. The sites,
offering views for just pennies each, also appear in Google search ads.
test the sites, a Times reporter ordered thousands of views from
nine companies. Nearly all of the purchases, made for videos not
associated with the news organization, were fulfilled in about two weeks.
of the businesses wasDevumi.com.
According to company records, it collected more than $1.2 million over
three years by selling 196 million YouTube views. Nearly all the views
remain today. An analysis of those records, from 2014 to 2017, shows that
most orders were completed in weeks, though those for a million views or
more took longer. Providing large volumes cheaply and quickly is often a
sign that a service is not offering real viewership.
Bought, Views Were Longer
Michael H. Keller | Source: YouTube Analytics
customers included an employee of RT, a media organization funded by the
Russian government, and an employee of Al Jazeera English, another
state-backed company. Other buyers were a filmmaker working for Americans
for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group, and the head of
video at The New York Post. (Al Jazeera and The Post said the workers were
not authorized to make such purchases and were no longer employed there.)
musicians bought views to appear more popular: YouTube views factor into
metrics from the ratings company Nielsen and song charts including
Billboard’s Hot 100.
companies bought views for clients with the promise of social media
promotion that would result in real people watching their videos.
Judith Oppenheimer, 78, paid a company $5,000 to promote a book she had
self-published in hopes of securing a mainstream deal. Her video soon had
over 58,000 views, delivered through Devumi.
was no increase in sales and no book deal,” she said. “Soon after I signed
the contract I thought, ‘I’ll have no proof of what they do or don’t do.’
Now it begins to make sense. They can do it in a day.”
depend on constantly evolving tactics to deliver views, including
automated or “bot” traffic and pop-under videos on unsuspecting users’
computers, but YouTube says it has effective processes to defend against
has been a problem we have been working on for many, many years,” said
Jennifer Flannery O’Connor, YouTube’s director of product management. The
company’s systems continuously monitor a video’s activity, and the
anti-fraud team often buys views to understand better how these sites
operate, she said. “Our anomaly detection systems are really good.”
the challenges are significant. At one point in 2013, YouTube had as much
traffic from bots masquerading as people as it did from real human
visitors, according to the company. Some employees feared this would cause
the fraud detection system to flip, classifying fake traffic as real and
vice versa — a prospect engineers called “the Inversion.”
problem itself was extraordinary,” said Blake Livingston, a member of
YouTube’s fraud and abuse team at the time who has since left the company.
fixes were made that relieved the fake-traffic surge, which YouTube said
resulted from an attack against the website.
later, the battle against fake views continues, even as YouTube contends
with disinformation campaigns, like Russia’s efforts during the 2016
election, and language it considers hate speech, including posts bythe
recently banned Infowars site.
would not disclose the number of fake views it blocked each day, but said
its teams worked to keep them to less than 1 percent of the total. Still,
with the platformregistering
billions of views a day, tens of millions of fake views could be
making it through daily.
count manipulation will be a problem as long as views and the popularity
they signal are the currency of YouTube,” Mr. Livingston said.
Money, Sham Audience
took Mr. Vassilev about 18 months to go from being on welfare and living
with his father in Canada to buying a white BMW 328i and a house of his
late 2014, his website was on the first page of Google search results for
buying YouTube views, fulfilling 150 to 200 orders a day and bringing in
more than $30,000 a month, he said. “I really couldn’t believe you could
make that much money online,” he said. The Times reporter’s order on his
site, for 25,000 views, was fulfilled one day later.
spokeswoman for Google, which is owned by the same company as YouTube,
said that sites selling views appeared in search results because they were
relevant, but that there was “room for improvement” in warning users.
Vassilev declined to name his clients but said that many orders came from
public relations or marketing firms.
he fills most orders through SMMKings.com, a wholesale supplier run by
Sean Tamir, 29. Mr. Tamir charges him about a dollar for a thousand views,
which Mr. Vassilev resells for $13.99, throwing in 100 free likes.
times a year, YouTube makes changes to its detection system to try to
disrupt fake views, Mr. Tamir said. A recent episode came inlate
January, but many of the sites were functioning a few weeks later
when The Times made most of its purchases. Suppliers say they get around
system updates by making their traffic appear more humanlike, ensuring
that it comes from users with prior views, for example.
purveyor, Carlton E. Bynum II, 24, uses advertising to attract customers.
He collected more than $191,000 in revenue this year but spent over
$109,000 in ads that appeared at the top of Google, according to financial
records. His site, GetLikes.click, run from a home office in Houston,
sells YouTube views as well as Instagram and Twitter followers, Facebook
likes and SoundCloud plays.
does not allow ads with terms like “buy YouTube views.” But Mr. Bynum said
one workaround was to misspell the words and submit an ad multiple times
if it was denied at first. When asked about advertising for paid YouTube
views, Google removed some of the ads, including Mr. Bynum’s, but similar
ones returned after two weeks.
Mr. Bynum sold views, he was buying them for himself. After he was
discharged from the Marine Corps last year, he began posting product
reviews on YouTube and taking a cut when visitors made purchases using his
links. The views he bought would often cause his videos to rank higher
than his competitors’ in search, he said. The effect would snowball: His
videos would gain traffic through search, and he would make more money. (A
YouTube spokeswoman said views were just one factor among many that
affected search rankings.)
worked great,” he said. “I can get views within a day. I can get likes
Bynum said he believed real people were watching his videos. “But let’s
say there’s a small chance I’m wrong and it is bots,” he said. “Their
videos are still getting ranked.”
Vassilev, who also said he used fake views to increase the search ranking
of videos promoting his website, makes no pretense that what he is selling
is authentic viewership. “It’s impossible,” he said.
salesman on the phone said it would be simple: Elizabeth Clayton, a
retired English and psychology professor, could pay Hancock Press $4,200
to publicize her self-published works of poetry. The company said online
promotion, including 40,000 guaranteed YouTube views, would translate into
sales, emails show.
Clayton, 77, was optimistic. She had been publishing for seven years but
had not sold much. One royalty check came to $1.47, another to $0.75. She
signed up for Hancock to promote two videos, costing her $8,400, records
told me if I got a certain number of hits I would sell a certain amount,”
of traditional marketing, Hancock paid $270 for 55,000 views from Devumi
for each video, the records show. The views eventually reached about
60,000, where they remain. But there was no increase in sales. “They
couldn’t tell me anything about the people that were watching the video,”
Ms. Clayton said. “I suspected something, but I couldn’t get any
Hancock, the 92-year-old chief executive of the Arkansas-based company,
said he believed real people were watching the videos. That’s how Devumi
marketed its views. Mr. Hancock’s daughter, K. C. Shay, who helps run the
business, dismissed Ms. Clayton’s documents and the Devumi receipts as
Devumi records show that Hancock Press spent about $26,000 over three
years, obtaining more than five million views for 75 or so authors.
Interviews with six other Hancock clients are consistent with Ms.
did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The company, whose
website says that it has closed, came under investigation in two states in
The Times reportedthat it sold fake Twitter
Devumi clients came from the music industry, where buying views is common
and often seen as necessary. “YouTube is one of the premier sources of
music consumption and an important indicator of musical trends and
popularity,” said Silvio Pietroluongo, a vice president at Billboard.
a new artist, Aleem Khalid hired Crowd Surf, a promotion company, in 2014.
Without his knowledge, he said, the firm bought 10,000 views each on three
of his videos. They now have between 11,000 and 42,000 views. “The
beautiful thing about these social media platforms is when they came out
it was genuine. But now I feel it’s all fake,” said Mr. Khalid, 25.
(Cassie Petrey, a co-founder of Crowd Surf, said she thought Devumi was
producing real views, based on statements on its website.)
who relied on Devumi said they were similarly surprised at the company’s
tactics. Ami Horowitz, the conservative filmmaker, bought 10,000 views for
a video he appeared in — “What We Learned at the People’s Climate March” —
on the YouTube channel for Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers’
political influence group. Mr. Horowitz, who is often a guest on Fox News,
also bought views for a video about the protests in Ferguson, Mo.
a statement, he said he had believed Devumi worked like traditional web
advertising. But “it wasn’t what we expected,” he said, adding that he
never used Devumi or similar services again. A spokeswoman for Americans
for Prosperity called the behavior unethical and said the group would “not
knowingly engage” in it.
engineers, statisticians and data scientists are constantly improving in
their ability to fight what Ms. O’Connor calls a “very hard problem,” but
the attacks have “continually gotten stronger and more sophisticated,” she
the Times reporter presented YouTube with the videos for which he had
bought views, the company said sellers had exploited two vulnerabilities
that had already been fixed. Later that day, the reporter bought more
views from six of the same vendors. The view count rose again, though more
slowly. A week later, all but two of the vendors had delivered the full
View Purchases Were Largely Successful
some orders, the view count fluctuated before exceeding the
largest purchase was through Martin Vassilev's site, which
was fulfilled in one day.
exceeded the purchased amount at first, but didn't bounce
back from YouTube's filters.
Michael H. Keller | Source: New York Times
when it looks closely, YouTube can miss videos with fake views. A 2017
Google public report on disinformation during the 2016 election looked at
RT’s YouTube channels, concluding that there was “no evidence of
manipulation of our platform or policy violations.” Yet The Times recently
found that an RT employee bought fake views for videos in 2016, which
YouTube acknowledged it did not detect.
Brown, a correspondent for RT, had purchased 30,000 views and 300 likes
across three videos that focused on problems involving homelessness and
immigration in Europe. Mr. Brown said he took Devumi at its word that the
views would be real people. An RT spokeswoman said the company was unaware
of the purchases and was conducting an internal review.
concerns me that while Twitter and Facebook appear to have made some
credible progress in this area, YouTube still struggles to identify
inauthentic and coordinated activity on its platform,” said Senator Mark
Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee.
sites continue to advertise with apparent impunity. A post on the YouTube
users against fake viewshas numerous comments
linking to view-selling sites.
only way YouTube could eliminate this is if they removed the view counter
altogether,” said Mr. Vassilev, the fake-view seller. “But that would
defeat the purpose of YouTube.”