Abrar Ifaz

Research Officer, Dismislab
Case studies: The growing market of cheap fakes on YouTube
This article is more than 1 month old

Case studies: The growing market of cheap fakes on YouTube

Abrar Ifaz

Research Officer, Dismislab

At first glance, you will find these videos to be fake-ish, and their messages and presentations to be cheap. Some of these videos contain wild claims that the Prime Minister has ceded power, the military has taken control or the secretariat has been invaded; even the content of the videos won’t match with their thumbnails or titles. Most likely, after watching once, as an informed audience, you’ll probably steer clear of this YouTube channel.

What you probably don’t know is that there is a growing market for such cheap fakes on YouTube, with views and subscribers inflating over time, and advertisements flowing on these misinforming content. YouTube, as a platform, undoubtedly profits from these cheap fakes, and probably so do the content creators. In this shady market, channel ownership changes hands in exchange for money; what starts as educational or religious content providers later transforms into channels disseminating political lies.

This story was first published on 28 February in Dismislab’s monthly newsletter, “Navigating Narratives”, (February edition)

Cheap fake refers to spreading false information by using cheap means of audio-video manipulation (photoshop, increasing or decreasing the playback speed of the video, using wrong context, etc.). And Dismislab has found dozens of channels that produce such content escaping YouTube’s content moderation process.

Sabai SikhiTaza News, and Media Cell 24 are three such channels, among many, monetizing political cheap fakes on YouTube. In this article, Dismislab takes a deeper look at these channels and how they transformed into disinformation actors. An analysis of more than 2000 videos posted by these channels reveals that their views and subscribers significantly increased since they started posting cheap fakes, with some cases showing more than a doubling or tripling effect. All the top-viewed misinformation videos in these channels had advertisements pushed by YouTube, earning revenue for the platform itself.

More Lies, More Subscribers

Sabai Sikhi: The name, in Bangla, self-implies that it is an educational channel, and the channel description confirms the same. Previously, the channel used to publish videos related to the preparation for various school-level or job recruitment exams. However, in March 2023, the channel abruptly started posting political misinformation, and since then, fact-checkers have debunked at least 50 such videos posted on this channel.

Sabai Sikhi began its journey on YouTube in March 2021. Over 900 of its early videos covered job circulars, solutions to job exam questions, general knowledge, and other educational topics. It continued for two years until it began to upload political misinformation. Between March 2021 and March 2023, the average views for the 959 educational and job-related videos were 2,872. On the other hand, the 256 political cheap fakes uploaded from March 2023 to February 2024 had an average of 121,828 views.

According to Social Blade statistics, until March 2023, the channel had 65,000 subscribers. However, by February 2024, the channel had gained 205,000 subscribers. That means, since it started uploading political misinformation videos, the number of its subscribers tripled.

Taza News: This channel boasts over 500,000 subscribers and was launched in October 2021. For almost one and a half years, it primarily published 189 videos mostly related to job recruitment advertisements, with an average of 9,000 views. It began posting videos of political misinformation from May 2023. In the past eight months, the channel has uploaded 218 cheap fake videos with an average view count of 13,371.

Analyzing Social Blade data reveals a consistent increase in the channel’s subscriber count. However, in January 2023, there was a significant decline in the average views, potentially due to a month-long absence of video uploads. After this dip, there is a noticeable resurgence in both subscriber count and views from May 29 to June 5. During this period, the channel gained 10,000 new subscribers and started spreading misinformation.

Media Cell 24: This channel is verified, and the description states: “Dear viewers, I am Jannati, subscribe to my channel to get my videos.” Launched in September 2022, the channel initially uploaded short videos of a girl telling stories, poetry, or Islamic songs. Subsequently, the channel featured promotional videos of a madrasa in Pirojpur district for about 13 months. It posted 216 videos as such with an average of 37,000 views.

However, starting from November 19, 2023, the channel continued posting misinforming political videos. And, its 169 political misinformation videos gained more than 100,000 views each on average. 

According to Social Blade data, Media Cell 24 had 33,900 subscribers in November 2023. Thanks to cheap fakes, it has quadrupled its subscribers in just three months after it changed its business direction.

When it started, the channel was owned by Nazmul Huda Gazi, a madrasa (religious school) director. When contacted, he said that he sold the channel to another individual last year and acknowledged with frustration that political misinformation is now being spread through it.

Trading the ownership of Facebook pages, groups, or YouTube channels is not new in Bangladesh. There are several Facebook groups (12345) that function as a marketplace for buying and selling such channels.

Content of the Videos

In all three mentioned channels, the posting of political cheap fakes began in 2023. With the national parliamentary election in Bangladesh in early 2024, the primary focus of these videos, published, was on election-related topics.  

The videos featured various false narratives, such as the announcement of the Prime Minister’s resignation, directives for the resignation of cabinet members, the assumption of power by the military, the holding of elections under the interim government led by the technocrats or non-political leaders, and allegations of imposing U.S. visa sanctions on key figures in the law enforcement agencies or government, instances of opposition parties taking over the streets or occupying the secretariat.

For example, a thumbnail of a video titled “GM Quader beat Obaidul Quader in Parliament, Jatiya Party declared the Parliament illegal” published by Taza News falsely claims that a ruling party MP was beaten up by an opposition leader, leading to the closure of Parliament. The video begins by stating that the ruling and opposition leaders fought inside the parliament, presenting news clips from various media outlets in a way that implies the incident occurred in Bangladesh. However, the footage actually shows a parliament fight in the Maldives. The content creator further manipulates the narrative by editing and adding a clip of Jatiya Party members in the Bangladesh parliament walking out, unrelated to the original headline. The 2 minute 20 seconds long video lacks any footage or reports of a fight between the ruling Awami League leader Obaidul Quader and opposition leader GM Quader. Yet, this is the most viewed video of Taza News so far.

There are hundreds of examples like this, where videos show old news clips stitched together to spread false and attention-seeking narratives, with no match at all with titles or thumbnails.

YouTube’s community guidelines explicitly state that thumbnails should not contain information that misleads viewers. If the information depicted in the thumbnail does not match the content of the video, it is considered a violation of YouTube’s policies. Yet these videos persist, thrive and monetize on the platform, raising questions about the quality of content moderation of the platform.

Monetization of Cheap Fakes

YouTube used to provide public information about the monetization status of channels until November 17, 2023. Before this date, it was possible to check if a channel was monetized by inspecting the source code for the “is_monetization_enabled” code with the value True or False. This code indicated whether a channel was earning revenue through monetization. However, as of November 17, 2023, YouTube no longer discloses this information.

Laura Keiter, spokesperson of Media Matters for America, a nonprofit organization in the United States, has expressed concern over this lack of transparency. She said, “Rolling back transparency will negatively impact monetization research overall, not just at Media Matters, it’s disappointing that we will need to look for new methods.” To address this challenge, alternative methods have been employed to gather data on the monetization status of the mentioned channels. One such method involves using a tool called “YTlarge-Youtube Monetization Checker.” This tool checks whether ads are displayed in the videos by searching for the code “yt_ad” with the value “1” in the video’s source code. If this code is present, it indicates that ads are shown in the videos. According to this tool, all three channels are monetized. However, it is difficult to say whether the channel earns through the Youtube Partnership Program, or if Youtube alone profits from these advertisements.

Dismislab separately searched the page source of each channel’s political misinformation and three videos with the highest views of each channel, to find the existence of “yt_ad”, “value”: “1”. This implies that both the owner and Youtube, or Youtube alone could be earning from these videos.

The three most-viewed cheap fake videos on the Sabai Sikhi channel are mainly political, with titles such as “President Shahabuddin Chuppu approves caretaker government on emergency basis after announcing resignation overnight”, “Bangladesh Army approves caretaker government bill, furious A.League | Caretaker Government”, and “Army took the side of BNP, immediate announcement of caretaker government, Sheikh Hasina is afraid Caretaker Government”. Each of these videos had more than 900,000 views.

The three video titles with the highest views of Taza News are “GM Quader beat Obaidul Quader in Parliament, Jatiya Party declared Parliament illegal“, “New President Shahabuddin Chuppu announced caretaker government after returning from Turkey” and “UN Chief Antonio Guterres ordered to resign within 7 days”. Each of these videos has more than 700,000 views.  

Media Cell 24’s top three political cheap fakes with the highest view count headlines are “CEC arrested by the army. Tarique Zia is coming to the country. Security will be provided by the army“, “Mirza Fakhrul is being released, the army deployed all over the country, Election schedule has been canceled.” and “Jatiya Party joins BNP by boycotting elections, Chunnu and GM Quader get arrested” garnering hundreds and thousands of views on the platform. 

To verify the initial finding, all three channels are cross-checked through another YouTube revenue analysis site called Is This Channel Monetized. It also shows that all three YouTube channels mentioned, are likely monetized, as each has at least three regular videos that run ads.

Methodology

For case studies, we selected the top three Bangla YouTube channels by subscribers from a dataset of fact-checking reports published by seven fact-checking organizations. Only channels spreading political misinformation were considered, along with the number of subscribers. To analyze the behavioral change of these channels, we collected and analyzed data using the MW Metadata tool that includes titles, publishing date, and number of likes and comments in each video. To determine whether ads are run on these channels and their videos, we used two tools, YTlarge and Is This Channel Monetized. These tools examine the channel’s video page source and search for the presence of “yt_ad,” “value”: “1”. According to these tools, if the source code is present, ads have been displayed on the channel’s videos.