Tohidul Islam Raso

Research Officer, Dismislab
YouTube and YouTubers make a killing with fake death videos!
This article is more than 12 months old

YouTube and YouTubers make a killing with fake death videos!

Tohidul Islam Raso

Research Officer, Dismislab

While browsing the internet, you might stumble upon a YouTube video with the intriguing title in Bangla: ‘Leonel Messi just passed away leaving all in tears’. The accompanying thumbnail features an image of the football superstar, with a backdrop of a grave fenced with bamboo sticks. At first glance, it becomes evident that the video is fabricated, possibly even providing you a brief amusement. Seemingly harmless, you might choose to disregard it and eventually forget, over time.

But what if the fake death video is about someone who is battling a serious illness in the hospital? It then causes deep emotional pain and trauma to the victims. This was the case with Bangladeshi actors Alamgir and Prabir Mitra, whose family members have spoken out in the past about the distress such videos can cause.

It’s not a small number of such videos that exist. You’d be wrong to assume that all such videos are made innocently. In the last three months, Dismislab discovered 159 fake celebrity death videos on YouTube. These videos were spread across 17 channels, and were all found by searching with Bangla keywords such as “leaving all in tears,” “gone to the land of no return,” and “no more”.

Dismislab finds that the fake videos of celebrity deaths have become a business with millions of people watching the videos and subscribing to the channels. By capitalizing on people’s passion for stars, making the living appear dead, and inducing mental suffering for the victims, YouTube channels are earning ad revenue and YouTube is also taking a cut from it.

The experts interviewed for the research say that because of the attention economy that the platforms cultivate, the internet has come to a point where the main purpose of content is no longer information but engagement, and that the damage is so deep that “users are unsure of what to accept and what to reject.” It not only disinforms people, but also damages the information ecosystem because fact-producers are among its primary victims. 

How many times can a celebrity die? 

The victims of the “fake death” videos are mainly celebrities from different sectors. Most of them are from the entertainment world, especially film and drama. The list also includes politicians, sportsmen, and even religious speakers. And in 96% of the content Dismislab analyzed, the people who were claimed to have died were alive. 

Take Indian actor Mithun Chakraborty, for example, who has died not once, not twice, but a staggering nine times across seven different channels. Not far behind him is another actor, Ranjit Mallick, who has been mourned seven times on fake videos from six different channels. And yet, despite the absurdity of the situation, viewers keep clicking, and the videos keep racking up the views.

Mashrafe Bin Mortaza, former national cricket team captain and one of the most successful cricketers in Bangladesh falsely reported dead six times, while actors Rachna Banerjee and Shabnoor have met their virtual demise five times on separate channels. Actor Dipankar Dey has supposedly kicked the bucket four times, and singer Ranu Mondal has reportedly passed away thrice, all thanks to these false videos. Even former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia, cricketer Shakib Al Hasan, actors Alamgir, Shah Rukh Khan, Dev, and Shakib Khan couldn’t escape their grasp.

Bong Talkies, a popular YouTube channel, seems to have a special obsession with cricketer Mortaza. They’ve made four videos about him, all with clickbait headlines and thumbnails claiming that he’s dead or or implying something terrible happened to him. But in the end, it turns out he’s just sick or injured while playing. The thumbnails are particularly dramatic, showing Mortaza lying in a hospital bed surrounded by crying cricketers or being carried to his supposed burial.

Late actor Soumitra Chatterjee was declared dead in a video by Bong Talkies while he was still breathing. Another late actor Tapas Pal was also the victim of such false news, with Bong Talkies posting two videos about him – one when he was still alive but sick, and the second on the day he passed away. The irony? The voiceover in both videos, even the one uploaded after his demise, claimed that the actor was unwell but now healthy, while the titles said the exact opposite, “He has gone to the land of no return.”

Top channels and shocking numbers

According to data, the 17 YouTube channels that dabble in producing fake death videos have an average subscriber count of around 450,000, with a total count of 7.9 million for all 17 channels. Most of these channels identify themselves as entertainment or gossip channels, while the remaining five present themselves as news providers.

Taroka Golpo, a channel included in the study, produced the highest number of fake celebrity death content, posting 40 videos using the keyword “leaving all in tears” (Sobaike Kadiye). With over 318,000 subscribers, this channel enjoys high viewership and primarily features deaths of entertainment and sports celebrities.

Bong Talkies, Live Talkies, Exclusive Cine Gossip, and Reporter Nilanjana round out the top five channels. Bong Talkies, in particular, can be considered the pioneer of this genre of fake death videos in the Bengali language.

The channel boasts a total of 31 videos with headlines containing the keyword “leaving all in tears”. With over 750,000 subscribers, Bong Talkies began producing such videos in 2019, with other channels following suit in later years.

By March 2023, all these videos had garnered over 43.4 million views, averaging around 300,000 per fake death video. The video featuring Mithun Chakraborty had the highest viewership of over 7.8 million, and 15 other videos had more than 1 million views each.

Monetising ‘fake deaths’

Earning money from YouTube is a relatively straightforward process. After meeting certain conditions, YouTubers can become part of the YouTube Partnership Program and monetize their channels. There are various ways to earn revenue, but the primary source is Google Adsense. Once Adsense is enabled on the channel, Google will automatically display ads on the videos, generating income for the channel owner.

Dismislab observed ads displaying in the fake death videos of 16 channels, indicating that these channels had generated income from them. One channel was terminated or ceased operations during the research period.

Upon analyzing the videos posted on these channels, it was found that 87% of the videos did not match the information provided in the voiceover with the video’s title and thumbnail. Despite featuring headlines and thumbnails indicating that the person in question had passed away, the video content suggested that they were either sick, injured during a shoot, or had retired from the entertainment/sports industry.

Only 20 videos had matching titles and thumbnails with their voiceovers, out of which only 5 videos featured people who had actually passed away. In the remaining videos, the individual was claimed to be deceased but was, in fact, alive. 

Despite differences in the channels and celebrities featured in these videos, there are striking similarities in the content. For instance, the voiceover typically begins by announcing the death of a popular celebrity, before urging viewers not to skip the video and to watch until the end. However, the video content then proceeds to present the person’s career achievements and finally reveals that the news of the person’s death is just a baseless rumor. As viewers watch for longer, the revenue earned per view increases.

Victoire Rio, a French-born researcher who has studied online misinformation and financially motivated disinformation for a long time, believes that platforms like Google or YouTube have developed a structure of business in exchange for human attention, creating a huge market to implement the attention economy. 

Rio contends that this attention economy has a significant impact on disinformation, and that these platforms would never have promoted such content if they did not receive money from it. “At the core of this disinformation framework is monetisation and thus attention is monetised,” she said.

YouTube’s cut

As part of the YouTube Partnership Program, users can choose how they want to monetize their videos. YouTube usually receives 45% of what advertisers pay for each ad run on a channel, while content creators receive the remaining 55%.

Currently, YouTube’s policy allows users to choose between two ad modules: Watch Page Monetization and Shorts Monetization. When ads run on the Watch Page module, YouTube pays 55% of net revenue to creators, while shorts monetization pays 45% of net revenue.

According to Rio, “By channeling money to actors spreading mis/disinformation, YouTube is not only incentivizing more of this activity but also bankrolling the industry, supporting actors to invest and scale their nefarious operations.”

Google’s digital advertising business is the largest in the world. It generates most of its revenue from advertising on Google Search and YouTube.

A study called “Who Funds Misinformation? A Systematic Analysis of the Ad-Related Profit Routines of Fake News Sites” looked at 2,400 popular news websites and found that Google and index exchanges were directly involved in advertising on over 40% of fake news sites.

Laughing viewers return

The comments left by viewers on these videos serve as indications that this type of content attracts viewers, despite being completely fake and misleading. Comments like “How many times can one die?” and “Hey bro how many times will Ranjit Mallick die? I have been hearing that Ranjit Mallik has died every year since five years ago! Does Ranjit Mallick die every year?” show that netizens return to the same channels, and similar content again and again. 

“The people behind these videos are engagement hacking experts – not content creators,” said Rio. “It’s not about the content but about triggering the algorithm. These people spend their days testing new strategies, and they are masters at leveraging a whole range of tactics  – including tweaking content and titles and leveraging inauthentic activity, like fake video views, or fake clicks, to trick the algorithm into thinking a piece of content is getting genuine traction.” 

When Indian cricketer Rishabh Pant was injured in a road accident and was being treated at the hospital, a channel named News Squad posted a video claiming his death. A user named Disha commented on the video, stating that it was just a trick to increase views and expressing disappointment in the channel. Similarly, in 2019, false news of the death of the late Indian musician Lata Mangeshkar was spread by a channel and another user was seen to comment criticizing the misleading title. 

Despite such comments, the creators of these videos continue to generate fake news as their content continues to attract viewers and earn revenue on the platform.

According to Dr. Zeenat Huda, a professor of sociology at Dhaka University, “At the individual level, such content is causing great damage. People are struggling with a drought of social values and tastes, making it difficult to discern what to accept and what to reject.”

What are YouTube’s policies?

YouTube’s Community Guidelines dictate the type of content YouTubers can upload to earn income, with penalties ranging from warnings to channel shutdown for violating terms and conditions. The Thumbnail Policy section specifically prohibits the use of thumbnails that misrepresent the video’s content. Dismislab finds 139 fake death videos generated income despite not matching their thumbnails.

According to the guidelines, thumbnails containing graphic violence or blood are prohibited, and using such a thumbnail can result in the removal of the thumbnail and a strike against the channel. However, an analysis of the thumbnails of fake death videos indicates that this is not always enforced. 

Despite all 17 channels in the study violating YouTube’s Community Guidelines in some form, 16 of them are still active on the platform. For instance, the thumbnail for Mashrafe’s fake death video showed blood, yet it was not removed.

“YouTube’s AI or algorithm doesn’t properly monitor any content, they just review whether a video infringes with someone else’s copyright or not.” said Azad Baig, Digital Growth Editor of The Daily Star. “Their bot can only detect copyright-infringing audio or video clips. If someone complains, they take action manually, otherwise, they don’t.”

This type of activity is really worrisome – not only because it is corrupting our information environment, but because it is making it increasingly challenging for legitimate content producers, including independent media, to compete, and because it is fueling a black market of human resources, social media assets and automation tools, which can be co opted by political actors for political goals.” 

– Victorie Rio, Disinformation Researcher. 

Those who are harmed

Deliberate misinformation and fake death videos on YouTube have negative impacts on victims and their families. While YouTubers and YouTube authorities benefit from spreading such misinformation, the people who are claimed to be dead in these videos suffer agony. 

When rumors about celebrities’ death spread, their well-wishers inquire, which creates discomfort for them and their families. Moreover, ordinary viewers often assume the false information as true and spread it on other platforms, leading to further dissemination of misleading information.

For example, the fake news of Prabir Mitra’s death shocked the actor and his family members. They requested that no one spread rumors about it. Prabir Mitra’s son, Mithun Mitra, expressed embarrassment over the misleading information spread on social media in an interview with Daily Prothom Alo

Similarly, actor Alamgir’s family and many in the film industry were outraged by the fake news of his death, and the actor himself was deeply shocked, according to a report by Daily Jugantar.

According to a report in the Manabzamin newspaper titled “Why is there a trend of killing someone before their death?,” Professor Dr. Md Kamal Uddin, chairperson at Dhaka University’s Psychology Department, explained how fake news can impact people’s mental health. He said, “Those with weaker mental strength can be broken by this news, and even mentally strong individuals can become vulnerable to the adverse impact it has on their lives.”

In addition, channels that produce accurate information and news are deprived of revenue due to the prevalence of fake videos or channels. This means that disinformation becomes more financially powerful in the market, and people are deprived of fact.

“Nowadays, all media outlets, be it TV or print, are focusing on online growth,” said Azad Baig. “As government advertising often comes with strings attached creating a dependency on those in power, digital earnings help them to operate independently and without such pressures.”

“This type of activity is worrisome” said Rio, “not only because it is corrupting our information environment, but because it is making it increasingly challenging for legitimate content producers, including independent media, to compete, and because it is fueling a black market of human resources, social media assets and automation tools, which can be co opted by political actors for political goals.” 

** The study is the first in Dismislab’s ongoing research into information flow in social media. Tamara Yesmin and Partho Protim Das provided assistance with the interviews and data visualization.