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YouTube has a dirty little secret that many users have already figured out: it’s entirely possible to boost the number of views for any single video on the site, as long as you’re willing to pay. As part of an ongoing investigation into the whole “fake followers” aspect to social media, the New York Times recently did a deep dive into YouTube, and what they found wasn’t pretty: the web is filled with hundreds of companies guaranteeing inflated views on YouTube, and YouTube is relatively powerless to stop this practice of selling fake views.
The “fake views” problem
In fact, if you consider that Facebook has a “fake news” problem, then YouTube definitely has a “fake views” problem. The classic YouTube scheme goes something like this: a would-be YouTube superstar contacts a company selling fake views, and orders a fixed number of views, ranging in size from 500 new views to 5 million new views. As soon as they pay the fees, the views “magically” appear on the YouTube video, sometimes within days, and sometimes within weeks (if you are ordering 1 million+ views).
As you might imagine, those aren’t real people watching your videos, even though YouTube treats them as real views. Instead, most of the YouTube scammers simply use bots to generate the views. In some cases, the fake view sellers employ other tricks as well, all designed to trick the YouTube algorithm into thinking a real person is watching every video from start to beginning.
If nobody “real” is watching the videos, then what’s the point?
If you’re still asking that question, then you obviously haven’t spent any appreciable time on social media recently. Today, “views” and “likes” are all that matters. Watch any YouTube video, and the video creator will likely implore you to click the like button, subscribe and watch even more videos. The YouTube algorithm rewards views and likes, and so it’s no surprise that content creators are always on the lookout for ways to get both of them as easily as possible.
What the YouTube scammers have figured out is that a lot of people are willing to pay a relatively modest sum (as in just pennies for each view) in order to appear popular, influential or important on YouTube. The New York Times found that musicians were among the biggest buyers of fake views, mostly because music-ranking sites take YouTube views into consideration. Other big buyers of fake YouTube views were celebrities, marketing agencies, and even political lobbying groups.
Fake followers, fake likes and now fake views
So the big question becomes: Is the process of buying YouTube views unethical? Those questioned by the New York Times tended to claim that they were deceived by the whole scheme because it all looked so official – after all, companies were blatantly advertising their services online. It’s not like they were going to the Dark Web to buy something from a shady offshore operator.
Thus, many people see nothing unethical with buying views. After all, the practice of buying followers and likes on other social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter is pretty much par for the course these days.
How will YouTube react?
In fact, even YouTube seems puzzled by how to stop this practice because it is done so openly and brazenly. In public, YouTube will claim that only a relatively small number of views (about 1% of total views) are fake. In private, though, YouTube employees privately joke about “The Inversion” – the point in time where fake views so overwhelm the number of real views that the YouTube algorithm “flips” and begins to consider all fake views as real, and all real views as fake.
That’s a scary thought, and it’s obvious that YouTube needs to do more than just state publicly that fake views are against its Terms of Service, or use automated bots of its own to remove fake views generated by other automated bots. View selling is so popular, in fact, that it might be the case that the only way to stop the practice entirely is to remove the view counter that lurks below each and every YouTube video.