After Parkland, the top conspiracy video on YouTube went viral without even trying

The student at the center.
The student at the center.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Drake
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YouTube drew ire among many this week for elevating a video in its Trending tab that sought to discredit a survivor of the shooting that last week left 17 people dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The video spread like wildfire on sites such as 4chan, Twitter, and Facebook, after being posted to YouTube by an account with fewer than 1,000 followers, the New York Times found (paywall). Its popularity inside and outside YouTube elevated its standing within the platform and pushed it briefly to the top of YouTube’s Trending video section Wednesday, where it reached even more people.

The video, which has since been removed, features a months-old news segment from a local CBS affiliate that shows teenager David Hogg being interviewed about a dispute he witnessed at a California beach. The interview was copied and re-posted to YouTube with the description “David Hogg the actor…” on Tuesday, a week after the shooting, the Times found, in an interview with the person who runs the account. The caption suggested that Hogg, who survived the school shooting and criticized politicians in news interviews afterward, was a “crisis actor,” a term for fake victims of fake tragedies who are hired for military or police training.

The Times reported:

Links to the video proliferated on 4chan, where users have gleefully embraced the conspiracy theories and mocked the shooting victims. When it hit YouTube’s Trending page, some on 4chan celebrated: “TRENDING IN THE USA,” began one thread in the far-right politics board called /pol/. “WE’RE BREAKING THE CONDITIONING.”

The “mike m.” video also found traction on Twitter, on Facebook and in stories and comment threads on conspiracy sites. It rose in the circuitous and unexpected manner of a viral video, rather than one that had been calculated to game YouTube’s algorithms by seizing on interest in breaking news or tragedy—it had no catchy headline, no recognizable personality, no vast theorizing. And yet it blasted through YouTube’s safeguards and somehow kept going, exposing the platform as vulnerable to sudden influence from inside and outside its walls.

The virality of this video illustrates how people feel compelled to share their beliefs widely, even if they’re factually unfounded. Social media enables those unfounded beliefs to spread easily and freely, reaching wider audiences.

After the video gained traction elsewhere on the web, it moved higher within YouTube itself. The platform’s Trending tab is curated by algorithms, not people, and is geared to calculate overall popularity using metrics such as view count, the rate of growth in views, and age of the video.

YouTube told Quartz’s Hanna Kozlowska that the video, which was removed Wednesday afternoon for violating the company’s policies on harassment and bullying, appeared on the Trending page because it “contained footage from an authoritative news source” and was therefore “misclassified” by the company.

The company did not immediately return Quartz’s request for comment on how it’s dealing with external influences on its site, like YouTube videos that are shared widely on other platforms.

Other videos with similar material were also posted to YouTube. And autofill suggestions like “David Hogg actor,” “David Hogg can’t remember his lines,” and “David Hogg crisis actor” surfaced when users queried “David Hogg” in the YouTube search bar. The suggestions were driven by popular searches, and were still appearing at the time of this writing. (The results mostly lead to MSNBC, CNN, and NBC News videos, among others, that debunk the conspiracy. YouTube began prioritizing trusted news sources in search results tied to breaking news, after other hoaxes spread around tragedies like the 2017 Las Vegas shooting.)