YouTube’s Clickbait Problem Might Not Be Fixable

10.10.18

For years, YouTube has struggled with a clickbait problem. Google has taken great strides to help creators tackle this, but users being preyed upon for their clicks are rarely part of the conversation.

As so many avid YouTube-watchers know, misleading thumbnails, sensationalized titles and stolen videos often make bad faith content nearly indistinguishable from videos made by your favorite creators. YouTube’s algorithms reward those who get good at gaming the system, which often results in clickbait videos being suggested or listed ahead of original and sincere content.

While this is not a new problem by any measure, the explosion of Fortnite: Battle Royale content (including how-to videos, fail videos, stream recaps, tournament recordings, and so much more) elevated the clickbait problem to entirely new heights this year. 

And several prominent content creators have been discussing this issue at length recently on their channels and across social media. 

Lannan “LazarBeam” Eacott, one of the most recognizable and beloved Fortnite players on YouTube, uploaded a video on September 24 in which he called out several channels for employing clickbait tactics to make huge amounts of money.

In the video, Eacott describes two of the most prominent varieties of this problem. 

The first, and perhaps the most nefarious, is the hijacking of other people’s footage. This is a phenomenon that all famous creators struggle with. On any given day, Eacott’s footage can be seen on numerous channels besides his own, often taken out of context or being used to pit him against other prominent gamers.

Eacott pointed out one channel in particular (which was called “Supreme” when the video was published, but is now going by “Fortnite Majesty,”)  that had stolen a video of his, and edited in a clip of ultra-famous Fortnite Twitch streamer Tyler “Ninja” Blevins, to make it look like Ninja was watching and reacting to LazarBeam’s video. 

The star power and well-known rivalry between the two brought in more than 4.2 million views on the fake video. 

“I can absolutely guarantee to you, that this trashcan piece of sh-t probably made more money from stealing the video than I did making it,” Eacott said during his rant. “When people watch this video, they end up just watching my video. He’s just stolen my content and cost me views.”

To its credit, YouTube actually introduced a tool intended to detect this type of clickbait back in July. The Copyright Match Tool, as it is called, was “designed to find re-uploads of your content on other channels,” explained YouTube Product Manager Fabio Magagna in a blog post

Unfortunately, Magagna explained, the tool is only able to detect “full re-uploads.” In other words, if the footage thief were to alter or trim the stolen video in any way, the tool will not alert the original owner. This means it’s likely that Supreme’s stolen video featuring LazarBeam and the fake Ninja appearance would not have been detected by the software. 

The second most popular clickbait variety is tricking viewers into watching a video by making promises with the title and thumbnail that are never delivered on. Case and point: The mythical Fortnite Volcano Event. 

For several days in late September, Fortnite fans all over the world tuned in to their favorite live-streamers to watch a rumored in-game event involving a volcano eruption. Unfortunately, there’s no volcano on the Fortnite island. And spoiler alert: one never manifested.

But still, numerous content creators used misleading headlines and photoshopped thumbnails to trick viewers into watching their many hours-long streams and videos, while they “waited” for the event to take place. This strategy is in clear violation of YouTube’s Community Guidelines, which state quite clearly: “Don’t create misleading descriptions, tags, titles, or thumbnails in order to increase views.”

LazarBeam said this practice “allows them to gain more subs, and gain more viewers, which pushes their streams higher and higher so they can get more and more people…yet it’s all just complete garbage.”

It’s clear that the rampant clickbait problem on YouTube is affecting creators, but it still remains a mystery what–if anything–viewers can do to avoid watching (and subsequently encouraging) clickbait tactics. 

Neither YouTube officials nor Eacott responded to requests for advice for YouTube fans hoping to distribute their views responsibly, and support their favorite creators effectively.

Many “expert responses” to clickbait-related questions in YouTube’s Support forumssimply suggest flagging or blocking content that you may suspect to be stolen or malicious, but offers little help in the way of avoiding this content in the first place. 

In this reporter’s experience, a simple way to make sure your views are being appropriately awarded to the creators you want to support is by simply subscribing and turning on notifications for those channels, ensuring you’ll receive their content directly in your inbox or on your phone, rather than secondhand from a footage thief. 

However, simply being more aware of the clickbait epidemic won’t necessarily help solve it. If the platform is ever to make any substantial progress in deterring clickbait, the audience will need to be engaged and invited to contribute to that effort. 

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