YouTube removes videos suggesting Parkland shooting survivor was an actor

22 Feb 2018

YouTube on desktop. Image: JuliusKielaitis/Shutterstock

YouTube and Facebook pulled videos alleging student David Hogg was an actor planted at the scene of the Parkland shooting.

YouTube’s trending video section usually contains movie trailers generating buzz, television segments and content from popular creators, but a video that briefly hit the top of the page on Wednesday (21 February) has raised concerns once again about the ability of existing content moderation systems to correctly categorise and remove videos.

Right-wing conspiracies on YouTube

The video in question perpetuated the right-wing conspiracy that one of the survivors of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, is in fact an actor. Student David Hogg appeared in the video, a 2017 news report where he discussed a video he filmed of two people having a confrontation on Redondo Beach in Los Angeles.

Uploaded on 20 February by a ‘mike. m’, the video tapped into percolating conspiracies that many of the survivors of last week’s shooting were ‘crisis actors’ hired by left-wing activists to promote certain agendas.

Searching Hogg’s name on YouTube also pulled up a large quantity of other conspiracy videos perpetuating the idea that he was a paid actor who was hired to help dismantle US legal rights to bear arms. The shooting in question left 17 Marjory Stoneman Douglas students and faculty members dead.

Many of the comments on the video uploaded by ‘mike. m’ accuse George Soros and news network CNN of planting Hogg at the scene to vilify gun ownership.

Systemic problems

A YouTube spokesperson stated: “This video should never have appeared in Trending. Because the video contained footage from an authoritative news source, our system misclassified it.

“As soon as we became aware of the video, we removed it from Trending and from YouTube for violating our policies. We are working to improve our systems moving forward.”

When asked about why further baseless conspiracy videos were widely available by searching its platform, the YouTube spokesperson explained that the site’s recently changed search algorithm is not always accurate.

It explained that in some circumstances, these changes are not working quickly enough. “In addition, last year we updated the application of our harassment policy to include hoax videos that target the victims of these tragedies.

“Any video flagged to us that violates this policy is reviewed and then removed. We’re committed to making more improvements throughout 2018 to make these tools faster, better and more useful to users,” the representative said.

Many of the videos have now been removed at the time of writing.

Facebook sees similar issues

Facebook also saw several videos in its trending topics section regarding the conspiracy around David Hogg.

Mary deBree, head of content policy at Facebook, said: “Images that attack the victims of last week’s tragedy in Florida are abhorrent. We are removing this content from Facebook.”

This issue exemplifies the deep problems with trending topic sections on websites and platforms that see hundreds of thousands of posts uploaded per day. Both YouTube and Facebook have pledged to improve their flagging systems and Twitter is also introducing changes, but it is a deeply complex web of problems to solve.

YouTube on desktop. Image: JuliusKielaitis/Shutterstock

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects