Pro-Trump robot videos are popping up all over YouTube — and no one seems to know why

“These channels are getting an 8-digit number of YouTube views every month, and they are designed to stir up outrage.”
May 18, 2018, 12:15am

A network of dozens of automated, robot-driven YouTube channels are pumping out thousands of right-wing propaganda videos that have racked up hundreds of millions of views — and it seems Google isn’t doing anything to stop it.

With the November midterms looming and worries growing that disinformation campaigns will undermine the outcome of the elections, channels with names like World Broadcast, Breaking News Today, Latest News Today, Breaking News 24h, Hot News Today 365, USA News Feeder, or simply Hot News are popping up all over YouTube, with one clear strategy: to turn fringe right-wing blog posts into machine-narrated videos they can promote as breaking news.

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“They upload thousands of new videos every month and are getting tens of millions of views each month,” said Christoph Burseg, an online marketing expert who specializes in video trends on YouTube.

For years, YouTube has been plagued with conspiracy theories and fake news, but these automated accounts that pump out pro-Trump propaganda present a new problem for the company — and it appears there’s little they can do about it.

Some of the channels VICE News reviewed have been operating for over a year, churning out hundreds of poorly produced robot videos every day, racking up hundreds of millions of views. Instead of earning ad dollars, the primary aim of these channels appears to be winning subscribers and funneling traffic to conservative blogs like Right Wing News and Truthfeed News.

“This is a new frontier of repurposing content, via a spoken audio API, where the lines get pretty blurred.”

Jonathan Albright, research director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, said that while the current network of channels don’t appear to be nefarious in nature, their very presence shows just how easily YouTube can be weaponized. “This is a new frontier of repurposing content, via a spoken audio API, where the lines get pretty blurred,” Albright told VICE News, adding: “YouTube is becoming a really interesting battleground right now.”

The operators of the channels are anonymous, but they seem to be well-versed in SEO marketing and understand intimately how the YouTube algorithm works. The result is explosive growth at virtually no cost to the creators.

“These channels are getting an 8-digit number of YouTube views every month, and they are designed to stir up outrage, to feed existing worldviews, and to amplify fears,” Burseg said.

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While videos from popular YouTube channels like Jake Paul and PewDiePie regularly rack up millions of views, that is not the case for the typical bot-driven channel. An investigation last year by Albright of a network of 19 channels producing AI-generated content, found almost 70,000 videos with just a few hundred views a piece — highlighting just how surprisingly successful this new network has been at getting eyeballs on pro-Trump content.

"We've tried to report it to YouTube, but they tell us it’s not in any violation.”

The channels promise “24-hour,” “impartial,” “comprehensive” information on politics and world news, but in reality they’ve uploaded thousands of videos with a pro-Trump or anti-Democrat stance since 2016, racking up millions of views and tens of thousands of subscribers along the way. Breaking News Today, which even has a verified tick from YouTube, alone has netted almost 150 million views since 2016.

Burseg first spotted the phenomenon using his own YouTube analytics tool to search for Trump-focused channels. He quickly realized that a number of these channels were producing very similar content that was being uploaded in large numbers. Burseg believes that the similarities among these channels and how their content is posted suggests this is a small, fairly centralized operation. “I would not be surprised if it was only a couple of people running all these channels,” he said.

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The scripts for the videos are typically sourced from fringe right-wing online publications like Truthfeed, Mad World News, Right Wing Tribune, and Right Wing News.

Breaking News Today is the most prolific of the channels with titles like “Trump Laughs As Obama Finds Out Exactly How John Kerry Helped Kill The Iran Deal” and “Clint Eastwood Had Enough, Blows Up On Hillary And Obama… Liberals Are Furious.”

Analysis of the Breaking News Today channel by Brendan Gahan, a YouTube marketing expert, found that the site was a “traffic funnel” to help drive traffic to sites like Right Wing News and Truthfeed, where they can then be used to sell ads or affiliate links. “There’s a ton of garbage sites associated with most of these videos,” Gahan said.

When VICE News contacted Right Wing News, they denied any involvement in the channels that use their content. “They are foreigners stealing content. We've tried to report it to YouTube, but they tell us it’s not in any violation,” said a manager of the Right Wing News website, who wouldn’t identify themselves. When asked why many of the videos lacked ads, the manager said: “Perhaps they are just building up for the political midterms before they start cashing in? Either way its theft, regardless of political ideology.”

“It is just a very smart and easy and cheap way of making content that makes people angry."

All of the channels list the U.S. as their location, but identifying who is actually running these channels or where they’re located is next to impossible. YouTube doesn’t require personal details like a real name, verified email address, location, credit card or phone number. Google, YouTube’s parent company, failed to respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

The channels appear to be using automated tools to make these robot videos at little to no cost. The creators likely use a crawler to scrape right-wing, pro-Trump news stories on various sites, then feed them into a text-to-speech tool that creates the audio file using robotic voice-overs.

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Then they cover the audio file with images, and hit publish. Because YouTube offers automated ways to upload videos to its platform, these channels can create hundreds of these every day. And they seem pretty savvy at SEO tactics — using keyword-heavy headlines, optimized file names, and mobile-friendly formats — that YouTube’s algorithm typically rewards.

“It is just a very smart and easy and cheap way of making content that makes people angry," Burseg said.

But perhaps its greatest advantage is how it games YouTube’s “related views” infrastructure. The channels tend to work in unison to cross-promote each other — suggesting a centralized effort — that further boosts organic viewer growth by capitalizing on YouTube’s suggested-material service that tracks to the right-hand side of all pages.

And importantly, some of the content is not overtly pro-Trump, which Burseg said may be another strategy for pulling new viewers into their ecosystem of channels. Take, for example, “Woman Sees Soldier Sitting On Rural Road, Stunned By What He’s Doing” a video posted on Breaking News Today that’s been viewed more than 6.6 million times to date.

The pro-military video doesn’t mention Trump, but it’s designed to appeal to the typical Trump supporter. A link to the video was even shared by several, well-known pro-Trump Twitter bots.

"Offering other content is smart because [the channel] gets views from people who initially maybe weren't looking at Trump content, and then they become subscribers to the channel, so next time the channel uploads a video about Trump, they are watching a pro-Trump piece," said Bursag.

More often than not, if you click on one video from World Broadcast or Breaking News, you’ll see suggestions for others in their ecosystem, creating a never-ending feedback loop of fake news and disinformation.

As Albright recently warned: YouTube “exacerbates all of the other problems [of disinformation], because it allows content creators to monetize potentially harmful material while benefiting from the visibility provided by what’s arguably the best recommendation system in the world.”