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Businesses selling fake YouTube views and likes flourish amid debates about online access, influence

The long-standing practice of companies selling YouTube views continues to be a problem. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Selling fake YouTube views is a lucrative business for people who know how to cash in on the practice. And the social media giant admits it still can't completely stop it, according to a report by the New York Times.

Martin Vassilev, for example, makes about $200,000 selling views, likes and dislikes that are generated by computers, not people. He does it through his website 500Views.com, based in Ottawa, Canada.

Vassilev, 32, told the news outlet that he can "deliver an unlimited amount of views to a video. They’ve tried to stop it for so many years, but they can’t stop it. There’s always a way around.”

Another company, Devumi.com, made more than $1.2 million over three years by selling 196 million YouTube views, according to the report.

After Google, YouTube is the most-searched site, according to the report.

What's its role as a gatekeeper?

With billions of views a day, YouTube can propel careers, make someone a household name, promote brands and push political agendas. But how far should it go as a gatekeeper of online content? That debate is magnified by the recent banning of Alex Jones' website, Infowars, from YouTube and other social media platforms.

The New York Times did a study to see how well the marketplace can detect whether views are manipulated, one of the practice that violate YouTube’s terms of service. Still, a simple Google search turns up multiple ways to buy any number of views, from “500, 5,000 or even five million,” for just pennies each.

In the experiment, a reporter ordered thousands of views from nine companies. Nearly all of the orders were delivered in about two weeks.

So, who is buying the fake views?

During its investigation, the Times found that Devumi’s customers included an employee of RT, the media company backed by the Russian government, and an employee of Al Jazeera English, another state-backed company, the report stated. Other buyers included a filmmaker for Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group, and the head of video at The New York Post.

Al Jazeera and the New York Post indicated the employees were not authorized to make the purchases and they no longer work for them.

In another example, Judith Oppenheimer, 78, paid Devumi $5,000 to promote a book she had self-published. Her goal was to drum up interest and secure a mainstream book deal. Although Devumi provided 58,000 views, sales never increased and a book deal never materialized.

“Soon after I signed the contract I thought, ‘I’ll have no proof of what they do or don’t do.’ Now it begins to make sense,” Oppenheimer told the New York Times. “They can do it in a day.”

What is done to stop it?

A YouTube executive explained how it tries to prevent fake views and likes.

“This has been a problem we have been working on for many, many years,” Jennifer Flannery O’Connor, YouTube’s director of product management, told the news outlet. “The company’s systems continuously monitor a video’s activity, and the anti-fraud team often buys views to understand better how these sites operate. Our anomaly detection systems are really good.”

In 2013, YouTube at one point had as many “bots masquerading as people” as it had actual people, the report stated.

And companies that sell views and likes are still finding a way around detection systems.

“View count manipulation will be a problem as long as views and the popularity they signal are the currency of YouTube,” Blake Livingston, a former member of YouTube’s fraud and abuse team who has since left the company, told the New York Times.

One last thing…
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