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Google’s blocklist to hide YouTube hate videos from advertisers is patchy

todayApril 9, 2021 8

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This story is the first of two parts.

If you want to find YouTube videos related to “KKK” to advertise on, Google Ads will block you. But the company failed to block dozens of other hate and White nationalist terms and slogans, an investigation by The Markup has found.

Using a list of 86 hate-related terms we compiled with the help of experts, we discovered that Google uses a blocklist to try to stop advertisers from building YouTube ad campaigns around hate terms. But less than a third of the terms on our list were blocked when we conducted our investigation.

Google Ads suggested millions upon millions of YouTube videos to advertisers purchasing ads related to the terms “White power,” the fascist slogan “blood and soil,” and the far-right call to violence “racial holy war.”

The company even suggested videos for campaigns with terms that it clearly finds problematic, such as “great replacement.” YouTube slaps Wikipedia boxes on videos about the “the great replacement,” noting that it’s “a white nationalist far-right conspiracy theory.”

Some of the hundreds of millions of videos that the company suggested for ad placements related to these hate terms contained overt racism and bigotry, including multiple videos featuring re-posted content from the neo-Nazi podcast The Daily Shoah, whose official channel was suspended by YouTube in 2019 for hate speech. Google’s top video suggestions for these hate terms returned many news videos and some anti-hate content—but also dozens of videos from channels that researchers labeled as espousing hate or White nationalist views.

“The idea that they sell is that they’re guiding advertisers and content creators toward less controversial content,” said Nandini Jammi, who co-founded the advocacy group Sleeping Giants, which uses social media to pressure companies to stop advertising on right-wing media websites and now runs the digital marketing consulting firm Check My Ads.

“But the reality on the ground is that it’s not being implemented that way,” she added. “If you’re using keyword technology and you’re not keeping track of the keywords that the bad guys are using, then you’re not going to find the bad stuff.”

‘Offensive and harmful’

When we approached Google with our findings, the company blocked another 44 of the hate terms on our list.

“We fully acknowledge that the functionality for finding ad placements in Google Ads did not work as intended,” company spokesperson Christopher Lawton wrote in an email; “these terms are offensive and harmful and should not have been searchable. Our teams have addressed the issue and blocked terms that violate our enforcement policies.”

“We take the issue of hate and harassment very seriously,” he added, “and condemn it in the strongest terms possible.”

Even after Lawton made that statement, 14 of the hate terms on our list—about one in six of them—remained available to search for videos for ad placements on Google Ads, including the anti-Black meme “we wuz kangz”; the neo-Nazi appropriated symbol “black sun”; “red ice tv,” a White nationalist media outlet that YouTube banned from its platform in 2019; and the White nationalist slogans “you will not replace us” and “diversity is a code word for anti-white.”

We again emailed Lawton asking why these terms remained available. He did not respond, but Google quietly removed 11 more hate terms, leaving only the White nationalist slogan “you will not replace us,” “American Renaissance” (the name of a publication the Anti-Defamation League describes as White supremacist), and the anti-Semitic meme “open borders for Israel.”

Blocking future investigations

Google also responded by shutting the door to future similar investigations into keyword blocking on Google Ads. The newly blocked terms are indistinguishable in Google’s code from searches for which there are no related videos, such as a string of gibberish. This was not the case when we conducted our investigation.

YouTube has faced repeated criticism for years over its handling of hate content, including boycotts by advertisers who were angry about their ads running next to offensive videos. The company responded by promising reforms, including taking down hate content. Most of the advertisers have returned, and the company reports that advertising on YouTube generates nearly $20 billion in annual revenues for Google.

In addition to overlooking common hate terms, we discovered that almost all the blocks Google had implemented were weak. They did not account for simple workarounds, such as pluralizing a singular word, changing a suffix, or removing spaces between words. “Aryan nation,” “globalist Jews,” “White pride,” “White pill,” and “White genocide” were all blocked from advertisers as two words but together resulted in hundreds of thousands of video recommendations once we removed the spaces between the words.

Credit: The Markup
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