Fake news. Post-truth. Is Truth Dead? These were the words that rung aloud throughout 2017 and are statements that are still repeated today. As we're writing this story, our parliament is in the midst of passing an Anti Fake News Law that might mean a blanket censoring of all of your online and offline thoughts, or the final coffin in the nail of fake news.
In the age of fake news, there's one thing we can all rely on that's cold, calculating, and without prejudice: numbers. As the adage goes, numbers don't lie. Number of views, number of followers, number of likes, number of comments, engagement, coversion rates. We can all put our trust in numbers... most of the time.
Take this case for example. In 2012, YouTube stripped Universal and Sony of two billion fake views – that's 2,000,000,000 views! Numbers are the currency of the Internet age and if your channel isn't bringing in the numbers, advertisers aren't going to come knocking. As a result, brands are putting their trust in influencers, key opinion leaders, and social media experts who have an organic fan base that they can leverage. Numbers on a screen that they can milk that sweet, sweet conversion rate from.
Numbers Don't Lie
We know we said numbers don't lie, but actually, numbers don't say anything at all. Numbers are only given meaning by its interpreters, and its interpreters are often fallible. When you pair faulty interpretation of numbers with a payout structure that moves parallel to the amount of followers or viewers an influencer has, you create an equation for manipulation.
According to Inkifi, a website that calculates the amount you can potentially earn per post based on your followers, one post from influencer @VeniceMin with 357k followers "Could be worth at least USD2000 (RM7,720)". Not bad, but insert @Neelofa into its site and she can get a whopping USD30,800 or RM118,950 per post. Yes, the follower economy is lucrative. While Instagram depends quite heavily on your fans' perception of you, YouTube is a platform where your content is king. Let's find out how much you're getting on that platform with its AdSense.
Calculated using Influencer Marketing Hub's YouTube money calculator
According to Influencer Marketing Hub, YouTuber Casey Neistat can earn an average of USD5,520 (RM21,000) per video uploaded. If you input PewDiePie's page unto the calculator, the result is an estimated USD11,127 (RM43,000) per video released. While these numbers are just a reflection of an educated guess, these potential earning figures provide ample incentive for YouTubers to game the system through the purchase of views. And that's exactly what we tried to do with the video below:
We worked with Grim Film, Cilisos, and Paultan for this video. The idea was to make the video go viral, like one million views viral. Chak from Cilisos had a guy who knows a guy and started the initial conversation. We imagined meeting them in an abandoned parking lot and the guy coming up to us in a trench coat. It went slightly differently...
Screenshot of Chak's conversation with a rep from Socio Blend
Even though we've covered the names of the parties involved, don't worry, it's all above board... allegedly. When we thought about buying views we immediately thought about YouTube's Terms of Service and what exactly constitutes a violation. You can read the policy here but we've also extracted some choice words:
Viewcounts serve as a way to recognize and surface great content. Since views are so important, it’s no surprise that an ecosystem of businesses has evolved around artificially helping creators get YouTube views, likes, and subscribers. However, paying for views obtained through some of these companies could be a violation of our terms, which exist, in part, to make sure the views on any YouTube video come from real, genuine people.
Because of this "could" clause that is baked into the first line of their ToS, sites surviving on the 'pay for views' model are packaging themselves as social media marketing providers. SocioBlend on Facebook is listed as an Advertising Agency and YTview.com, a site that allegedly has a Malaysian working for them, claims to provide real social connections (or socials), from real people without bots. In fact, almost all sites that provide pay for views proclaim this.
The FAQ page of three social media marketing sites
The Cost of Fame
After the initial conversation with SocioBlend, we realised that one million views was a little over our budget. After some searching, Chak decided to reach out to another website to get the one million views: BuyViews. The emails are a little bit of a jumbled mess so we're going to copy and paste the conversation into this article.
25-Mar-2018 at 4:14 PM, firstname.lastname@example.org
how much for 1 million? Must reach the target by 1st april 2018
26-Mar-2018 at 3:56 AM, email@example.com
1800$ for 1 mil
Sent from my iPhone
26-Mar-2018 at 11:40 AM, firstname.lastname@example.org
My budget is USD1000. How many can i get?
26-Mar-2018 at 4:45 PM, email@example.com
We can do best $1500 for 1 million.
1 million can take 45 to 60 days.
What's interesting here is that they do not promise one million views for the video instantly. Almost sounds like the kind of organic marketing of videos that we're hoping for; with real people providing real views.
After some negotiations, Chak managed to get 500,000 views for USD1000. They prompt him with an invoice and Chak replies he needs the views by 1st April. Some back and forth ensues and he agrees to send USD500 first for the first 200,000 views. This is where it gets interesting.
26-Mar-2018 at 6:28 PM, firstname.lastname@example.org
I will try my best, taking 500k take upto 30 days, but I will try to add 200k aprox before 1st april.
On Mar 28, 2018, two days after the initial USD500 was given, the video count on Grim's video reaches 262, 854 and Chak gets an email to deliver the remaining USD500. As of today, the video has 549,625 views and the analytics for the video speaks for itself.
Notice the sharp spike in video views after the marketing cash injection on the 26th of March. To date, YouTube has not removed the video or flagged it for a violation of its Terms of Service, so fingers crossed.
But How Does Any Of This Work?
If they're all positioning themselves as 'marketers' of your video, how do you market a strangers' YouTube video and gain views on a video without using bots? To answer this question, we put our hoods up to head into the seedy underbelly of the marketing game. Enter, Black Hat World.
There's that word again "marketing"
Let's get some terminology out of the way. To increase your online 'presence', there is a term called SEO: search engine optimisation. In SEO, there are white hat methods deemed ethical, and black hat methods, deemed unethical. According to webopedia, a white hat SEO is:
Optimized for search engines, yet focuses on relevancy and organic ranking is considered to be optimized using White Hat SEO practices. Some examples of White Hat SEO techniques include using keywords and keyword analysis, backlinking, link building to improve link popularity, and writing content for human readers.
In contrast, a black hat SEO refers to:
The use of aggressive SEO strategies, techniques and tactics that focus only on search engines and not a human audience, and usually does not obey search engines guidelines.
Some examples of black hat SEO techniques include keyword stuffing, invisible text, doorway pages, adding unrelated keywords to the page content or page swapping (changing the webpage entirely after it has been ranked by search engines).
These are essentially ways for people to game the system through manipulation. And Black Hat World Forum is a place where everyday Internet users go to exchange ideas and share their best methods to increase traffic to their YouTube page, webpage, blog, etc., but often... to make money.
While some methods to increase the views of your video are legit – keyword optimisation, commenting first, tags – one method we found employed the use of identity theft. The idea was to gain followers on Snapchat using another person's identity – preferably someone who is physically attractive. The end goal is to funnel your new found followers to whatever video you'd like them to see. It's not a very good method to consistently farm views for your own channel, but it can be one arm of an SMM's strategy.
Other methods include the use of proxies, commenting bots, and purchasing software that creates backlinks to your site or video – the higher the backlinks, the easier it is for people to search for your content online. Ultimately, after reaching page 3 of the site we found that the actual marketing methods are a trade secret and that everyone has their own methods. But at the end of the day, the site is all about getting eyeballs to their content to earn that moolah. That's why you see tonnes of terrible cat videos, kids playing with toys, cheap cartoons, and whatever the hell this and this is.
Experiment Gone... Right?
The idea of the video was to make something shitty go viral. Hats off to Grim because they just didn't have it in them to make a crappy video. Nevertheless, the short timeline for delivery of views seems to show the kinds of magic that is capable with some clever marketing.
Many SMM sites will tell you that their platforms are a way to give your channel or content a boost. A way to rank your videos and hopefully, gain organic views. Having seen the results of some truly dodgy channels on YouTube with 16 million views from only six videos, it's hard not to look at the buy-for-views model and go "Huh, maybe it isn't so bad." We all want to believe in organic growth and having your work stand on its own, but often the world is not fair. Good reach doesn't always follow good content and working hard doesn't always pay.
So, what's real and what's fake? For that, we have to look to the wise words spoken by a video game character, whose developers were quoting a book, that's based on the real life story of an assassin:
nothing is true, everything is permitted.