Strategic Changes at YouTube and How They May Impact OSINT Video Research

Civil and criminal OSINT analysts use YouTube as a source of information. Whether it is because the platform was used to promote an investment scam, the Subject of the investigation also promote themselves through music videos, comedy videos or public relations videos; or the analyst reviews videos to gauge public sentiment, YouTube is a treasure trove of useful information. Things are changing with YouTube and it is important for OSINT professionals to be aware of those changes.

In December 2018, Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube posted an announcement on the its blog stating that the company would make adjustments to how it polices content on the site, including raising to 10,000 the number of staff it has that review videos for violations of its policies. Wojcicki also announced that YouTube would be taking a different approach to how it allows video posters to monetize content (i.e. how they are paid for click-throughs on advertisements that pop up on their videos).

Under the program that existed at the time, in order to monetize their videos, a Channel (i.e. video poster) had to be a part of the YouTube Partner Program which meant that the Channel had to have 10,000 lifetime views. In January 2018 the company announced that it was changing the eligibility rules for the Partner Program and stated that posters had to have 4,000 hours of watch time within the previous 12 months, and 1,000 subscribers.

Some of these changes were in response to large corporate advertisers who had advertisements show on videos that were deemed to be misaligned with the advertiser’s brand in some cases, and totally inappropriate in others.

Notwithstanding those incidents, this move is not totally surprising in a larger strategic sense and was probably in the hopper for a while.  According to the excellent business book “Measure What Matters” by John Doerr, Watch time, rather than straight views, has been an important metric that YouTube has focused on for a number of years. It isn’t all that strange that YouTube has aligned its Partnership Program to reward Channels with longer watch times. Alphabet Inc. has also disclosed publicly in its December 21, 2017 10K report, that it expects that the portion of its revenue that it receives from non-advertising streams of business is going to increase over time on platforms such as YouTube, Google Cloud and Google Play.

For more from Susan Wojcicki’s perspective on the strategy and the policing efforts, check out her interview from the Recode Conference.

In its April 23, 2018 blog post, YouTube announced that it removed 8 million videos from the platform during the months from October to December 2017, the majority which  were mostly spam or people attempting to upload adult content.

Of the 8 million videos that were removed, 6.7 million were first flagged for review by machines rather than humans and of those 6.7 million videos, 76 percent were removed before they received a single view.

When the videos are escalated to human review, the reviewers compare the content against the YouTube Community Guidelines; and consider whether there are redeeming qualities to the video, for example would it be entitled to an exemption because it has educational, documentary, scientific or artistic merit. In the same blog post YouTube shared a video which described how it combines machine learning and human review. It is worth the watch for those interested in human/machine interaction in an information security context.

YouTube has also rolled out platforms specifically aimed at brands, new tools for content creators and has upped its game in proprietary content for both video and music. Readers have probably also noticed pop-up advertisements for a subscription service for YouTube which means they won’t have to watch ads.

So, the question then becomes, between the stricter enforcement of content and change in business strategy, where do YouTube content creators go who don’t fit the mould? Where should the OSINT investigator look?

Here are our thoughts:

First, don’t ignore YouTube. Just because this will cause some posters who are trying to generate revenue from their content (think music videos, comedy sketches, documentary style videos) to move, it doesn’t mean that all of the posters will move to new platforms. The person who assaults someone else and wants to gain notoriety for it may still get away with posting it on YouTube, for a while.

Second, check out some of the other platforms that are available. Twitch.tv is focused mainly on gamers, but it has an IRL (In Real Life) section and Talk Shows section which will show non-gamer content. Posters on this platform are not immune from criminal attack.  Twitch posters themselves have been the victim of harassment, doxing and swatting attacks.

Other suggestions on a Reddit thread about the topic include the video monetization service Steemit; and the rumored Amazon services OPENTUBE and AMAZONTUBE that will be competing against YouTube.

Third, check out the “old” favourites. Facebook allows video sharing and so does SnapChat through its Stories feature. Instagram announced in June that it is launching its own long-form video format called IGTV. From the press release it appears to be aimed at mobile platforms. It is unclear when/if it will move to the web.

In summary, while things are changing with YouTube it is still a valuable platform for content that may be of interest for investigative research. In addition, there are more and more places where users can post video content, whether they have a profit motive or not.

For those investigators who find something on YouTube that they think might violate the Site’s policies, reporting it will get the Platform’s attention.