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Is Google astroturfing YouTube?

The tech giant is accused of battling user backlash on the front lines.


Miles Klee


Posted on Nov 12, 2013   Updated on Jun 1, 2021, 2:05 am CDT

Google’s overhaul of the YouTube comment system is theoretically intended to filter out spammy and irrelevant comments. But Bachir Boumaaza, a popular pro gamer known as Athene in YouTube circles, has accused the company of having an ulterior motive:  

Outside of the football stadium, astroturfing refers to the practice of introducing sponsored messages or feedback into a forum where it appears to be the opinion of a disinterested third party. Athene became suspicious when he took a closer look at a negative video he posted on Nov. 8, in which he showed how the comment changes introduced still more noise into an already chaotic atmosphere. What was odd, he thought, was that all the top comments on this hit piece were Google-positive—even though the typical, widespread Internet reaction to Google+ integration had been sheer outrage.

He also examined a viral anti-Google music video by Emma Blackery—one which, as we noted yesterday, will net Google as much profit as it does the performer. Here he found that someone using the name of Google Marketing employee Richard Gilbert had registered a suspiciously upvoted comment arguing that Google+ integration was a good thing, complete with a link to Google’s official explanation of the update. It may have been a hacker’s joke, but because no one has access to the new magic algorithm by which Google determines which comments are most relevant, Athene can only conclude comments like these are being actively promoted because they’re good for Google.   

Beyond that, Athene found the viewership ratio to be completely skewed and unrealistic, at least based on YouTube precedent. It even appeared that the view counter had been frozen, though since this astroturfing video was uploaded, “it got even worse … instead of the views being temporarily frozen, views are getting updated but with artificially low increments.” Indeed, common sense would suggest that a video with viral momentum like Blackery’s would have crossed the million-view mark by now, absent a stalling force. 

So was Google trying to suppress the form of backlash most likely to leave a cultural stain? And are they trying to make comment-promotion an opaque enough process to serve their own ends? 

Since Google has declined to comment, it’s hard to tell. But the top comment on Blackery’s song now, ironically, leads to Athene’s astroturfing video. The second top comment? “Fuck Google+”   

Photo by Stacey~/Flickr

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*First Published: Nov 12, 2013, 6:08 pm CST