NEW YORK: Martin Vassilev makes a good living selling fake views on YouTube videos. Working from home in Ottawa, Ontario, he has sold about 15 million views so far this year, putting him on track to bring in more than US$200,000, records show.
Vassilev, 32, does not provide the views himself. His website, 500Views.com, connects customers with services that offer views, likes and dislikes generated by computers, not humans. When a supplier cannot fulfil an order, Vassilev – like a modern switchboard operator – quickly connects with another.
“I can deliver an unlimited amount of views to a video,” Vassilev said. “They’ve tried to stop it for so many years, but they can’t stop it. There’s always a way around.”
After Google, more people search on YouTube than on any other site. It is the most popular platform among teenagers, according to a 2018 study by the Pew Research Centre, beating out giants like Facebook and Instagram. With billions of views a day, the video site helps spur global cultural sensations, spawn careers, sell brands and promote political agendas.
Just as other social media companies have been plagued by impostor accounts and artificial influence campaigns, YouTube has struggled with fake views for years.
The fake-view ecosystem of which Vassilev is a part can undermine YouTube’s credibility by manipulating the digital currency that signals value to users. While YouTube says fake views represent just a tiny fraction of the total, they still have a significant effect by misleading consumers and advertisers. Drawing on dozens of interviews, sales records and trial purchases of fraudulent views, The New York Times examined how the marketplace worked and tested YouTube’s ability to detect manipulation.
Inflating views violates YouTube’s terms of service. But Google searches for buying views turn up hundreds of sites offering “fast” and “easy” ways to increase a video’s count by 500, 5,000 or even 5 million. The sites, offering views for just pennies each, also appear in Google search ads.
To test the sites, a Times reporter ordered thousands of views from nine companies. Nearly all of the purchases, made for videos not associated with the news organisation, were fulfilled in about two weeks.
One of the businesses was Devumi.com. According to company records, it collected more than US$1.2 million over three years by selling 196 million YouTube views. Nearly all the views remain today. An analysis of those records, from 2014-17, shows that most orders were completed in weeks, though those for a million views or more took longer. Providing large volumes cheaply and quickly is often a sign that a service is not offering real viewership.
Devumi’s customers included an employee of RT, a media organisation funded by the Russian government, and an employee of Al Jazeera English, another state-backed company. Other buyers were a filmmaker working for Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group, and the head of video at The New York Post. (Al Jazeera and The Post said the workers were not authorised to make such purchases and were no longer employed there.)
Multiple musicians bought views to appear more popular: YouTube views factor into metrics from the ratings company Nielsen and song charts including Billboard’s Hot 100.
Some companies bought views for clients with the promise of social media promotion that would result in real people watching their videos.
“This has been a problem we have been working on for many, many years,” said Jennifer Flannery O’Connor, YouTube’s director of product management. 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, she said. “Our anomaly detection systems are really good.”
Still, the challenges are significant. At one point in 2013, YouTube had as much traffic from bots masquerading as people as it did from real human visitors, according to the company. Some employees feared this would cause the fraud detection system to flip, classifying fake traffic as real and vice versa – a prospect engineers called “the Inversion.”
YouTube would not disclose the number of fake views it blocked each day, but said its teams worked to keep them to less than 1 per cent of the total. Still, with the platform registering billions of views a day, tens of millions of fake views could be making it through daily.
“View count manipulation will be a problem as long as views and the popularity they signal are the currency of YouTube,” Livingston said.
Fake audience, but real money
It took Vassilev about 18 months to go from being on welfare and living with his father in Canada to buying a white BMW 328i and a house of his own.
By late 2014, his website was on the first page of Google search results for buying YouTube views, fulfilling 150 to 200 orders a day and bringing in more than US$30,000 a month, he said. “I really couldn’t believe you could make that much money online,” he said. The Times reporter’s order on his site, for 25,000 views, was fulfilled one day later.
A spokeswoman for Google, which is owned by the same company as YouTube, said that sites selling views appeared in search results because they were relevant, but that there was “room for improvement” in warning users.
Vassilev declined to name his clients but said that many orders came from public relations or marketing firms.
Today, he fills most orders through SMMKings.com, a wholesale supplier run by Sean Tamir, 29. Tamir charges him about a dollar for a thousand views, which Vassilev resells for US$13.99, throwing in 100 free likes.
Several times a year, YouTube makes changes to its detection system to try to disrupt fake views, Tamir said. A recent episode came in late January, but many of the sites were functioning a few weeks later when The Times made most of its purchases. Suppliers say they get around system updates by making their traffic appear more humanlike, ensuring that it comes from users with prior views, for example.
“YouTube is one of the premier sources of music consumption and an important indicator of musical trends and popularity,” said Silvio Pietroluongo, a vice president at Billboard.
As a new artist, Aleem Khalid hired Crowd Surf, a promotion company, in 2014. Without his knowledge, he said, the firm bought 10,000 views each on three of his videos. They now have between 11,000 and 42,000 views.
“The beautiful thing about these social media platforms is when they came out it was genuine. But now I feel it’s all fake,” said Khalid, 25.
View-selling sites continue to advertise with apparent impunity. A post on the YouTube Creator Blog warning users against fake views has numerous comments linking to view-selling sites.
“The only way YouTube could eliminate this is if they removed the view counter altogether,” said Vassilev, the fake-view seller. “But that would defeat the purpose of YouTube.”