Sensation equals surveillance, lucre on social media

By Linh Do   December 12, 2019 | 08:37 pm PT
Lurid content on YouTube is pulling many curious viewers into a seemingly bottomless hole of personal data mining designed for commercial purposes.

Sleeping in a coffin, acting as a dog or pig for one day, and pouring fish sauce or egg yolk on their mother’s head are just some of the "shocking, unique and strange" ideas that local YouTubers have recently come up with to attract viewers.

A mother falls when her son pours egg yolk on her from a balcony. A screenshot from the video.

A mother falls when her son pours egg yolk on her from a balcony. A screenshot from the video.

But such ridiculous stuff attracts huge numbers of views and comments, even becoming trending videos, generating money from YouTube ads for their creators.

Like other social networks, the world’s most popular video-sharing platform uses complex artificial intelligence to track users’ digital history and recommend content to keep them hooked, and sells this information to advertisers who seek to target potential customers.

Channels that attract 4,000 views and 1,000 subscribers within a year can be monetized through ads. In Vietnam, YouTube pays content creators $0.3-0.5 for 1,000 ad views.

Even content that attracts negative comments serves their creators’ purpose of increasing views, at least until it violates the law or YouTube’s community rules prohibiting pornography, violence and other undesirable content and gets removed.

For instance, Tien Lap’s idea of emptying a basin filled with the yolks of 200 eggs on his mother’s head from a balcony to celebrate his channel getting its 20,000th subscriber ignited an angry backlash.

Many viewers found it hurtful, ridiculous and unacceptable, and Lap removed the clip and apologized to them.

The idea was not plucked out of thin air: a prank posted last year on another hugely popular channel had two guys pouring the yolks of 400 eggs on a neighbor’s head.

Before that clip was removed by its creator, Phuong Huu Duong, under pressure from netizens who dug it up and condemned it after Lap’s video, it had attracted 10 million views. Copies of it can still be found on well-meaning review channels.         

According to Nguyen Quan, who works in online marketing, many young YouTubers in Vietnam are pursuing views and fame at all costs, creating sensational content that jeopardizes their honor, character and even health.

Curiosity killed the cat

Le Tuyet Anh, a former dean of the faculty of education at the HCMC University of Social Sciences and Humanities, warns that while young people often gravitate toward lurid stuff, they are not mature enough to understand its psychological effects.  

According to Nguyen Phuong Linh, director of the Management and Sustainable Development Institute in Hanoi, the key is to train young people in critical thinking so that they can differentiate between right and wrong, whether in reality or on cyberspace.

On YouTube, pornographic and violent contents are common.

Between early 2018 and mid-2019 the Ministry of Information and Communications’ department of broadcasting, television and electronic information told Google to remove around 8,000 clips it considered "toxic" and illegal.

They included the channel of Ngo Ba Kha, or Kha "Banh" (a pun that means "quite cool"), which had almost two million subscribers and featured obscene language and acts such as burning a motorbike.

Before his channel was removed in April, the 26-year-old drug user from the northern province of Bac Ninh with a criminal record for assault was sentenced to 10 years and 6 months in prison for gambling and organizing gambling.

In his heyday as a YouTuber, when he was actually considered an idol by many young viewers, he could make up to $20,000 a month with his popular videos.

Besides Kha’s channel, YouTube also removed another similar dubious one belonging to Duong Minh Tuyen.

But according to the Department of Broadcasting, Television and Electronic Information, the 8,000 that were removed made up just a small part of the over 55,000 toxic videos sneaking through YouTube’s ineffective filtering system, which cannot catch bad content if it is posted with benign titles or in misleading categories (for example, adult content categorized as for children or political content labeled entertainment).   

While it is a time-consuming process for local authorities to work with YouTube’s owner, Google, to remove illegal content, new bad content can be uploaded very quickly and spread easily, the department says.

Google has made efforts to block or take down nearly 8,000 toxic videos on YouTube under Vietnamese authorities requests. Photo by Reuters/Lucy Nicholson.

Google has made efforts to block or take down nearly 8,000 toxic videos on YouTube under Vietnamese authorities' requests. Photo by Reuters/Lucy Nicholson.

For their part, YouTube and Google say no automatic filtering system is perfect while their human moderators cannot manually assess every video that is uploaded.

They claim to have stringent community guidelines and to regularly remove videos, comments and even accounts reported by users.

According to Vietnamese law, mild content that incites violence and encourages social ills can be fined up to VND40 million ($1,730). At the other extreme is the spreading of pornographic and otherwise "perverted" content that can get 15 years in prison if it is distributed among more than 100 people or has a digital size of 10 GB or more. 

With content that may not violate any laws but is in poor taste -- like pouring egg yolk or fish sauce on somebody - many say it is ultimately up to viewers to decide whether not to watch it and help it increase views or report it after watching it.

Protecting young minds

Some content creators such as Dinh Vo Hoai Phuong, owner of tourism and cuisine channel, Khoai Lang Thang, point out another major reason why bad content attracts so many viewers: lack of good content. This travel blogger suggests creating simple content for young people and children as a way to attract viewers.

But as far as children’s content is concerned, things will not be too easy for content creators. After being recently fined $170 million by the American Federal Trade Commission for illegally collecting child users’ information without their parents’ consent, YouTube will have to rein in its own drive.

From next January YouTube will require content creators to label videos that appeal to children, and will turn off its data collection of child users plus all targeted ads.

There will still be generic ads based on the content of the videos themselves. This means less targeted ads for advertisers and less money for YouTube and video creators.

For children, who deserve to spend time on social media without being tracked and sold addictive contents and ads, this is welcome news that may set a good precedent for how to curb the snowballing of cyber trash.

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