How the Philippines election showed YouTube can rewrite the past

There’s a lot of historical misinformation, and that’s one of the biggest problems in the Philippines. This ranges from outright denial, claiming that the atrocities committed under martial law never happened. And there are also the most extreme claims, such as the “Marcos’ gold” myth. We know that their wealth comes from stealing from the Filipino people and public funds, but this allows them to say [they didn’t steal].

Many journalists and historians have been surprised by the level of propaganda and misinformation on YouTube. But my research shows that even in early 2011 there were videos like these, and the trend accelerated after 2016. Even when students search for Philippine history on YouTube, these false claims show up.

Is this something you reported on YouTube?

We [Gaw and coauthor Cheryll Soriano] did this research in 2020, and we had conversations with YouTube executives. We said, “Here is a list of videos and channels that we flag as containing historical misinformation and denial.” And they said they would check and get back to us, but they never did. The people they send to the Philippines are not the ones who really have a say in shaping content moderation policies.

The problem is really how YouTube defines misinformation – it’s a very Western approach. In the Philippines, many political divisions are not ideological, they are based on clientelism. It’s all about which elite family you support and therefore subscribe to.

[Ivy Choi, a spokesperson for YouTube, says that its hate speech policy and a number of its election misinformation policies are applicable globally, “and take into account cultural context and nuance.” She says YouTube regularly reviews and updates its policies, and “when developing our policies, we consult with internal and outside experts around the globe, and take their feedback into account.”]

Have you seen YouTube remove any of the videos?

No, that’s actually the most frustrating part. At the start of the election season, they said, “We’re really going to be serious about making sure the election is fair and free. But the part where they actually act on the content, on the platform, there’s really nothing happening, nothing significant. Even the historical misinformation I pointed out two years ago is still there. In fact, because they weren’t deleted, those 500,000 subscribers are now 2 million. So there’s this exponential gain on those channels and videos because they haven’t been touched by the platform.

If the videos are popular, they can get brand sponsorships. And because they have a lot of subscribers and they talk about a very important topic, there are a lot of views. And it’s paid for by YouTube – they kind of pay for misinformation.

[YouTube’s Ivy Choi says that it removes offensive content “as quickly as possible” and that it removed more than 48,000 videos in the Philippines during Q4 2021 for violating its Community Guidelines. YouTube says it is reviewing the specific channels flagged by WIRED, but that it reviews all of the channels in its YouTube’s partner program and removes those that don’t comply with its policies.]

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