Social Media

In India, 'fake news' and hoaxes catch fire as millions see YouTube for the first time

Manish Singh, Special to
Key Points
  • YouTube is exploding in popularity in India, thanks to new, cheap data plans.
  • Trending videos in India are often overwhelmingly hoaxes.
  • Unlike other countries, India has its own "Trending" list on YouTube.
  • Fake new YouTube videos are spreading to other social media in India.
"Fake news" and hoaxes catch fire in India as millions see YouTube for the first time

YouTube is tackling hoaxes and other problems that plague it in much of the developed world, but it's falling short in a booming new market.

In India, fake news, hoaxes and other misleading videos have thrived on Google's video platform with little friction for years. Despite outcries, users and YouTubers say, the Google-owned service has yet to introduce strict discipline on its website.

In late 2016, when the Indian government invalidated much of the cash in circulation in the nation, rumors of new bills containing GPS-tracking microchips began making rounds on YouTube. In a second example months later, a viral video on the platform falsely claimed that France President Emmanuel Macron had, in what would have been a sign of respect in some Indian cultures, touched the feet of India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

News Guard tackling 'fake news' epidemic

The issue regained prominence in India late last month following the death of famous actress Sridevi. The vast majority of videos listed on YouTube's Trending feed in India following her death were found to be peddling false information. The news-focused videos, some of which were created by unverified channels, dominated the feed in the country for days.

Tweet: Every single video on the YouTube trending page is fake

A Google spokesperson said the company is working on fixing the issues, and pointed CNBC to blog posts in which it outlines the steps it is taking to curb mischievous acts on its platform.

People outside India probably have not come across those videos. Most countries share the same Trending feed, but Google has created a separate Trending feed for India. Google says it created a special feed for India to better serve growing non-English speaking Internet audiences."

Millions are on YouTube for the first time now

Internet data plans are becoming more affordable in India, thanks in part to the low-cost services sold by Reliance Jio, a one-and-half-year-old telecom network by India's richest man Mukesh Ambani. Right now, millions of Indians are chancing upon services such as YouTube for the first time each month.

YouTube has added about 70 million users in India in last two years, according to research firm eMarketer. The service had about 172 million monthly active viewers in the nation at the end of 2017, eMarketer said.

"India has become a video-first market," Rajan Anandan, vice president of Google for Southeast Asia and India said in a recent interview. "YouTube consumption is off the roof."

Tweet: Please check & remove fake videos like these on the trending page.

Prabhakar Kumar, co-ordinator of CMS Medialab, an organization that monitors media trends in India, argued that the level of literacy among the users who are coming onboard now is much lower than those of the batches of users that came online before them. For that reason, those new users are more prone to getting tricked by fake news.

YouTube, Twitter fighting fake news over Florida shooting

The leaping popularity of YouTube in India also comes at a time when Facebook and WhatsApp, two of the most popular services in India, are grappling with the circulation of fake news on their own platforms.

Hoaxes start on YouTube, then migrate to Facebook

Often the videos distributed on those platforms originate and are hosted on YouTube, said Jency Jacob, managing editor of BoomLive, a news organization in India that tries to demystify false information.

One of the biggest problems some Indians face on YouTube is their inability to tell fake news apart from real news, said Sandeep Amar, CEO of news network iTV's digital arm.

Amar argued that YouTube should consider introducing improved labels to make it easier for users to identify trustworthy sources. He complained about low-quality channels that he says are masquerading as news outlets and making misleading videos with provocative thumbnails.

Established YouTubers get squeezed by fakers

YouTubers who have been with the platform for years complain that their videos gain less traction than they did previously, because misleading videos are dominating people's feeds. Those long-term video creators point out that they put a great deal of effort into their work, but it's discouraging to see bad actors rewarded with traffic.

Amit Bhawani, a veteran blogger from Hyderabad who runs a smartphone-focused news blog called PhoneRadar, and Abhijeet Mukherjee, founder of blog GuidingTech, said that if YouTube doesn't clean up the mess, it will hinder more established content creators.

"For years, creators, influencers and industry experts have been complaining about this, but we are yet to see a change," Bhawani said.

Given the reach that YouTube has in India, the country needs to consider regulating the content that flows on the platform, says Pankaj Jain, founder of SMHoaxSlayer, another organization which debunks fake news.

WATCH: US government should deal with fake news conflict: Kara Swisher

US government should deal with fake news conflict: Kara Swisher