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YouTube Fails to Block Election Disinformation Ads, Investigation Reveals

Two rights groups, as part of their investigation, submitted ads to YouTube that contained election disinformation. All of them got through YouTube’s review process, raising questions over the rigour of the process.

YouTube is allowing advertisements containing election disinformation onto its platform in India, rights groups Global Witness and Access Now found in their investigation into the company’s advertising and election misinformation policies. As a part of this investigation, the two groups submitted 48 advertisements in English, Hindi, and Telugu to YouTube containing content prohibited by YouTube’s policies. These ads contained voter suppression through false information on changes to the voting age, instructions to vote by text message, and incitement to prevent certain groups from voting. Access Now and Global Witness noted that despite YouTube’s review process for advertisements, these ads were approved for publication before being eventually scrapped by the groups themselves to make sure no user saw these ads on the site.

This comes after Google (YouTube’s parent company) announced in March that they are partnering with the Election Commission of India (ECI) to amplify information, combat misinformation, and raise awareness on navigating AI-generated content, ahead of the upcoming general elections in India. In the announcement post for this partnership, Google highlighted its advertising policies which prohibit ads from “promoting demonstrably false claims that could undermine trust or participation in elections.” The company stated that it now uses AI along with manual efforts to label misinformed content.

Why it matters:

The investigation’s findings reveal that YouTube is unable to restrict content that is designed to undermine electoral integrity and that clearly violates its own policies. This raises concerns about the platform’s abilities to curb disinformation.

Have disinformation ads been allowed during other elections as well?

In 2022, Global Witness submitted similar advertisements in Portuguese ahead of the 2022 elections in Brazil, all of which had also been approved by YouTube. On the other hand, when advertisements containing disinformation were put up for listing in the US ahead of the country’s mid-term elections in 2022, YouTube rejected all of them and banned the associated YouTube channels.

This, the groups say, demonstrates that the platform has the means to moderate its content properly when it so chooses. The way it makes content moderation decisions, however, remains different across different countries.

How did the company respond to the investigation?

Google responded to the investigation arguing that it applies its policies “globally and consistently,” and disputed the methodology of the investigation, as per a report by Time Magazine. “Our enforcement process has multiple layers to ensure ads comply with our policies, and just because an ad passes an initial technical check does not mean it won’t be blocked or removed by our enforcement systems if it violates our policies,” the company said.

Global Witness and Access Now say that taking action after an ad has been put up is dangerous and irresponsible during the election period. They argue that once an ad has been put up, the damage is done, especially considering YouTube’s reach.


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