April 14, 2021

by the EU Disinfo Lab with reporting from Rappler

As discussions in Brussels continue over how to regulate large social media platforms across 27 member states, the perspective of countries outside the European bloc adds another dimension to the debate by casting the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of many of these platforms into higher definition. Filipinos spend the most time on the internet of any population globally, yet they represent a marginal market for platforms like YouTube. YouTube’s policies not only fail to protect Filipinos from propaganda, historical revisionism, and science denialism, but actually amplify harmful disinformation, including the false narratives that allow the dictatorship to legitimise and maintain power. The Philippines is far from the only country facing this threat; More likely it is the canary in the coal mine, as Rappler’s Maria Ressa has often said, when it comes to platforms’ disregard for, and active participation in, the degradation of the information ecosystem. Not only are platform policies inconsistently enforced outside of a few major markets, but there is an urgent need to localise content moderation, including both the creation and enforcement of company policies, to protect consumers in all markets where platforms operate. 

As Rappler journalists report from Manila, the absurd claim that the family of the former dictator and president Ferdinand Marcos owns a million tons of gold is still proliferating on YouTube, despite debunks by historians and independent fact checkers in the Philippines. This claim was, incidentally, a finalist for “Most Bizarre Fact Check”1 at the International Fact-Checking Network’s Global Fact Awards in 2019. A Google search on the amount of mined and unmined gold in the world will show anyone that it is impossible for any one person to own a million metric tons2.

This continued proliferation is made possible thanks to YouTube’s Community Guidelines, which do not explicitly prohibit false information, coupled with the fact that their policies on promoting authoritative voices and demoting borderline content are not consistently enforced across countries. 

Thus, the urban legend persists on YouTube, sanitising the Marcos family’s name and changing public perception. The impossible one million tons of gold explain away and justify why the Marcoses’ total known assets far exceeded their income during Marcos’ time in Malacanang and his wife Imelda Marcos’ term as governor of Manila. 

“Before, no sane or decent person will write or proclaim this in public for fear of being laughed off or ridiculed, except by the true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool Marcos supporters,” said Luisa de Leon Bolinao, a professor at the University of the Philippines (UP) history department, in an email to Rappler. Bolinao was also the department’s former chair. She was talking about the 20 years between when Martial Law in the Philippines ended in 1986 and the beginning of social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube in 2004 and 2005, respectively. 

When asked if the stories caused harm, she said: “Of course they are harmful. These criminals are still in positions of power in all branches of government, the military, and in the private sector and can pay or intimidate people to continue spreading their lies.”

The Marcos gold myth, however, is just one of the many kinds of propaganda3 and false videos4 circulating on the platform. 

Despite YouTube’s widely publicised commitment to fighting mis- and disinformation, these kinds of videos are still racking up thousands of views and are monetising falsehoods through ads. None are labeled as potentially misleading – and are consequently leading Filipino viewers down a rabbithole of propaganda, historical revisionism, or science denialism.  

‘Less than 1%’

While YouTube says that less than 1%5 of content on the platform is harmful, even this low quantity can lead to serious harm. In May 2019, more than 500 hours of video were uploaded to YouTube every minute. If 1% of this was harmful, then around 5 hours of harmful content was uploaded to the platform per minute. 

To exemplify this we consider just one such case – when “Marcos” is typed into the YouTube search bar in an incognito browser, “Marcos gold” and “Marcos gold bars history” are among the top 5 recommended search terms7. The search terms pull up a handful of legitimate news reports and documentaries about the family, but most of the video results falsely claim that the Philippines is the richest country in the world due to the family’s gold. YouTube does not show how many videos are found for a specific search term, but googling “site:youtube.com ‘marcos gold’” on January 24, 2021 returned 293 results. 

One video that claims “Marcos gold can save the world” had received 21,000 likes as of Monday, February 22, far greater than its 1,000 dislikes. Crucially, the viewers who posted its 5,950 comments, expressed belief and support, while attacking political opponents and glorifying the Marcos patriarch. 

This video itself was originally published on August 31, 2017 and fact checked by Rappler on February 19, 20198. On the latter date, the video had 1,036,773 views. One year later, the video’s views grew by approximately 83% to around 1.9 million.

Since YouTube9 became the second most frequented social media platform in the country in 2020, this unchecked proliferation of disinformation on the platform is increasingly harming the public perception of historic events. The risk is amplified further by the fact that Filipinos spend the most time on the internet globally relative to any other population. Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, this trend has accelerated even further  – from 9 hours and 45 minutes in January 2020 to 10 hours and 56 minutes in January 2021.

Roy Mendoza, a lecturer at Ateneo de Manila University’s history department told Rappler in a phone call that it is difficult to educate students and the general public about critical thinking and the history of the Philippines, due to the sheer amount of propaganda, as he called it, and the bite-sized information available on social media. 

Is YouTube doing enough?

YouTube’s Community Guidelines list 3 policies against misinformation and disinformation: deceptive practices, impersonation, and hate speech. They also have policies against election and COVID-19-related misinformation10

However, these do not go far enough since it is still possible to post disinformation on the platform without violating any of those three policies. The Marcos gold myth is a case in point.  

In particular, YouTube’s ‘Deceptive Practices’ policy does not prohibit the posting of blatantly false information other than election-related claims (e.g. voter suppression, candidate eligibility, or US presidential election integrity).

Responding to an email from Rappler on 20 January, 2021, YouTube did not confirm whether a video containing the Marcos gold claim violated their Community Guidelines or not. 

Mendoza, who has tried to report a historically inaccurate video before, also observed that the topic of the video did not fall into any of the categories of YouTube’s Community Guidelines. The option to report something as misleading is tied to “spam.” 

“It’s more than that,” he told Rappler. “It’s propaganda, dapat may ganoong button o parang space na talagang ‘this is really fallacy’”. (It’s propaganda, there should be a button or space that says ‘this is really fallacy’.)

According to Mendoza, YouTube did not give him an update on whether any action was taken in response to his feedback.

It’s possible that YouTube considers the Marcos gold videos as “borderline content,” but they did not confirm this with Rappler in their response. Borderline content is described11 as “content that comes close to – but doesn’t quite cross the line of – violating our Community Guidelines.” This kind of content is the reason why, before January 201912, flat Earth conspiracy claims, false claims about historic events like 9/11, and fake miracle cures for serious illnesses spread widely on YouTube. 

In January 2019, YouTube announced that they began reducing recommendations for those kinds of content. At the time, they said that the change would be gradual and would only affect a small set of videos in the US. By the end of the year13, they said that they’ve expanded to English-speaking countries like the UK, Ireland, and South Africa, as well as Brazil, France, Germany, Mexico, and Spain.

In their email, YouTube said they have since expanded to Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, and continue to cover more countries in the Asia Pacific. They, however, did not specify the roll out date for the Philippines. 

Aside from reducing recommendations, YouTube also introduced information panels in 2018, which provide links to third-party information in videos that discuss topics that are subject to misinformation and disinformation. There are no information panels on videos about the Marcoses’ supposed gold, but there are panels for COVID-19 mis- and disinformation. (See image below.) On their Help Center14, YouTube says these panels are not available in all countries and languages, but that they are working to bring these to more countries. 

YouTube also launched fact check information panels15 in Brazil and India in 2019 and then in the US in April 2020. These panels highlight relevant 3rd-party fact-checked articles above search results. Third-party fact-checkers, who are either verified signatories of the International Fact-Checking Network’s (IFCN) Code of Principles or authoritative publishers16, use ClaimReview17, a system that tags fact check articles on search engines. In their announcement about the roll-out of this feature in the US, YouTube said they will roll out the feature in other countries as well and it was subsequently launched in the UK and Germany18 in September 2020.  There have been no announcements on expansion to other countries since then. 

YouTube’s Response: Too little, too slowly

Between March and May 2020,  the German investigative newsroom Correctiv conducted a  study19 on 1,800 COVID-19-related claims which found that 46% of them were linked to YouTube. 

Consequently, Correctiv’s founder David Schraven stated that YouTube’s mis- and disinformation response was too slow. “[What they’ve done is] better than nothing. So they see the problem. But the answer to the problem is not good enough,” he told Rappler over a video call in December 2020. 

If YouTube does not act more quickly, Schraven is concerned that not enough people will get vaccinated against COVID-19 due to disinformation on the platform. This, he said, would then harm the forthcoming federal elections in Germany, its economy, and the society as a whole. 

YouTube’s algorithm, he said, could lead people who are watching harmless things – like videos of fireworks, for example, or reliable information on COVID-19 – to videos that are misleading or could lead to real-world harm. 

Schraven also stated that people are less likely to read the articles that YouTube links to within the information panels, because it’s a video platform. Thus he is advocating for proper labeling of false information within videos, in the same way that ads play before, during, or after a YouTube video is watched. Bolinao and Mendoza also agreed with Bolinao even urging for repeat offenders to be suspended or banned.

When asked if there is a content moderation team assigned to review harmful misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories in the Philippines specifically, YouTube replied to Rappler that they have teams worldwide, with 10,000 people across Google focused on these issues. According to YouTube, their teams ensure 24-hour coverage across different time zones, local languages, and different areas of expertise.

Bolinao and Schraven, amongst many other independent experts, argue that YouTube needs to go further and implement more rigorous  monitoring, flagging, and removal of disinformation videos, similar to the processes already implemented by Facebook and Twitter

With the COVID-19 pandemic and elections taking place around the world, YouTube’s existing policies and the actions they’ve taken aren’t enough. 

Given the crucial role the video platform plays in the social media ecosystem – not just in the Philippines, but in countries around the world – there is an unequivocal and urgent need for better mis- and disinformation policies. Election outcomes in particular (e.g. those in Germany in 2021 and the Philippines’ presidential election in 2022) should not be influenced by false information, conspiracy theories, and historically inaccurate claims. Even more crucially, the platform should invest with equal rigour and commitment across all countries, languages, and cultures.

  1. Cristina Tardáguila, “Cast Your Vote for This Year’s Global Fact Awards,” Poynter, June 12, 2019, https://www.poynter.org/reporting-editing/2019/cast-your-vote-for-this-years-global-fact-awards/.
  2. “How Much Gold Has Been Mined?,” World Gold Council, December 14, 2017, https://www.gold.org/about-gold/gold-supply/gold-mining/how-much-gold.
  3. Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins, “How Three Conspiracy Theorists Took ‘Q’ and Sparked Qanon,” NBCNews.com (NBCUniversal News Group, August 20, 2018), https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/tech-news/how-three-conspiracy-theorists-took-q-sparked-qanon-n900531.
  4. Casey Newton, “How YouTube Helps Flat-Earthers Organize,” The Verge (The Verge, February 20, 2019), https://www.theverge.com/interface/2019/2/20/18232524/youtube-flat-earth-recommendation-algorithm-conspiracy.
  5. The YouTube Team Dec.03.2019, “The Four Rs of Responsibility, Part 2: Raising Authoritative Content and Reducing Borderline Content and Harmful Misinformation,” blog.youtube, September 3, 2019, https://blog.youtube/inside-youtube/the-four-rs-of-responsibility-raise-and-reduce.
  6. Tankovska, H. “YouTube: Hours of Video Uploaded Every Minute 2019.” Statista, 26 Jan. 2021, www.statista.com/statistics/259477/hours-of-video-uploaded-to-youtube-every-minute/. 
  7.  Incognito mode allows users to browse the web without using previous history. “Allow Private Browsing,” Google Chrome Enterprise Help (Google), accessed February 24, 2021, https://support.google.com/chrome/a/answer/930289
  8. Rappler.com, “FALSE: Marcos Family Owns a ‘Million Tons of Gold’,” Rappler (Rappler, April 25, 2020), https://www.rappler.com/newsbreak/fact-check/false-marcos-family-own-million-tons-gold.
  9. Simon Kemp, “Digital 2020: The Philippines – DataReportal – Global Digital Insights,” DataReportal (DataReportal – Global Digital Insights, February 4, 2021), https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2020-philippines.
  10. “YouTube Misinformation – How YouTube Works,” YouTube (YouTube), accessed February 24, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/howyoutubeworks/our-commitments/fighting-misinformation/#policies.
  11. https://www.blog.google/documents/37/How_Google_Fights_Disinformation.pdf
  12. The YouTube Team, “Continuing Our Work to Improve Recommendations on YouTube,” blog.youtube, January 25, 2019, https://blog.youtube/news-and-events/continuing-our-work-to-improve.
  13. The YouTube Team Dec.03.2019, “The Four Rs of Responsibility, Part 2: Raising Authoritative Content and Reducing Borderline Content and Harmful Misinformation,” blog.youtube, September 3, 2019, https://blog.youtube/inside-youtube/the-four-rs-of-responsibility-raise-and-reduce.
  14. “Information Panel Giving Topical Context – YouTube Help,” Google (Google), accessed February 24, 2021, https://support.google.com/youtube/answer/9004474?hl=en&ref_topic=9257092
  15. The YouTube Team, “Expanding Fact Checks on YouTube to the United States,” blog.youtube, April 28, 2020, https://blog.youtube/news-and-events/expanding-fact-checks-on-youtube-to-united-states/.
  16. “See Fact Checks in YouTube Search Results – YouTube Help,” Google (Google), accessed February 24, 2021, https://support.google.com/youtube/answer/9229632?hl=en&ref_topic=9257092.
  17. “The Facts About ClaimReview,” The ClaimReview Project, accessed February 24, 2021, https://www.claimreviewproject.com/the-facts-about-claimreivew.
  18. Ryan Browne, “YouTube Expands Fact-Checking Feature for Video Searches to Europe,” CNBC (CNBC, September 24, 2020), https://www.cnbc.com/2020/09/24/youtube-expands-fact-checking-feature-for-video-searches-to-europe.html.
  19. Data Analysis: Users Find Questionable Information on the Coronavirus Especially on Youtube and Disseminate It via Whatsapp,” correctiv.org (correctiv.org, May 18, 2020), https://correctiv.org/en/latest-stories/fact-checking/2020/05/18/data-analysis-users-find-questionable-information-on-the-coronavirus-especially-on-youtube-and-disseminate-it-via-whatsapp/.