Image by Toys in Japan YouTube channel

YouTube is facing a serious problem. The Google-owned business has been demonetizing its content creators in an event known as the Adpocalypse, they’ve been giving videos copyright strikes for the most arbitrary of reasons, and now…a disturbing, uncanny series of poorly made YouTube videos that receive hundreds of thousands of views are showcasing the flaws in YouTube’s algorithms. In Fredrik Knudsen’s words:

Across YouTube, thousands of strange videos featuring the “Finger Family” nursery rhyme have appeared over the last few years, with poor animation and low-quality sound while racking up millions of views, sometimes hundreds of millions.. But where do they come from, and how are they so popular?

In early 2015, YouTube Kids was created, which is a “family friendly app…the app’s purpose is to provide a version of YouTube for younger kids”. Naturally, people began publishing specific content to children with the purpose of getting as many clicks as possible. On the internet—including sites like YouTube—clicks and likes are the popular currency. The more clicks and likes and comments you receive, the more YouTube will prioritize your content, and the more people will see it. Naturally, creators will try to abuse these algorithms, and use them on the road to success…or infamy.

YouTube creator Fredrik Knudsen analyzed this behavior in a video from September: Finger Family Videos | Down the Rabbit Hole. In June of 2016, another YouTube user called penguin0/Cr1TiKaL posted a video on his channel about the Finger Family phenomenon, a series of accounts that used the same badly-sung song with uncanny animation. After this, PewDiePie discovered one of these accounts, Toys in Japan, had made multiple clickbaity videos with his name and likeness in them. Just like with the videos analyzed by Cr1TiKaL, they also used the same song, “Finger Family”, as well as disturbingly uncanny video footage made in Blender. Look at any of their channel’s videos, and you’ll see a pattern: clickbait titles, stolen licensed characters, and the same songs over and over again. Their most infamous video is 5 Little HITLERS Jumping On The Bed, but the same animation has been recreated as not only Adolf Hitler, but Elsa from Frozen, PewDiePie, Paw Patrol, Donald Trump, and many more.

So why are channels like Toys in Japan so popular? The problem lies within the algorithm system employed by not only YouTube, but most sites on the internet. Among digital creators, SEO—or search engine optimization—is incredibly important. This involves using key words and phrases that will make your videos—as well as articles, photos, and basically anything—more popular. Newspaper headlines will use buzzwords like “Alt-Right”, “bots”, “Russia” or “Nazi” when talking about Donald Trump, because they know it will put them higher in Google’s search results. Tags are used for the same reason. In the case of YouTube, it involves using popular keywords in your titles. It also doesn’t help that channels like Toys in Japan seem to buy likes and comments, which also help place them at the top of YouTube’s algorithms.

This sets a dangerous precedent for YouTube, if it can be gamed by bootleg channels like Toys in Japan and Super Ares TV, but it also shows the many ways in which YouTube—and, by extension, Google—are failing their users. Channels like these feature gruesome scenes of Paw Patrol characters being stuck in elevators, or Frozen’s Elsa sticking her baby in a washing machine or giving birth to a Minion baby, and they are getting past YouTube’s censors and becoming top-watched videos on YouTube Kids. It shows YouTube’s utter reliance on algorithms, and also how little they rely on human workers to keep their site functioning.

In the wake of the Adpocalypse, this is a worrying sign for content creators who actually put effort into their content. These knock-off channels can game the YouTube system so well they have gained millions of views and are being casually recommended to everyone willy-nilly. Regular content creators place much more effort into their videos, and YouTube ignores them, or even has the gall to remove their ability to earn money from their videos, forcing them to rely on unreliable sites like Patreon to earn an income.

While Toys in Japan, Super Ares TV and others provide some entertainment—the Finger Family and Five Little Monkeys have a certain charm to them—they show how the many glaringly obvious flaws of YouTube. When using the perfect combination of keywords gets you to the top of YouTube’s playbook instead of say, quality content, then you know there’s something wrong with the current business model. In the wake of the Adpocalypse, this is just yet another problem of YouTube’s with no solution in sight.