The plagiarism predicament: Unravelling YouTube’s content crisis 

By Max Penny-Barrow, Senior Programmatic Executive

When we cast our minds back to those halcyon days of university, the stress of running your work through the plagiarism checker “Turnitin” is often forgotten. Eight hours of bleary-eyed overnight flat-out essay work, hinging on a percentage. All the hours of research and reading felt worth it as you closed all the tabs of the sources you’d drawn from. Plagiarism was a serious infringement, too, with copying work potentially netting a zero or, worse, expulsion from the university.  

Some YouTubers have taken a less serious perspective on the matter. In an almost four-hour-long explosive exposé currently sitting at over 16.5m views, YouTuber and video essayist Hbomberguy (Harry Brewis) brought damning evidence to light about creators copying content verbatim, from books, both scholarly and news articles, Netflix documentaries and in a couple of instances, directly from Wikipedia.   

Validity is key for YouTube, meaning that this kind of content trends can have serious implications for marketers who aren’t switched on. Brewis highlights how these creators earned significant amounts of revenue through both direct influencer partnerships and programmatic advertising, where this income would’ve been distributed more evenly across a wider range of similar creators. Creators who plagiarise are able to pump out content more quickly, taking up a larger share of the revenue pie amongst creators, and therefore, more of our advertising spend goes against potentially harmful content.   

A study published by Google and Talk Shoppe highlights how the interaction between user and creator is pivotal to how information is viewed on the platform and, therefore, how effective our ad spend can be. The study focuses more on the commercial rather than culture, highlighting YouTubers as key for trust – “Creators are a large part of the reason why people view the platform as a source of reliable information, with 87% of viewers agreeing that YouTube creators give recommendations they can trust” (Google, Talk Shoppe, 2021). Plagiarism seriously erodes this trust, which is key for YouTube when compared to other social media platforms. The same study describes the potential knock-on effect this has on brands that advertise on YouTube. “Brands placed within YouTube were rated significantly more trustworthy, established and credible than they were on [other social media platforms]” (Google, Talk Shoppe, 2021). If users begin to mistrust content on YouTube, this will have an inherently negative effect on advertisers who appear on the platform.   

The YouTube algorithm means that creators are forced to take a content-mill-type approach, pumping out as much content as possible in the least amount of time. This means that smaller creators find it more difficult to grow as YouTube pushes creators who upload more often, inevitably leading to corner-cutting and, in the worst cases, plagiarism. Brewis highlights how these content mills also squeeze smaller, diverse creators in the conclusion of his video, and that’s a huge potential shame for the type of content we can advertise against. Single creators holding a monopoly over types of content or certain topics is a negative, as it could potentially lead to user fatigue and a lack of diversity in opinion. This low-effort content also breeds low-attention users, with users more likely to be second screening or not engaged with the content.   

So what can be done?  

Right now, it’s quite easy to bypass copyright restrictions on YouTube, which only apply to other YouTube videos or wider video content. Harris shows how creator Illuminaughtii simply added a filter in Premier Pro to Netflix footage and was able to pass it off as her own. For content outside of YouTube, the infringed party has to fill out a form, and then YouTube decides whether it’s plagiarism or not. As we know, with the massive growth of video in the last 15 years or so generally, alongside TikTok more recently, video is king. If publishers take ownership of their video content by uploading it to YouTube, it would be more likely to be automatically flagged. The Athletic have had success in this area through their partnership with Tifo Football. This current system should encourage publishers to sign up to YouTube to adapt their content into video, as this would allow the system to naturally catch plagiarisers and ban them from the platform. As we know, AI could also play a part in how much data it has access to all across the web. It would be quite straightforward and within Google’s interest to ensure that content shared on YouTube is plagiarism-free.  

Alongside macro platform changes, it’s our responsibility to pull the correct levers to ensure that we’re appearing next to the correct content. TKF has a number of options available and we stringently control the content that we appear next to by assessing channel delivery across all our live YouTube activity biweekly. Inappropriate or less than desirable content is added to a blocklist that is applied to all YouTube activity that runs.   

We now also have access to YouTube Select inventory, a pre-determined selection of YouTube inventory that we can activate against. It gives us access to advanced brand suitability controls, as well as human verified content which would work particularly effectively against the advent of plagiarism as content we serve against would be specifically filtered by a human.   

Externally, there are options too. We partner with Silverpush, which analyses videos by looking for specific contextual signals within the content itself. This could be logos, products or the context that we decide. Once this is identified, we can serve our ads within this hyper-contextualised environment. Another external partner is Channel Factory, which can provide live lists that are updated mid-campaign of channels depending on audiences or context.    

It’s clear that, while plagiarism can be a massive issue on parts of YouTube, it’s ultimately our responsibility as buyers to ensure that we’re appearing against the correct content until Google decides to do something about it. With AI and content reposting on TikTok already rife, it can only be a matter of time before platforms decide to take more aggressive action against plagiarised content.