YouTube Under Fire: Approval of Election Disinformation Ads Raises Concerns Ahead of Indian Polls

Feature and Cover YouTube Under Fire Approval of Election Disinformation Ads Raises Concerns Ahead of Indian Polls

YouTube has greenlit numerous advertisements endorsing voter suppression and inciting violence ahead of India’s upcoming election, according to a recent investigation conducted by rights organizations Global Witness and Access Now, exclusively revealed to TIME.

India, renowned as the world’s largest democracy, is poised to conduct its election across seven phases from April 19 to June 1 of this year. Voters will determine whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi secures a third term or faces a setback to his Hindu nationalist agenda. With over half the global population participating in around 65 national elections this year, India’s election stands out as the largest and a pivotal test for social media platforms in combatting election misinformation, especially following industry-wide layoffs.

In a bid to assess YouTube’s efficacy in curbing disinformation, Global Witness and Access Now submitted 48 ads featuring election-related content banned by YouTube rules, written in Hindi, Telugu, and English. Surprisingly, within a 24-hour review window, YouTube gave the green light to all ads. Although the ads were withdrawn before publication, raising concerns about YouTube’s ability to halt the dissemination of paid disinformation during a significant global election. Namrata Maheshwari, senior policy counsel at Access Now, expressed disappointment, highlighting the broader issue of YouTube’s focus on particular countries.

Google refuted the report’s methodology, claiming it applies policies consistently worldwide and defended its enforcement process. The company asserted that none of the ads were published, and emphasized multiple layers of review to ensure policy compliance. YouTube’s massive user base in India, with over 450 million users, positions it as the second-most-popular tech platform after WhatsApp. Unlike WhatsApp, YouTube offers targeted advertising tools, which contributed to its substantial $9.2 billion ad revenue in the final quarter of 2023.

Some approved ads contained false information aimed at voter suppression, falsely stating ID requirements or suggesting voting by text message. Others hinted at violence, targeting religious communities or alleging electoral fraud hotspots. This report highlights a concerning global divide in platform enforcement against election disinformation, with the south often receiving less attention than the north.

The report’s authors contested Google’s response, arguing that the damage is already done once ads go live, even if later removed. They urged YouTube to enhance its efforts against disinformation before the Indian election begins. The organizations called for various measures, including evaluating the ad approval process, ensuring adequate resources for content moderation in local languages, and conducting an independent human rights impact assessment.

Henry Peck from Global Witness suggested recent layoffs in YouTube’s trust and safety division might have exacerbated the situation. Although Google didn’t disclose specific impacts of layoffs on ad review teams, they assured significant investments in countering election disinformation and highlighted a dedicated team for Indian languages.

As the election approaches, there’s an urgent need for YouTube to bolster its defenses against disinformation, ensuring a fair and transparent electoral process.

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