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This is how extremists try to trick YouTube
Terrorists are getting extremely creative in their attempts to sneak by the online video giant's censorship algorithms.
Fight Terrorism on YouTube

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A fan-made video glorifying ISIS was uploaded on YouTube on April 26, 2017 and it surprisingly got past the algorithm that is supposed to recognise violence and gore in videos. How could that be possible, one might ask, when we all know that this algorithm is pretty sophisticated when it comes to such content?

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The extremists used a simple trick that somehow worked. Adding snow to videos apparently fools YouTube’s technology and it had no idea that there were violent images of death behind the fluffy snowflakes.

As we reported last month, YouTube has claimed that over 70% of extremist content is taken down within the first 3 hours but that wasn’t the case with this video. YouTube has also claimed that video reviews are done by a combination of AI and humans. This video was flagged as “age-restricted” so they should check into such content, but if you searched in February 2018 you could still find it with over 3,700 views.

YouTube is constantly improving their AI but the extremists are working creatively as well. On October 21, 2017 a news clip from Al Jazeera was uploaded and at first glance, it didn’t look suspicious. But if you look at the video long enough you will find something interesting. After a brief news intro, an ISIS propaganda video titled “To Where, Al-Bahrayn” was playing in the bottom right corner, edited over the news clip. It all looked like a regular news program so the AI could have no clue what was going on.

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Similar techniques were used for another video containing ISIS propaganda. The ISIS-affiliated Amaq News Agency released a video clip depicting a missile attack on an Egyptian helicopter in December 2017. The Amaq News Agency logo was blurred out when the video was uploaded on December 22 and instead of their logo, there was a new stamp depicting hands folded on a lap.

The same ISIS clip was released as an official version from Amaq News Agency, but this time with their logo on the footage. The previous video had sounds of a rushing missile, destruction and people shouting “Allahu Akbar!”, while this one was covered with a slow piano tune. This video was uploaded a day earlier, on December 21st, so the previously mentioned video could be edited by another extremist. Nonetheless, both videos contained very disturbing content. Since these uploads, the Amaq News Agency website has been taken down due to a successful strike lead by Europol. Read our latest news article for more information on this strike and the methods used.

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YouTube still asserts that 98% of the content that is flagged for extremism and violence gets removed, but that removal process requires a human element as well so some videos may stay uploaded longer than others. While human reviewers are doing a good job, the pro-ISIS “War and Media Agency” is also improving their techniques to try and keep to content online as long as possible. They operate multiple YouTube channels and sometimes include robotic voices in their statements. These are meant to confuse human reviewers and make them skip flagging the video as offensive and extremist. The pro-ISIS “War and Media Agency” continues to disguise itself as a documentary channel on YouTube often stating that their content is for educational purposes only. Videos uploaded by the “War and Media Agency” regularly remain on YouTube for up to several weeks or months.

The fight between YouTube’s AI and extremist content uploaders continues and constantly evolves. As soon as YouTube finds a way to recognise their videos the other side finds a way to fool the AI. This is a big issue right now as these groups continue to spread their hate speech and propaganda on the biggest video platform in the world. Will YouTube ever find a way to cut this poisonous weed at its root? Only time can tell but we can always do our part and contribute by reporting such content if we ever find it on the platform.



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Our technology has been co-funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement number 767542.