Influential YouTube stars have an enormous influence.
On Sunday evening, Ethan Klein, one half of the immensely popular YouTube channel h3h3Productions, posted a short video titled "Evidence that WSJ used FAKE screenshots."
It went out to over 3.7 million subscribers and quickly racked up over one million views.
Wearing all black, Klein looked into the camera and guided his devoted fans (who even have their own subreddit) through murky evidence he’d gathered "proving" The Wall Street Journal had fabricated an investigation written by tech reporter Jack Nicas.
Nicas’ article, published last week, demonstrated that YouTube still places major advertisers like Coca-Cola, Starbucks and General Motors alongside racist or extremist content. This remained true even after YouTube said it strengthened its system designed to stop that from happening.
Bottom line: The WSJ didn’t fake its investigation. Klein was wrong. But by joining the growing ranks of people convinced that mainstream legacy publications are lying to them, he added fuel to their fire, nonetheless. He’d later offer up a weak apology, but it would mean nothing. This is a story of a faulty takedown causing irreparable harm.
The beginning of the storm
Klein is part of a group of YouTube users unhappy with the WSJ. In February, the paper published an article that showed YouTube’s biggest star, PewDiePie, had uploaded several videos containing what appeared to be hate speech. It caused him to lose his contract with Disney and for much of YouTube to revolt against the WSJ.
Just as importantly, Klein got duped by the convoluted system YouTube uses to monetize the more than 400 hours of video uploaded to the platform each minute. It’s a system that Klein, as a YouTube star, knows well.
"Send this video to Wall Street Journal. Send this video to YouTube. Send this to other news organizations and brands. This is the smoking gun," Klein said in the video, his pupils reflecting the computer screen.
Klein was convinced that the reporter shared a faked screenshot of a YouTube video on Twitter. The photo was of a Coca-Cola ad that played before a video titled "Chief Keef dancing to Alabama Nig—-," a song by racist country singer Johnny Rebel.
In the video, which has now been removed, a music video from black rapper Chief Keef plays. Keef’s music is replaced by the racist tune.
Image: jack nicas/twitter
The screenshot that traveled across the internet.
Klein was unconvinced that the screenshots were authentic. He contacted the original user who uploaded the racist video and asked him to share information about how much revenue it garnered. That information could indicate whether expensive ads from big brands were really playing when the WSJ reporter took his screenshot.
User statistics showed "Chief keef dancing to Alabama Nig—-" had stopped generating revenue soon after it was uploaded, over 9 months ago. This could mean that Nicas had some explaining to do about his screenshots, Klein surmised. But there was another reason entirely.
Klein thought he had discovered an explosive fabrication that could end a reporter’s career.
But it turned out the reporter had in fact not tampered with the screenshots. A YouTube spokesperson confirmed that the video was monetized (meaning it was playing ads) when Nicas collected his evidence. So what really happened? More on that after we survey the damage.
The rubble left behind
Several hours after he posted it, Klein took down his original video and uploaded an apology, but it was too late. His dubious claims had already ricocheted across the internet and onto right-wing media publications.
I’ve privated the video for now, we are looking into other details and will update you guys shortly.
— Ethan Klein (@h3h3productions) April 3, 2017
Within hours, Klein’s video was on the front page of Reddit. It had over 70,000 upvotes on the platform and over one million views. Conspiracy theorist and alt-right star Mike Cernovich and InfoWars editor Paul Joseph Watson tweeted about the saga.
Right-wing blog The Gateway Pundit picked up the story, as did former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos’ website. The opportunity to label the WSJ "fake news" proved too hard to pass up.
Klein isn’t a member of the alt-right, though. In fact, in his sketch-comedy videos, he’s criticized both Islamophobia and Donald Trump.
"I don’t want to be on the alt-right and I don’t want to be on the left, where it’s never okay to say anything offensive," Klein told VICE in February.
The reason Klein ended up creating such an explosively false video isn’t because he hates the mainstream media, but because he got snarled in YouTube’s complicated and sometimes opaque system for monetizing its videos.
Another twist before the reveal
It turns out the same company that represents h3h3Productions — Omnia Media — profited from the video Klein attacked. Neither Omnia Media nor Klein responded to requests for comment.
The reason it looked as though the original user who uploaded "Chief keef dancing to Alabama Nig—-," wasn’t making money is because they weren’t.
The video featured a stolen music video from Chief Keef, who like h3h3Productions, is partnered with Omnia Media, an agency that represents online video creators, among other types of talent.
Chief Keef is now partnered with Omnia Media, check out his first music video launch with Omnia… http://t.co/0TXkzqMaWz
— Omnia Media (@OmniaMediaCo) March 16, 2014
Twitter users @TrustedFlagger and @NoNaughtyVideos discovered that the video had been claimed by a third party using online tools like ViewCached.com, which allowed them to view previous versions of what the video looked like.
What they proved was that the video contained copyrighted information and was subsequently claimed by the copyright owner. YouTube has an automated system that can help funnel money to copyright owners when their stuff is uploaded. So the original uploader wasn’t making money off the monetized video, but it was still making money. That’s why so many songs and other copyrighted videos don’t get removed.
"I saw that the video player had a yellow bar at the beginning which indicates that an ad was requested which does not happen for videos that are not monetized," @NoNaughtyVideos said over Twitter DM.
Both @TrustedFlagger and @NoNaughtyVideos are part of YouTube’s Trusted Flagger Program, a group of users who help scrub YouTube of content that violates YouTube’s Community Guidelines.
The real truth
Part of the reason the battle between h3h3Productions and The Wall Street Journal took place is because the endless information available on the internet sometimes convinces people they can easily find answers to complicated problems.
Klein did do some impressive sleuthing — but he didn’t pause long enough to wonder whether Nicas had done his work, too.
Why Klein decided to think the worst of The Wall Street Journal’s work points towards a larger schism between the internet and legacy publications. When Klein posted his video accusing the publication of fabricating a story, much of Reddit, Twitter, and other social platforms sided with the YouTube star over the journalist.
As a result, Nicas received numerous death threats online and the WSJ issued a statement indicating it stood behind its journalist’s work. Nicas declined to comment on the record.
Klein was also already unhappy with the WSJ’s work concerning hate speech on YouTube.
In February, he posted a video criticizing the publication for publishing an article (which Nicas co-wrote) showing that YouTube’s most popular star, Felix Kjellberg, known as "PewDiePie" had published several videos that appeared to include hate speech. Disney subsequently severed its ties with the star.
Klein and his wife Hila were set to appear in Pewdiepie’s show, which Disney was producing. It has subsequently been canceled, in part because of the WSJ’s reporting.
This story, however, is about more than just a feud between new media and legacy publications.
YouTube’s complicated copyright structure and ever-shifting targeted advertising model make it difficult for even seasoned users and creators—like Klein, who makes his entire income from YouTube—to know what the hell is going on.
While you can accuse Klein of messing up, it was YouTube’s complicated system (coupled with an already poor perception of the WSJ) that fooled him.
Predictably, none of the right-wing outlets who picked up h3h3’s original video have issued a correction. Instead, those who read about the saga on right-wing publications will continue to believe in the fake news.