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Creeps and Sadists Manipulate YouTube Kids Algorithm to Get Access to Children

A bizarre social media scandal has emerged on YouTube Kids over the past year and a half. Dubbed #Elsagate, it involves aberrant imagery in videos, combined with attempts to game the YouTube algorithms to present inappropriate content to children. In November, YouTube took action to remove content, shut down accounts, and block ads from some of the biggest offenders. Yet many are still asking if that is enough to end the threat to children.

A flood of inappropriate videos have appeared on YouTube Kids, a dedicated app that uses algorithms to filter out content not suitable for children. YouTube Kids should be a place that parents know kids will be safe and can view age-appropriate content. Starting in 2016, parents noticed videos that included nonsensical themes, in what artist James Bridle referred to as "infrastructural violence." Videos include crude renditions of familiar characters such as Spider-Man, The Joker, and Elsa from Frozen (hence the name). They might be animated, amateur claymation, or live action videos acted out by adults and children in Halloween costumes. Often, videos include music but no dialogue — reportedly an effective method of bypassing algorithms set up to shield children from exploitative themes.

In order to grasp the vastness of the issue, one needs to grasp the vastness of the number of videos on YouTube Kids. James Bridle wrote a must-read article for any parent. Bridle travels step by step through several levels of increasingly more disturbing video content.

The first level consists of a seemingly endless series of nonsense videos. Nothing wrong, necessarily, but off. They seem to be nonsense videos created by bots or other automated sources that take advantage of keywords in the title (e.g. Wrong Heads Disney Wrong Ears Wrong Legs Kids Learn Colors Finger Family 2017 Nursery Rhymes). The heavy use of keywords helps push the videos to the top of search results.

The second level of disturbing videos consists of popular characters being put in upsetting situations, such as Peppa Pig crying uncontrollably while getting a shot at the doctor's office, or eating her father, or drinking bleach. The emotional manipulation is obvious and disturbing for adults. One can only imagine the effect of this manipulation on the emotions of a young child. It's almost akin to the scene in A Clockwork Orange where Alex, played by Malcolm McDowell, is brainwashed.

A third level consists of real-life families filming themselves doing things that are, well, weird. Bridle wrote of the Toy Freaks channel (since removed by YouTube) that showed a father and his daughters acting out various scenarios like punishment and sucking on pacifiers. According to a report by BuzzFeed, the girls were shown wetting themselves, screaming in fear, spitting up, and bathing.