Unbalanced Information Diet: Warped Lens on the World / YouTubers Post Attention-Grabbing Videos to Rack up Views

Yomiuri Shimbun
YouTuber Raphael speaks during an interview in Minato Ward, Tokyo.

The internet has become a chaotic space, brimming with outrageous, biased and fake information. The so-called attention economy, which generates revenue by getting people to click on or view ads, underpins today’s digital era. This is the first installment in a series of articles that will explore the current situation from the perspective of content providers.


‘Like chasing a fix’

Wearing a gray hoodie and a white mask, “Raphael,” a popular YouTuber with more than 2 million subscribers, speaks during an interview at a luxury condominium in Tokyo.

With his sharp storytelling skills, Raphael is particularly popular with men, thanks to his TV variety show-style offerings, in which he purchases high-end cars and luxury watches.

Four years ago, however, his fortunes dipped when his main YouTube channel was suspended due to issues related to his video content. “[Back then], it was all about racking up the numbers; it felt like I was constantly chasing a drug fix,” he said.

After graduating from high school in Osaka, Raphael joined the Ground Self-Defense Force. Although considered a successful recruit, he opted to leave the organization to seek higher financial rewards.

Raphael says he has always been confident in his ability to grasp what others seemed to want from him — whether in the Self-Defense Forces or in his civilian life.

With his polished speaking skills, he quickly became a top company salesperson, but his income could not keep up with his lavish lifestyle, which included a penchant for high-end suits. In October 2014, he started a side business: uploading videos to YouTube.

After about 18 months, he experienced a huge spike in popularity, not least due to content related to picking up women.

In one video he propositions women in a busy shopping district in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, saying, “I’ll give you ¥1 million, if you accompany me to a hotel right now.”

Another of his popular videos showed a broken vending machine erroneously dispensing a stream of ¥1,000-priced items. Raphael became convinced that adult-themed and other types of controversial videos would boost his online presence.

As his YouTube views ballooned, his advertising revenue, which previously had hovered around ¥10,000 to ¥20,000 per month, quickly increased to ¥800,000, then to ¥2 million. Two years after he started uploading videos to YouTube, Raphael was logging monthly income of more than ¥4 million. It was at that point that he quit his regular job.

Looking back, he concedes that many of his videos were inappropriate and violated YouTube’s terms of service; he also admits that he received multiple warnings from the company.

Even so, Raphael continued to post edgy offerings in the belief that virality was the quickest way to grab attention. But his rocket-paced momentum did not last long. On Jan. 22, 2019, YouTube closed down his main channel, and his ad revenue dropped to zero.

These days, Raphael continues to post various videos, such as interviews with company executives, but he avoids over-the-top content.

“I found myself becoming one of those YouTubers I used to poke fun at — people who put out viral videos and then promptly disappear,” he said.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
YouTuber Yorihito

Legal risk

“Social pornography” — which allows people to view personal or tragic events as a form of “entertainment” — is a growing presence on the internet.

Yorihito, 31, a Fukuoka-based content provider, started posting videos on YouTube eight years ago. His goal was to become a comedian and he posted daily comedy performance videos, thinking, “Thousands of people can see my videos on the internet.”

However, Yorihito’s first YouTube hit did not feature a comedy skit. Instead, it depicted an argument between him and another YouTuber.

This initial taste of success instilled in him the belief that viral videos were the way to go, and he began posting content that slammed popular YouTubers. “I didn’t care how they felt,” he said.

Nevertheless, Yorihito did not give up on his dream of becoming a comedian, and he wrote scripts while looking for a partner to form a comic duo. However, his comedy gigs only attracted audiences of about 30 people, while his YouTube-related live shows attracted around 100 attendees.

Yorihito says he felt disappointment when he realized that the extreme statements he voiced in his videos were more popular than his comedy efforts.

In March last year, Yorihito was convicted over defamation and other charges relating to spreading unsubstantiated allegations of bullying by a particular YouTuber.

“I wanted to do comedy; how did things end up like this?” Yorihito said. “I don’t want my life to be about making money by hurting people.”

Videos posted on YouTube can generate revenue based on the number of views they attract. This money comes from advertising fees paid to Google, which operates the site.

According to a research firm, some 2.514 billion people around the globe access YouTube each month, including about 70 million users in Japan. The more views a video garners on the site, the more money is paid to Google and the content creator. However, this structure can accelerate the dissemination of dubious information and create chaos.

Information quality

YouTube is becoming increasingly extreme, partly because the platform’s viewers soak up controversial content.

“Humans are animalistic and reflexive beings,” said University of Tokyo Prof. Fujio Toriumi, who specializes in computational social sciences. “When we encounter highly stimulating content, we instinctively desire it.”

It is thought that humans have two basic modes of thinking: “Near-instantaneous processing,” and “conscious and logical cognizance.” The former is said to hold sway in terms of the attention economy, which encourages people to watch ads.

Some people transmit stimulating information for profit, while others consume such content. At a glance, it appears that these two parties coexist in harmony. However, this set-up — which does not consider the quality of the information being conveyed — is the underlying reason for the flood of false and harmful information available online.

It also must be borne in mind that the dissemination of information underpinned by extreme language, behavior and harassment invariably involves one of more victims.

Former upper house member Yoshikazu Higashitani, who goes by the name GaaSyy, was arrested and charged over YouTube videos that allegedly contained repeated threats against celebrities.

Higashitani, 51, gained fame for his radical statements and raked in large amounts of cash from advertising revenue. The targets of his statements said they felt a great deal of anxiety and fear.

After a road-rage incident on the Joban Expressway in Ibaraki Prefecture, a woman in her 40s was falsely accused by so-called online influencers of being a passenger in the aggressor’s car.

“I felt like everyone with a smartphone was attacking someone, and I was afraid to go outside,” the woman said. “I want everyone to know that people can be hurt by such postings.”

Troublesome behavior

Around 2013, as social media began to become more popular, videos depicting troublesome behavior started to be seen as a problem.

For example, that year, a convenience store employee posted to Facebook an image of himself lying face down in a store’s ice-cream freezer, drawing a flood of criticism. The slang term “bakatter” — referring to people who upload videos depicting transgressive acts to the X platform — formerly known as Twitter — also gained traction. The word is derived from the Japanese word for idiot: baka.

“There were many cases in which inside jokes have unexpectedly gone viral,” said Ken Ogiso, a visiting researcher at the Center for Global Communications (GLOCOM) at the International University of Japan.

Since around 2017, some YouTubers and other social media contributors have intentionally uploaded content depicting bad behavior with the sole intent of racking up views. Such contributors, whose troublesome behavior exposes the dark side of online influencers, often gain many views.

But there have also been cases in which “prank” victims have demanded hefty payouts for damages from video contributors who have “crossed the line.”

“In the future, [such video contributors] will be penalized in a greater variety of ways,” Ogiso said.