Infiltrating the YouTube's Underworld of Wildlife Crimes

Infiltrating the YouTube's Underworld of Wildlife Crimes
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YouTube is the most popular social video platform. As of October 2023, India is the biggest market for YouTube with approximately 462 million active users followed by USA, Brazil and other countries as shown below. (https://www.statista.com/statistics/280685/number-of-monthly-unique-youtube-users/)

YouTube is the second most popular social media platform with 2.7 billion monthly active users. YouTube is behind Facebook only with 2.9 monthly active users. This world wide popularity and with such a large user base, YouTube has been exploited by wildlife traffickers also. Wildlife traffickers are creating their YouTube Channels and posting videos of poaching/hunting, cooking etc. of protected species of wildlife. They are also using YouTube Channels for advertising protected wildlife species, their parts, articles, derivatives etc. for sale.

Like any other social media platform, YouTube Algorithm also helps in widening the reach of such videos of poaching/hunting, cooking or illegal trade of wildlife by recommending them to the more and more audience who are interested in such videos based on following criteria:

  •  If a user has watched a video of poaching/hunting, cooking of wildlife  or advertisement of wildlife for sale; YouTube algorithm would recommend more similar kind of video to the user based on his watch history.
  • If a user frequently searches for videos of wildlife poaching, hunting or illegal trade; YouTube algorithm uses this search history to recommend similar kind of content.
  • If a particular video related to wildlife poaching/hunting/cooking or illegal trade has been watched by several users and if one of those users watch another similar video, YouTube algorithm will recommend that video to the other remaining users also based on the watched together phenomenon.
  • If a user is subscribed to a particular YouTube Channel with videos of wildlife poaching/hunting/cooking or illegal trade, YouTube algorithm would ensure that the user doesn't miss any video of that Channel by suggesting videos from that Channel as and when new videos are uploaded.
  • Similarly, if a user has liked videos of wildlife poaching/hunting/cooking or illegal trade or made a comment on those videos, YouTube algorithm will suggest more similar kind of content to the user.

From the above points it's clear that the YouTube algorithm inherently helps the wildlife perpetrators to reach out to a large number of audience who watch videos of wildlife poaching/hunting or cooking etc. for entertainment.  

Wildlife perpetrators can also monetize the content related to wildlife poaching, hunting, cooking etc. by following ways:

  • Wildlife perpetrators may create and upload videos of poaching, hunting, cooking etc. on YouTube which may attract large number of viewers interested in such content of controversial and sensational nature.
  • These wildlife poachers may further widen their audience base by sharing the link of such YouTube videos on other social media platforms.
  • Once eligibility criteria of YouTube is met by their YouTube Channels, these wildlife perpetrators may apply for monetization scheme by joining YouTube Partner Program and can earn money through various monetization streams on YouTube such as revenue from advertisement.

This feature of monetization of content on YouTube further incentivizes wildlife crime related activities on YouTube.

YouTube has also been weaponized by wildlife traffickers as a marketplace for advertisement of wildlife contrabands for sale. In comment section of many such YouTube Channels, wildlife traffickers comment about wildlife contrabands in their possession and their readiness to sell them. Similarly prospective buyers enquire about availability of some wildlife contrabands they want to buy. They also share their WhatsApp numbers with each other so that they can further negotiate about the illegal wildlife trade privately and anonymously.

Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) of India has been on forefront in fighting the menace of wildlife crimes taking place on YouTube platform. Through Cyber Patrolling & Undercover Operations by its well trained Digital Detectives, WCCB has successfully been busting wildlife criminal activities on YouTube, getting wildlife contrabands seized and wildlife cyber traffickers apprehended.

Public Private Partnership (PPP) can play a very crucial role in combating wildlife crimes on YouTube. WCCB has taken three initiatives as part of this Public Private Partnership. Firstly, to rope in individuals willing to contribute in uprooting the menace of wildlife crimes on Digital Platforms including YouTube, WCCB created a WhatsApp Group namely "Wildlife Cyber Warrior". QR Code to join this Group was publicized on various digital platforms so that willing individuals may join this Group and share the links of wildlife crime relate YouTube videos for taking further necesary enforcement action by WCCB.

Till date WCCB has successfully removed around 1300 YouTube videos related to poaching, hunting, cooking and selling of wildlife on the basis of inputs shared by these Wildlife Cyber Warriors by sending a content removal notice to YouTube Legal Support Team under Section 50(7) read with Section 52 of Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972.

Second initiative under Public Private Partnership taken by WCCB is collaboration with Non-Profit Organizations working in the field of wildlife conservation. Many such NPOs are doing commendable work in collection of intelligence regarding wildlife crimes taking place on physical landscape as well as cyber landscape. Once they gather actionable intelligence regarding wildlife crime taking place on social media including YouTube, e-commerce platforms and other online forums, they share the intelligence with WCCB. Then officials of WCCB alongwith officials of local forest/wildlife/police/borderguarding authorities apprehend the wildlife perpetrators and seize the wildlife contrabands through undercover operations.

Third initiative under Public Private Partnership taken by WCCB is collaboration with Digital Platforms including Google (the Parent Company of YouTube) to tackle the menace of wildlife cyber crimes. WCCB has already conducted three meetings with various digital platforms including Google in 2016, 2017 and 2019 to apprise them about the misuse of their platforms including YouTube for wildlife crimes and need for proactive measures to be taken by them and cooperate with WCCB in taking law enforcement action against the perpetrators by providing informations like IP address, Contact details and other such details that are available with them and by removing such videos/posts.

Now let me discuss about the "Violent and Graphic Content Policies" of YouTube as given below: (https://support.google.com/youtube/thread/115480979/youtube-policy-update-animal-abuse-violent-or-graphic-content?hl=en)

As per YouTube's "Animal Abuse Content Policies" abuse of animal is prohibited on YouTube. But there seems to be a huge gap in its Policies and their effective Implementation as is clear from the fact that videos of wildlife poaching, hunting, cooking etc. are easily being uploaded on YouTube and they continue to attract huge number of viewers who like them and comment on them with full impunity. Such videos continue to stay on YouTube until they are flagged by law enforcement agencies like WCCB for removing them.

Now let me discuss about YouTube's "Illegal or Regulated Goods or Services Policies" as shown below: (https://support.google.com/youtube/answer/9229611?hl=en)

As per YouTube's "Illegal or Regulated Goods or Services Policies" making the sale of "endangered species or parts of endangered species" or facilitating their sale possible by posting links, email, phone number or other means to contact a seller directly is not allowed. But here also, there is a big gap in YouTube's Policies and their effective Implementation as wildlife traffickers keep exploiting YouTube Platform for illegal trade of endangered wildlife species and their body parts openly until they are brought to book by law enforcement agencies like WCCB.

Google (the Parent Company of YouTube) has also joined the "Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online" and voluntarily committed to block posts/videos related to wildlife crimes and cooperate with law enforcement agencies in their fight against wildlife cyber crimes.

But despite it's "Animal Abuse Content Policies", "Illegal or Regulated Goods or Services Policies" and it being a part of "Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online", YouTube seems to have failed in countering the menace of wildlife crimes on its Platform. YouTube needs more proactive measures like appointing sufficient number of cyber spotters to spot & flag videos and related contents of wildlife crimes; appropriate tweaking in its algorithms to detect videos, comments etc. related to wildlife crimes; sharing the details of wildlife perpetrators to the law enforcement agencies for taking enforcement action against them and blocking such videos & content on its Platform.

The readers of this Post may watch the above video regarding "Reporting inappropriate YouTube Videos or Channels" which includes wildlife crime related content also. As an individual also, you can contribute towards fighting wildlife crimes being perpetrated and aggravated through YouTube Platform by reporting such content and getting them removed by following these steps (https://support.google.com/youtube/answer/2802027?hl=en&ref_topic=9387085&sjid=8885746920748393012-AP#zippy=%2Creport-a-video):

The digital battle against the wildlife crimes on the YouTube Platform can not be won without a holistic & multifaceted strategy i.e. requirement of enabling legal & enforcement framework, well trained enorcemnet officials to work as digital detectives to carry out undercover operations, collaboration between wildlife law enforcement agencies, wildlife NPOs (Not For Profit Organizations) & YouTube, involving citizens in this fight against wildlife cyber criminals. More importantly, recognizing its inadvertent role in facilitating and promoting wildlife crimes through its Platform, YouTube needs to effectively implement its "Animal Abuse Content Policies", "Illegal or Regulated Goods or Services Policies" to curb wildlife crimes being perpetrated on its Platform.

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