Lying, Cheating, Fraud: Is Facebook Video Too Good to Be True?

For months now there have been rumblings of a controversy around Facebook video. Yesterday, those rumblings finally became something of an earthquake.

Hank Green, brother of author John Green and co-host of their highly successful YouTube channel VlogBrothers, wrote an incisive Medium post that voiced the collective frustrations of digital video creators. Green accused the powerful social network of “lying, cheating, and stealing” its way to the top of the digital video space—swindling content creators, and even advertisers, along the way.

Green focused the piece on those three accusations, beginning with “cheating.” His claim revolves around the astronomical views Facebook touts for its native videos compared to the small amount the same videos will get if they are externally hosted (namely, if they are links to YouTube). He backs up his argument with a narrow study, done by Duke University’s social media team, which shows the huge gaps in engagement between native video they published on Facebook and YouTube links that were posted on Facebook. Of all Green’s issues, this one is the least heinous. It’s not really cheating: Facebook predictably gives its own product preferential treatment, and there is a fair chance this is just Facebook’s algorithm responding to user behavior. The difference in engagement should be attributed more to Facebook video’s autoplay feature and a more attractive presentation than any sort of shady number fudging.

But then Green moves onto “lying,” a more severe allegation meant to draw attention to the notoriously low bar that qualifies as a video view on Facebook. Unlike YouTube, which counts a view after 30 seconds (and draws most of its views from direct search or clicks—more purposeful actions than autoplay), Facebook has defined a view as three seconds. Considering that most video views come from users scrolling past autoplaying, muted videos, it’s hard to see this paltry standard as anything more than a strategy to inflate view counts. Green then provides two charts (see below) to show that if Facebook followed the same standards as YouTube, view rates would be much smaller. Viewer retention at 30 seconds on Facebook sits at 21 percent, while YouTube can boast an 86-percent retention rate for organic views at the 30-second mark.

Here’s the kicker: “When Facebook says it has roughly the same number of views as YouTube, what they really mean is that they have roughly 1/5th of YouTube’s views, since they’re intentionally and blatantly over-counting to the detriment of everyone except them.”

And finally, Green levels his most serious accusation: that Facebook has purposefully ignored rampant video theft, otherwise known as “freebooting,” to drive video growth. His biggest and most shocking piece of evidence comes courtesy of research by Ogilvy and Tubular Labs, which claims that 73 percent of Facebook’s 1,000 most popular videos in Q1 were stolen from content creators. Unlike YouTube—which has a software system in place known as Content ID to help creators identify and claim stolen videos—Facebook has nothing in place capable of quickly identifying and removing freebooted content. Instead, content creators must manually report each stolen video on Facebook—an absurd proposition for busy creators made even more difficult considering the social network’s lackluster search features. If you need more evidence of how serious the problem is, take a look at this Re/code article breaking down how video of Ronda Rousey’s recent fight was treated by Facebook and Youtube.

These frustrations have been simmering over the past couple years as Facebook’s native video player exploded onto the scene, trumpeting exponential growth in video views and engagement as the company shifted its focus towards the lucrative video ad market. There was no shortage of hype as people saw the potential for Facebook to supplant YouTube as the go-to platform for digital video, and as a result, position itself to cash-in on marketers hoping to reach Facebook’s audience of almost 1 billion active daily users.

Yet Green’s claims are not something to take lightly. They suggest that Facebook video, despite the numbers, may not deserve the rabid attention it has recently received in marketing and media spheres—at least not yet.

So what should marketers do?

For marketers and content creators with their ears to the ground, Green’s grievances aren’t all that surprising. As The Wall Street Journal reported last week, Facebook recently gave marketers the option of only charging for video views that last at least 10 seconds—rather than an instant impression—after complaints from marketers who were unhappy that their money was likely going to waste on inflated viewership numbers.

So it seems marketers are well aware of the relatively low standards Facebook has employed thus far, and this new option should help assuage fears (even if the price per view will undoubtedly rise).

But perhaps the most worrisome trend to consider is Green’s main concern: the rampant amount of pirated videos on Facebook’s native player. Some creators have taken to calling out advertisers for running ads against freebooted videos—a controversy most brands would like to avoid.

Think of it this way: Would name brands run ads on torrent sites that were explicitly pirating creators content? That’s basically what’s happening on Facebook. And if YouTubers and other content creators don’t see any changes soon, then this will undoubtedly be the most effective and widely used tactic to pressure Facebook into implementing stricter copyright rules.

Matt Pakes, Facebook’s product manager for the video service, responded to Green’s claims on Monday in a Medium post. Judging by the comments from Green and others below the article, the response did little to dampen creator’s fears. Put simply, Pakes wrote that Facebook was working on addressing the issues, but he didn’t provide any sort of timeline or specificity.

I don’t doubt that Facebook is working on solving these issues—but, like YouTube in its infancy, the social network has made these serious issues a secondary priority to unchecked growth.

In the end, this will probably amount to little more than a bump for Facebook’s rise to video dominance. Like YouTube, Facebook is too powerful not to weather these storms. The legitimate issues raised by marketers and content creators will, in time, be addressed in some way, and Facebook will continue to tighten their stranglehold on digital video.

For now, however, Facebook’s dubious claims of video superiority have proven to be too good to be true, and content creators and marketers should exercise caution until this earthquake and its aftershocks begin to die down.

Image by Twinsterphoto

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