Conspiracy Brokers: Understanding the Monetization of YouTube Conspiracy Theories

In a first-of-its-kind study, Center for Cybersecurity researchers led by Damon McCoy have found that YouTube channels with conspiracy content are fertile ground for predatory advertisers — with conspiracy channels having nearly 11 times the prevalence of likely predatory or deceptive ads when compared to mainstream YouTube channels and being twice as likely to feature non-advertising ways to monetize content, such as donation links for Patreon, GoFundMe and PayPal. 

Researchers also discovered that:

  • Certain scams were more common. Self-improvement ads, many of them get-rich-quick schemes, were seen more frequently vs. mainstream content. So were lifestyle, health and insurance ads — including two advertisers unique to conspiracy channels that were generating leads for insurance scammers. Ads promoting questionable products were also common, such as a supplement that claimed to cure Type 2 diabetes.
  • Affiliate marketing was a constant. Among those marketing low-quality products, for example, almost 95 percent used some form of affiliate marketing.
  • Videos with ads got far more views. In the conspiracy channels, monetized videos had almost four times as many views as demonetized ones. Since YouTube’s business model relies on advertising, this may be because its recommender algorithm prioritizes videos that contain ads.
  • Content pointed to alternative social media sites. Sites like Gab, Parler and Telegram were mentioned more commonly in conspiracy channels than in mainstream ones; Facebook and Twitter were also frequently referenced.

The study was conducted with support from the National Science Foundation.