Conspiracy Brokers: Understanding the Monetization of YouTube Conspiracy Theories

Ballard, Cameron; Goldstein, Ian; Mehta, Pulak; Smothers, Genesis; Take, Kejsi; Zhong, Victoria; Greenstadt, Rachel; Lauinger, Tobias; McCoy, Damon

Conspiracy theories are increasingly a subject of research interest as society grapples with their rapid growth in areas such as politics or public health. Previous work has established YouTube as one of the most popular sites for people to host and discuss different theories. In this paper, we present an analysis of monetization methods of conspiracy theorist YouTube creators and the types of advertisers potentially targeting this content. We collect 184,218 ad impressions from 6,347 unique advertisers found on conspiracy-focused channels and mainstream YouTube content. We classify the ads into business categories and compare their prevalence between conspiracy and mainstream content. We also identify common offsite monetization methods. In comparison with mainstream content, conspiracy videos had similar levels of ads from well-known brands, but an almost eleven times higher prevalence of likely predatory or deceptive ads. Additionally, we found that conspiracy channels were more than twice as likely as mainstream channels to use offsite monetization methods, and 53% of the demonetized channels we observed were linking to third-party sites for alternative monetization opportunities. Our results indicate that conspiracy theorists on YouTube had many potential avenues to generate revenue, and that predatory ads were more frequently served for conspiracy videos.