By late Friday afternoon, after questions from BuzzFeed News, many of these videos no longer appeared as top search results, and ads stopped running with them.
Fake news moves fast — and despite promises from tech giants to remove such content, these stories spread far and linger. In the wake of a tragic week, during which Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain died in separate instances of apparent suicide, YouTube’s first few results about their deaths surface conspiracy theories.
As of early Friday afternoon — a week after the news of Anthony Bourdain’s death — the second non-news mobile search result on YouTube turns up a bizarre conspiracy theory about Anthony Bourdain being on the verge of “exposing elite pedophiles” before his death.
The video, in which a robotic voice intones that Bourdain was "working on an exposé of elite pedophiles just weeks before he was found dead in an apparent suicide," garnered 7,400 views in two days. No ad plays before the video, but the associated channel, called Anonymous EXPOSED, prominently displays a Patreon donation link on its landing page.
The third result on mobile, meanwhile, is a video by well-known far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
The desktop YouTube search results for "Anthony Bourdain death" are even more rife with conspiracy videos.
The videos push some version of the same theory: Bourdain was an outspoken supporter of Asia Argento, the actress whom he had been dating and one of the women who publicly accused Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault. Since Hillary Clinton had received campaign donations from Weinstein (who was a generous supporter of the Democratic Party), the conspiracy theorists said the Clintons and Weinstein could have orchestrated Bourdain's death.
The conspiracy is then tied tenuously to a sex trafficking sting that was apparently conducted in the Atlanta area, where CNN, the cable channel that hosts Bourdain's Parts Unknown TV program, is headquartered.
Still, that didn't stop the videos from racking up views in the tens or hundreds of thousands. Similar videos also appear in YouTube's algorithmically generated sidebar for Recommended Videos.
Some videos even have ads running with them, meaning their creators make money off spreading the falsehoods.
A similar thing happens when you search "Kate Spade death." A YouTube search on desktop returns, among other results, this video with over 160,000 views (as of this writing), titled Kate Spade Found Dead, Clinton Foundation Worked With Designer in Haiti.
This conspiracy has also been debunked by Snopes.
This kind of algorithm-powered conspiracy video rabbit hole has long been a problem for YouTube. After major news events, YouTube has repeatedly surfaced video results that promote badly reported facts, or straight-up misinformation.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, YouTube said, "These deaths were both tragic and we've seen a huge outpouring of support on YouTube. We're continuously working to better surface and promote news and authoritative sources to make the best possible information about these tragedies easily accessible."
The video company, for its part, recently took steps to provide greater transparency for users around news items on its platform. Now, notices below videos by news broadcasters label whether the outlet receives some level of government or public funding. And YouTube has committed to applying its “powerful new machine learning technology” to extremist content. It also plans to have more than 10,000 human reviewers evaluating videos on the platform by the end of this year.
YouTube said, "We've made algorithmic changes to better surface authoritative videos at the top of search results. We created a 'Breaking News' shelf on the YouTube homepage that serves up content from reliable news sources after a major event. When people enter news-related search queries, we prominently display a 'Top News' shelf in their search results. We know there is more to do here and we’re looking forward to making more announcements in the months ahead."
Despite YouTube's efforts, fake news continues to populate the platform's search results.