A YouTube Star, Reddit Detectives, and the Alt-Right Call Out a Fake News Story. Turns Out It Was Real.
A YouTube star scored a viral hit claiming The Wall Street Journal faked a story about YouTube. The allegation raced round the world, but it wasn’t true.
It was a startling claim from a YouTube star with 3 million subscribers and 40 million viewers in the last month: “Evidence that WSJ used FAKE screenshots.”
That was the title on Ethan Klein’s H3H3Productions YouTube video last week. The video itself didn’t pull any punches, either. In it, Klein claims The Wall Street Journal’s Jack Nicas fabricated screenshots that showed YouTube’s algorithm failing to block big-money advertisers from appearing before racist videos.
“Seems like some simple fact checks could’ve gone onto it before you completely demonized and destroyed a platform and the income of all their users,” Klein says. “Send this video to Wall Street Journal. Send this video to YouTube. Send this to other news organizations and brands. This is the smoking gun.”
But Klein’s “smoking gun” that Nicas fabricated screenshots—a separate screenshot from an uploader of one of the racist videos showing the user hadn’t made any money on the video, titled “Chief Keef dancing to Alabama N---er,” for months—wound up to be entirely incorrect. Ads had been running on the video all along, even from sponsors like Coca-Cola.
All Klein had to do was send the video to YouTube and ask if the video was being monetized.
Sources familiar with YouTube’s ad systems at the company confirmed to The Daily Beast that ads did, in fact, run on the video. So did several users who later debunked the video and forced Klein to pull it down on Sunday.
Ads ran on the racist video in question, but due to a copyright claim, the revenue went to a rights holder of an equally racist song, called “Alabama N—er,” that was edited into the background and flagged by YouTube’s copyright claim algorithm.
Still, by now, the gloves were off. The video became the top video Sunday on Reddit, accruing more than 71,100 upvotes. The top comment: “I hope Google takes WSJ to court.” The one underneath it: “Youtube has a very real case to sue for billions in lost income here if this is shown to be defamation.”
Then one with 267 upvotes by the user DrapeRape: “If WSJ is literally sued for fake news I’m going to be so happy.”
Despite “No witch-hunting” and “No personal information” rules on the community’s subreddit, the post remains live on Reddit. Nicas, whose face and Twitter account appear repeatedly on Klein’s video, was inundated with threats.
“You are literally about to die because of H3H3 new video,” wrote one Twitter user. “Better stop this shit man.”
“Die with @WSJ so we are happy again,” wrote another.
Klein’s video explaining why he took down his initial video accrued about 25,000 upvotes—or about one-third of the amount received by the original post. Klein’s initial tweet garnered over 19,000 retweets. His retraction received only 700.
Klein did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
The antipathy largely stems from anger over a Wall Street Journal report about YouTube’s biggest star, gaming vlogger PewDiePie, from February. Disney severed ties with the YouTube star after the report detailed PewDiePie’s repeated use of Nazi imagery, including a video in which two men using the website Fiverr hold up a sign that reads “Death to All Jews” at his request for cash.
The report triggered an exodus of advertisers who sought more control over where their ads were being shown on the platform.
That advertiser backlash led fans of YouTube stars like Klein and PewDiePie, along with Reddit’s Videos subreddit, to question the motives of The Wall Street Journal, and begin to accidentally align with pro-Trump outlets that frequently decry newspapers as “fake news.”
Gateway Pundit, a pro-Trump news outlet that received press credentials into the White House Briefing Room in January, posted a story Saturday morning titled “WSJ Lied and Used FAKE Screenshots to Push Narrative that YouTube Allowed Racist Headlines.” The story remains live and uncorrected on its website.
Late Sunday night, alt-right personalities began piling on.
“Whoa! WSJ was caught photoshopping ads onto offensive videos to attack YouTube, but it’s fake. ALL FAKE!” tweeted Mike Cernovich on Sunday. Cernovich spent Monday claiming he helped identify Susan Rice as an Obama administration official who requested intel “unmasking” of Trump officials, a talking point that was repeated by President Trump’s Twitter account Monday morning. His tweet about The Wall Street Journal has not been deleted or retracted.
InfoWars editor Paul Joseph Watson went on a tweetstorm Sunday night, tagging Nicas’s Twitter account and asking for his response to the claim that “you are faking screenshots to pressure advertisers on YouTube.”
“The WSJ is a failing entity read by geriatrics,” he wrote. “If they think they can win an infowar with the YouTube community, they’re delusional.” He has yet to retract or delete the tweets.
When reached for comment, Nicas directed The Daily Beast to a Wall Street Journal statement that was released Sunday night.
“The Wall Street Journal stands by its March 24th report that major brand advertisements were running alongside objectionable videos on YouTube. Any claim that the related screenshots or any other reporting was in any way fabricated or doctored is outrageous and false. The screenshots related to the article—which represent only some of those that were found—were captured on March 23rd and March 24th,” the statement reads. “The Journal is proud of its reporting and the high standards it brings to its journalism.”
Still, on Twitter, some users didn’t get the message.
“I'm not sure what's worse, you being aware of what you're doing or you being unaware,” one user wrote to Nicas’ account late Monday night. “Either way, you're not far from Goebbels.”