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Spotting Bots on Youtube: The Pewdiepie vs. T-Series Debate

Spotting a botted channel or video is more complicated than you might think. It’s true that there are some telling signs, but there’s usually more than one explanation for suspicious-looking activity.

By Rachel Rapp
October 1, 2019

Evidence of botted videos or channels

Spotting a botted channel or video is more complicated than you might think. It’s true that there are some telling signs, but there’s usually more than one explanation for suspicious-looking activity.

An old clue to identifying fake views was to start by looking at a video’s statistics. Due to a flaw in YouTube’s smartphone API, bots often showed up as views coming from smartphones. This led to a disproportionate number of mobile views for a given video. However, as of November 2018, YouTube no longer allows users to check out the statistics on videos that are not their own, and the YouTube mobile API has since been fixed.

When it comes to backing up botting claims with relevant statistics, perhaps the most commonly referenced site is Social Blade. Sites like this track user growth and trends, even allowing side-by-side comparison between channels. But even with supportive stats, signs of botted videos are usually ambiguous. Here we’ll consider some examples in the context of the famous race for most-subscribed channel between two of YouTube’s most popular accounts—PewDiePie and T-Series.

PewDiePie vs. T-Series: Was it a fair race after all?

The topic of sub botting has recently gained a larger audience with the PewDiePie versus T-Series debate. PewDiePie—the YouTube handle of Sweden-born Felix Kjellberg—gained his fame with comical videos and game commentaries. With nearly 100 million followers (99,421,211 at the time of this writing) he’s been YouTube’s most-subscribed user almost constantly since 2013. Until April 2019, that is.

Source: Social Blade

In 2018, the Indian record label T-Series started to give PewDiePie a run for his money and surpassed him as the most-subscribed channel in April 2019. With T-Series’s relatively sudden rise to fame, many users have wondered, is T-Series sub botting? And did PewDiePie start botting to defend his place as #1?

Let’s consider some common yet misleading signs of botting apparent with both channels.

1. How is it possible that T-Series became so famous so suddenly, if it wasn’t with the help of bots?

The rise in T-Series’s popularity coincides with the launch of Jio, a Mumbai-based telecom company which suddenly made affordable data available to India’s population of over 1.3 billion. As a result, many people—even in remote villages—suddenly gained easy access to the internet. With music being a big part of Indian culture, combined with the population being so large, it’s actually quite reasonable that T-Series could become very popular for its free hit music over the course of a few years.

2. PewDiePie’s subscriber count takes a pretty drastic upturn around October, just as T-Series could have passed him. He must be using sub bots in response to keep his #1 spot, right?

Typically channels have a gradual and sustained increase in popularity over time. Sudden spikes or exponential growth, on the other hand, are suspicious—but still not necessarily incriminating. In this case, it seems PewDiePie’s active fanbase was the cause of the sudden increase in subscribers.

When it became clear that T-Series might overtake PewDiePie, there was a huge outcry for activism to help PewDiePie defend the spot. PewDiePie fans went as far as buying billboards and radio advertisements, printing out signs, and even vandalizing property to promote his channel.

3. T-Series gained 9,000 subscribers in one second. How is that possible without using fake subscribers?

This caused a huge outcry when it happened. The alternate explanation: YouTube gave back subscribers that were removed during an audit, once they were determined to be legitimate accounts.

YouTube conducts purges, or audits, in an effort to ensure the website’s authenticity. This means that it will unsubscribe fake, inactive, or deleted accounts. The site announced that users may see “a noticeable decrease in your subscriber count” when this happens, in order to help “ensure that YouTube remains a fair playing field for everyone.” If accounts are determined not to be inactive or spam, they are then added back to the channel.

There’s a second argument against this, as well. With activity so obviously out of the ordinary, YouTube would surely be aware and have investigated it already.

4. Despite having so many subscribers, many videos on the T-Series channel have relatively few views. This must mean that the subscribers are fake.

Viewer-to-subscriber ratio is another point of contention. Some viewers claim that having many more subscribers than video views is a sign of botting. But think of any other music channel— what are the chances that all subscribers like all of the music it posts? The same is true for channels posting language-learning videos, tutorials, movie trailers, etc. While viewers are going to watch the videos that are specific to their interests, a particular channel might upload a huge range of content for a wide audience.

Believing in YouTube

Finally, it should be added that YouTube has teams of data scientists working constantly to ensure the authenticity of activity on the site. Chances are that if activity seems out of the ordinary, YouTube is not only aware of it but has already investigated it. Meanwhile, channels that are already popular and have a big following would be taking a serious risk by using bots, without any real need to do so.

For now, speculators can place their faith in YouTube or turn to Reddit and Quora to debate suspicious activity.