A Mysterious Pro-Trump Ad Hijacked YouTube’s Homepage

Donald Trump, YouTube ad
Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from YouTube and Mobius / Wikimedia
Reading Time: 2 minutes

Hundreds of viewers users visited YouTube’s homepage last night and immediately turned to Twitter to report that something was seriously wrong.

YouTube’s soundtrack was suddenly taken over by an audio message slamming the Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, that began playing automatically and was impossible to turn off. The conundrum of the phantom ad began just minutes after the Democratic National Convention ended and lasted for several hours.

“I opened up YouTube and audio for a Trump ad started playing and I can’t figure out how or why, especially because, as you can tell from my homepage, I mostly watch RPDR Lip-Synch compilations and Try Guy videos,” one user wrote on Twitter.

https://twitter.com/CarolineEAnd/status/1295925020040953856

Advertisements on most websites can be blocked by using ad-blocking apps, which should prevent any video or its audio from playing. Several YouTube users who utilize these apps figured out the source of the audio once they turned them off — the sound came from a Trump campaign advertisement. The ad also displayed a muted icon despite still playing audio, and many users complained that they could not turn the sound off when they tried to interact with the ad.

The New York Times previously reported that President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign launched a massive digital ad campaign during the Democratic National Convention, which included effectively owning the YouTube banner for 96 hours. The ad buy was nationwide, so every user, regardless of their online preferences and trends, saw some variation of a pro-Trump advertisement. 

Just a Bug? 

The ads are supposed to run automatically, but with the option for users to turn the sound on. The apparent error that caused many YouTube visitors to not just see the ad but also to hear it is being reported here first.

Some users questioned whether the issue was the result of the Trump campaign hacking YouTube or Russian interference, but an internet bug appeared to be the cause, Google spokesperson Charlotte Smith told WhoWhatWhy. The glitch was fixed within an hour of our contacting Google, YouTube’s parent company, about the issue.

“The issue has been resolved,” Smith said. “It looks like it was just a bug.”

YouTube acknowledged in an August 13 blog that its platform is a “destination with a front seat for major election events,” but the issue discovered by its users raises serious questions about big tech’s ability to prevent cybersecurity failures during the 2020 election. 

A recent Piplsay poll following the high-profile Twitter hack last month found that 56 percent of Americans do not trust social media platforms to combat disinformation and foreign interference. The CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google were also pressed about playing favorites on their platforms during a House Judiciary Committee hearing last month.

“We don’t do any work to politically tilt anything one way or another,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai told Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH). “Yeah, you have my commitment. It’s always been true, and we’ll continue to conduct ourselves in a neutral way.”


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from YouTube / Wikimedia and Trump for President / Wikimedia.

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