‘Toys in Japan’ is a YouTube channel available globally. The ‘About’ page shows the channel has been online since 28 July 2011. Its videos have so far enjoyed 301,912,936 views, and counting. That’s an impressive number if you are familiar with YouTube subscription-monetisation mechanisms. I stumbled upon ‘Toys in Japan’ last month when I was enjoying a few ‘Finger Family’ videos with my toddler son, when ‘autoplay’ pushed a new video from the channel to the top of the watch list and started playing it.

I saw Adolf Hitler on screen, shaking legs, and more, with another familiar face — Mickey Mouse. Both were merrily chanting “Daddy Finger, Daddy Finger, Where Are You?”, which as you’d know is one of the most popular nursery rhymes in the world. Worse, Hitler changed into a bikini, dancing with Mickey Mouse, with gestures that are clearly not meant for children or even for adults, I’d say. Right on cue, my son started dancing, shaking hands and toes, trying to ape the characters on screen. Usually, I’d join him and would let the animated video play till the end. But not this time. I closed the window in a snap, with my boy screaming in protest.

I checked the video again, later. It has already received more than six lakh views and more people (read children) are watching it as you read this. While pondering over how this video popped up on my screen, I figured out that my YouTube account was not on Restricted Mode, a content-filtering tool Google-owned YouTube had introduced to help people control what they watch. Evidently, this video was in the ‘Age-Restricted’ list, calling for viewer discretion, of course.

Not so restricted

The Restricted Mode is a funny business on YouTube as many people have pointed out already. The algorithm allegedly has homophobic and racist undertones and activists have cited instances where it discriminated against queer content. In fact, most Hollywood movie trailers are not available for viewing with Restricted Mode on, forcing concerned viewers to shuttle back and forth between the filter gates. This also means unless parents make concerted efforts to check and switch it on each time their child watches YouTube, there is a great chance of children encountering Hitler in a bikini or masturbating comic characters. Yes, you heard me. One can confidently state that the Hitler-Finger video has no place in the ecosystem, even with the Restricted Mode on.

Why on earth would a YouTube channel, curiously named Toys in Japan, produce such content, and why would Google happily host it, just putting it under some vaguely-claused Age-Restricted tag? For answers, I did what we all do in this age. I Googled. And I found James Bridle and his new book New Dark Age: Technology and the End of Future. Bridle is an artist, writer and publisher from London. Full disclosure: I reviewed his book recently, an experience that made me think more about how the machine age is slowly invading our lives in ways more than one, even without us realising how, when and where it happens.

Bridle recently delivered a TED talk where he discussed what he calls ‘Fake News for Kids’, with a significant portion dedicated to YouTube’s kids sections, creating deep damage to those who watch it. The irony is neither the kids who watch Hitler-Mickey videos nor their ignorant or busy parents would be able to gauge the damage such content could do to children, unless someone takes the pain to sit back and surf through this pile of digital garbage and alert policy-makers about its multi-layered impact.

Further, it is highly unlikely that content creators (random people with access to weird software programmes) or their hosting companies, such as Google, will make amends to their systems and algorithms, because of the very fact that they thrive on the systems they are asked to reform or repair. So titles such as “Paw Patrol Babies Pretend to Die Suicide by Annabelle Hypnotized” will continue to pop up on our screens as and when our children surf YouTube.

Polluting a learning resource

In developing countries where children from low-income families and socially oppressed castes and classes do not have the wherewithal to access quality instructional content (via libraries or smart classes), they rely on resources such as YouTube. Now, with the explosion in low-cost data, more families are finding video content accessible. Their children stand to lose much by watching YouTube’s garbage.

So, weeding out malicious content from YouTube becomes a political-economy problem. YouTube has about two billion monthly users globally. In India, 225 million people log onto it every month; that’s 80 per cent of the web users here. Google has time and again defended public criticism over hosting such creepy content by saying that it is nearly impossible for the company to scan over 400 hours of content being uploaded every minute.

That prompts a question. What’s the point in all the grand lectures Internet giants have been giving us about their technological prowess in employing Big Data analytics and artificial intelligence to, among other things, understand user behaviour if they can’t use the same to figure out the malice in their libraries?

Google introduced a YouTube for Kids app some time ago, which it claims makes filtering easier. But considering the fact that a user cannot uninstall the default YouTube app on an Android phone, this hardly makes a difference. Children will continue to have access to YouTube and its pollutants. Google must devote more funds and R&D towards cleaning up its libraries for children. If it doesn’t wake up to the realities, what awaits the IT giant is the fate of Facebook or Twitter, which are now facing a serious identity crisis courtesy the way they compromised privacy and let hate speech and fake news spread. Weeding out profiles such as Toys in Japan would be a great place to begin.