The Tricks, Cheats, and Pirates Behind Facebook’s Monster Video Numbers

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As shares to news sites from Facebook plummet — and as publishers look toward Facebook to host their content — the social network is talking up its native videos: It recently boasted of surpassing 8 billion views a day on its videos (YouTube, in contrast, has 4 billion). But if this sounds too good to be true, it probably is. A viral (YouTube) video by the explainer series In a Nutshell claims that “725 of the 1,000 most-viewed videos on Facebook were stolen.”

The first problem is the instant auto-play that means cute animals are jumping all over your feed even if you don’t click on videos. A “view” is counted after the video is playing for three seconds, so if you’re just scrolling down your feed slowly, you might be counted as a “viewer” of a muted video you barely noticed. YouTube, by contrast, has a 30-second threshold, meaning that view counts are naturally lower.

Then, there’s the problem of stolen videos. “Freebooting” is the word for taking an original video from a different platform — YouTube, Vimeo, or maybe a Vine compilation — and uploading it on Facebook under your own account. Because Facebook, when deciding what appears in a user’s news feed, privileges videos uploaded to Facebook, the original YouTubers are at risk of having their videos go viral on a thieving page — receiving none of the advertising revenue themselves. The Facebook pirates can then use the huge fake-viral audience they’ve created off of stolen videos to sell ads or shill their own products.

If you’re not one of the millions of (generally young) people who watch videos on Facebook and YouTube the way teenagers 20 years ago watched cable TV, this might not seem important. But the online-video business is growing rapidly, and Facebook and YouTube (owned by Google) are jockeying to be the single most-important entertainment destination for an entire generation of consumers. If Facebook is promising its business partners 8 billion views, they should know where that number comes from.