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YouTube's Search Autofill Surfaced Disturbing Child Sex Results

Dozens of users have reported that a YouTube search for "how to have" is autocompleting with pedophiliac phrases. But some suspect it could be part of a larger coordinated trolling effort.

Dozens of users have reported that a YouTube search for "how to have" is autocompleting with pedophiliac phrases like "how to have s*x with your kids" and "how to have s*x kids."

On Sunday afternoon, BuzzFeed News attempted the search on multiple devices in an incognito browser window, which surfaced search results without taking into account past browsing history. In each instance, inputting the phrase "how to have" returned the same result:

Other users provided BuzzFeed News with screenshots confirming that they, too, got the same results.

A YouTube spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the matter is still under investigation. "Earlier today our teams were alerted to this awful autocomplete result and we worked to quickly remove it," the company said. "We are investigating this matter to determine what was behind the appearance of this autocompletion."

Google — YouTube's parent company — has previously received criticism for controversial autocomplete results. In an effort to educate users on its algorithmic results, the company offered some insight into the algorithms in a June 2016 blog post. In the post, Google noted that the "autocomplete algorithm is designed to avoid completing a search for a person’s name with terms that are offensive or disparaging." The post also stressed that "Autocomplete isn’t an exact science, and the output of the prediction algorithms changes frequently. Predictions are produced based on a number of factors including the popularity and freshness of search terms."

While it's unclear just how much Google autocomplete algorithms differ from YouTube's autocomplete algorithms, it's possible that the blog's last point — that predictions are based on popularity of a search term — could explain the reason for the incognito results. As some on Twitter suggested Sunday evening, the results are very specific and could be the result of a coordinated campaign to game the algorithm. Motivated trolls, for example, could theoretically search for "how to have s*x with your kids" with enough frequency in order to make the search result appear far more popular than it is.

A source familiar with YouTube's algorithms told BuzzFeed News that the odd asterisk in the word "s*x" suggests behavior that's consistent with a coordinated campaign to populate YouTube with inappropriate search results.

Regardless, the search results come at the end of a week of reports exposing YouTube's massive child-exploitation problem. On Wednesday, BuzzFeed News reported on the existence of dozens of live-action accounts with millions of views that depict children in disturbing and abusive situations. On Wednesday YouTube pledged to crack down on these and has purged over 50 of the accounts, some of which were provided to the company by BuzzFeed News. And later in the week reports from the Times of London and BBC exposed a rash of explicit pedophiliac comments that appeared next to adverts for major brands. As a result, a number of advertisers including Mars and Adidas halted their business advertising on the platform.

For now, YouTube is investigating the issue and plans to update the public on its findings.

Charlie Warzel is a senior writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Warzel reports on and writes about the intersection of tech and culture.

Contact Charlie Warzel at charlie.warzel@buzzfeed.com.

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