If you are an average person having a customer service problem with a large social network, historically your best recourse has been prayer. Oh sure, there’s a form you can fill out somewhere in the help tab of the app, recording that you have been harassed or impersonated or unjustly suspended. But communication from the social network itself is typically limited to some automated responses, often unsatisfying.
In the old days you might have dismissed some of these issues as a minor annoyance. But as the social networks have grown into monoliths and the pandemic has nudged even more of our lives online, these issues have come to feel more acute. What once felt like low-level customer service issues now seem more like questions of citizenship. If you’re going to be cast out of the digital kingdom, don’t you deserve something akin to due process? And if you find yourself under assault by your fellow citizens, shouldn’t the platform offer you something like police protection?
I talked about these issues earlier this year on an episode of Reply All
in which a caller had been trying for five years, without success, to regain access to a Facebook account to which they had lost the password. And I thought about it again today while reading about a new lawsuit filed by Brad Garlinghouse, CEO of a cryptocurrency company called Ripple, against YouTube. Adi Robertson wrote about the suit at The Verge
In a complaint filed today
, Ripple accused the video platform of selling ads and verifying accounts that promote fake cryptocurrency giveaways, then ignoring complaints about them.
Ripple runs an exchange network for the digital currency XRP, which is aimed at people who want to send money internationally. Over the past several months, scammers have created official-sounding accounts for Ripple and its CEO Brad Garlinghouse. Some of the accounts were apparently stolen from successful YouTubers who had their accounts hacked, giving the scammers hundreds of thousands of subscribers. From there, they could post videos offering big XRP rewards in exchange for smaller initial payments, bilking viewers who thought they were watching Ripple’s channel.
One fake account made news last month
, and Ripple dates the issue to at least November of last year, saying it’s submitted around 350 complaints about impersonation or scamming. But it says that YouTube “ignored or otherwise failed to address” many of them. In one case, it apparently gave a hacked channel an official verification badge. And Ripple alleges that even after being warned about the scam, YouTube continued to accept paid ads related to it. The result was an “onslaught” of messages from people who believed Ripple had stolen their money or hacked their accounts. It’s not clear how much money the scammers took in total, but one account apparently earned $15,000 worth of XRP.
Garlinghouse has been struggling with impersonation for years now. In 2019 an impostor created an Instagram account made to look like him and began running a scam in his name. The real Garlinghouse reported this to Instagram, which took a look … and then 72 hours later, informed him that after investigating the company had determined that he was not actually being personated
Garlinghouse has worked in Silicon Valley for 23 years, and was ultimately able to lean on a former colleague who was working at Instagram to get the issue addressed.
“That’s not how this should work,” Garlinghouse told me on Tuesday. “Deep down, it’s almost a moral thing. YouTube did $15 billion worth of revenue last year. You’re telling me they can’t spend more money to police their own platform?”
Ideally, platforms would detect and purge all of these accounts before they were able to bilk people out of money. Short of that, platforms could respond to credible reports of impersonation quickly and thoroughly. I can’t speak to the legal merits of Ripple’s lawsuit. But the fact that Garlinghouse thought it was his best option illustrates how dire the problem has become. It came only after Ripple hired a cybersecurity and digital threat intelligence company
to help with it with reporting and takedown efforts.
If the CEO of Ripple has to go through all that to take his impersonators seriously, what hope does the average person have?
But that’s little consolation for Garlinghouse, who has begun to receive physical threats from people who falsely believed he had promised to send them Ripple’s cryptocurrency, XRP. Nor does it help the people who have lost money.
“The people who have been scammed … they don’t have the resources to go after YouTube,” Garlinghouse said. “Individuals who lost — maybe it’s $1,000, maybe it’s $10,000 — they’re not going to go after YouTube. These people have reached out to me asking for help. And I feel a responsibility to community members who are getting scammed.”
Which means that, for those who find themselves ground between the gears of a tech platform’s indifference, the next several months promise to be more difficult than usual. A small number of people may seek redress of their grievances through the legal system. Everyone else, as usual, will be left to fill out their forms, send the into the void, and pray.
In the meantime, as Garlinghouse prepared to announce his lawsuit on Tuesday, multiple impostor accounts were still live on YouTube. He emailed his team with news of the suit before it went public. A few hours later, the accounts were finally removed. Garlinghouse had found a way to get some measure of justice — but for countless others looking for the same, it promises to be a long wait.