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YouTube search results for A-list celebrities hijacked by conspiracy theorists

The video portal has been repeatedly criticized for not curtailing videos of conspiracy theories and false information on its platform.

YouTube’s effort to contain misinformation and propaganda on its platform remains a work in progress, as videos from a far-right conspiracy group showed on Monday.

Tom Hanks attends a screening of his film "Inferno" in Berlin
Actor Tom Hanks attends a screening in Berlin in 2016.Axel Schmidt / Reuters file

The videos, which contain baseless accusations of pedophilia against some A-list celebrities and at least one company, were among the top search results on YouTube for those names on Monday. Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and the Mexican cement company Cemex have been the subject of videos from believers of Qanon, a conspiracy theory that has gained traction on the far right and centers on false allegations that Democratic politicians and celebrities are part of a child sex ring.

When users searched for Hanks on YouTube on Monday, the top five videos all accused Hanks of being a pedophile. NBC News was able to replicate the results both logged in and logged out of YouTube from several different IP addresses. Last week, believers of the Qanon conspiracy heavily pushed the unsubstantiated allegations on Twitter and Reddit before they reached YouTube.

Three of the top five videos for users searching for Spielberg, who became a target last week, featured unfounded child sex ring allegations. The top six results for Cemex accused the company of helping to run a child sex ring. YouTube’s search bar also autocompleted “Cemex child trafficking” when a user searched for Cemex.

The Qanon conspiracy theory community targeted Hanks, Spielberg and Cemex by reading into vague context clues by “Q,” a 4chan user who purports to have a top-secret classification called “Q-clearance.” Q has explicitly mentioned Cemex and separately child sex rings, but hasn’t referred to Hanks or Spielberg. Still, users who follow the conspiracy believe that clues in the posts reveal ties to Hanks and Spielberg.

YouTube did not respond to a request for comment. Some conspiracy videos’ rankings dropped after NBC News reached out for comment on Monday.

The video portal, which is the second-most visited website in the world according to Alexa analytics, has been repeatedly criticized for not curtailing videos of conspiracy theories and false information on its platform. In the aftermath of the Feb. 14 shooting massacre in Parkland, Florida, the top spot in YouTube’s trending section featured a video that claimed David Hogg, a 17-year-old student who hid from the shooter, was a “crisis actor,” trained to pretend to have been in an emergency situation.

Several of the Qanon videos have racked up hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. The conspiracy theory has picked up steam in recent months on various parts of the internet including Reddit, Twitter and the notorious 4chan message board. An app pushing out new parts of the conspiracy theory called QDrops was the No. 10-ranked paid app on all of Apple’s App Store before the tech giant pulled the app from its service this month.

Qanon’s smear campaign against Cemex has spurred a least one organization to take real-life action against the company. A group called “Veterans On Patrol” staked out a homeless encampment for months, claiming that it was a child sex trafficking camp with ties to Cemex while livestreaming on YouTube and Facebook. Police repeatedly reaffirmed that the site is not a child trafficking camp.

Michael Meyer, the leader of the group, was arrested this month for felony trespassing. The group’s Facebook page, which had 76,000 followers, was taken down on Monday.

A YouTube spokesperson said in an emailed statement on Tuesday that the company's efforts to combat misinformation are ongoing.

"We're continuously working to better surface and promote news and authoritative sources to make the best possible information available to YouTube viewers," the spokesperson wrote. "Since 2017, we’ve been introducing a number of ways to improve access to authoritative information, including creating a 'Breaking News' shelf on the YouTube homepage and 'Top News' shelf in search that serves up content from reliable news sources after a major event, and just last month we announced further steps."

"This work is still in its early stages, but as these tools start to apply more widely across YouTube, we believe they will make authoritative content readily available and help address these types of results.“

Baseless pedophilia accusations have become a powerful weapon for far-right disinformation campaigns in recent weeks. Far-right agitator Mike Cernovich resurfaced decade-old tweets of James Gunn, director of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” that featured offensive jokes about pedophilia. Disney removed Gunn from his role in directing the film’s third installment after the campaign.

Far-right trolls, along with Cernovich, then went after other celebrities who had defended Gunn or criticized President Donald Trump and tweeted jokes about pedophilia — or even had tweets featuring the word “pizza,” which far-right conspiracy theorists believe is code for pedophilia.

On Monday, the main cast members of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3” released a statement of support for Gunn and urged Disney to reinstate him as director, citing those “so easily duped into believing the many outlandish conspiracy theories surrounding him.”