4.8 million people have listened to this Christmas song, but how many of them are actually people?

(Youtube)

A still from John Michael Williams’ “Christmas Around the World.” (Youtube)

It’s the most popular Christmas song in America — and chances are, you’ve never heard it.

That’s because John Michael Williams’ slick “Christmas Around the World,” the single most-viewed video on YouTube yesterday, appears to be what we’ll term a faux-viral video. It’s a YouTube video with an outrageously high view count, seemingly generated mostly by bots.

“It seems fake to me,” said Michelle McDevitt, the president of entertainment PR firm Audible Treats — and the recipient of so many faux-viral videos that she’s become something of an expert at catching fakes.

Here’s how a faux-viral video works: Say you’re a YouTube video-maker and you want it to seem like your work is more popular than it is. With $200 and minimal web savvy, you can hire someone to deploy automated computer programs to repeatedly load your YouTube page, thus falsely inflating its views.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that a mediocre Christmas song from a one-time children’s voice actor couldn’t top YouTube on its own merits. (That is, after all, half the magic of YouTube, and Williams himself insisted via e-mail that he just has “amazing, loyal, wonderful” fans. “I have NEVER bought a view,” he wrote, adding, “I send my videos out to my 3600 contacts and the rest is completely out of my control.”) But if Williams isn’t buying views for “Christmas Around the World,” there’s plenty to suggest that someone else is. Some red flags:

Williams' video was improbably viewed 3 million times in a single day. (Youtube)

Williams’ video was improbably viewed 3 million times in a single day. (Youtube)

  • It generated more than 4.8 million views in three days — more than many of the video teases for Beyoncé’s new album, for comparison — but only 2,500 likes and 670 comments. That’s extremely low, particularly relative to other videos in the same genre. A whopping 3 million views took place within the video’s first day online.
  • It’s the only video on the channel, so there’s no built-in audience.
  • The view counts on Williams’ other, more established channel vary hugely — from a mere 300 views for a short titled “John’s Story” to an incredible 45 million views for “I Believe In You,” a viral hit so random and mysterious that Time profiled it in May 2013. “Artists don’t usually have such wildly ranging views for videos when their views are organic,” McDevitt says. “I suspect that he bought views for the ones in the millions.”
  • The video has only 7,300 total social media shares, a number that sounds high — but is microscopic in relation to its total view count. The URL-shortening site bit.ly records no shares for the video at all.
  • According to YouTube data, the video is trending nationally but not in any major U.S. cities, an unusual phenomenon for viral videos.
  • On average, viewers watched 93.6 percent of the almost four-minute long video. Think about the last time you watched a random YouTube music video for four entire minutes — this does not happen.
  • The video is neither amazing nor truly terrible; likewise, it has neither an overwhelming majority of likes or dislikes. McDevitt says viral videos usually go one way or the other.

YouTube has gotten very good at spotting these types of signs over the past year, particularly since buying views is against the site’s terms of service. But that has not stopped both would-be YouTube stars and established record labels from buying views in an attempt to push videos to the top of the site. In fact, YouTube purged 2 billion fake views from mammoths like Universal Music Group and Sony last December.

video annotatedIt’s not particularly difficult to see why even a massive operation like Universal might want to game the site: Views beget more views, courtesy things like the YouTube trends dashboard, and as of last February, YouTube popularity impacts Billboard rankings. For smaller artists, a “viral” video could be the ticket to a recording contract or a record deal — though as LA Weekly reported in October, labels have gotten pretty savvy to this scam.

That isn’t to say that Williams is a scam, necessarily — just that, if he’s not, he’s one of the hottest unsigned performers on the web. He told the Post in an email that people just respond to “the genuine feeling and emotion in my music and lyrics.”

“I believe my audience watches me because I’m real,” he wrote.

But like many things on the Internet, unfortunately, it’s impossible to tell if that’s true.

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