In a remarkably short time, RG Factboy became one of the world’s most popular YouTube Shorts channels. The creator behind it is Rohit Gupta, a 17-year-old student based in the remote Indian town of Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh. Gupta’s Shorts had sensational Hindi voice-overs to viral videos of other creators, and ended on a plea for viewers to subscribe.

The channel, created in April 2022, had 11 million subscribers before it was abruptly deleted on January 11 for violating YouTube’s rules. Unlike viral YouTubers who thrive on long-form videos, RG Factboy only posted YouTube Shorts: vertical-format videos with a maximum length of 60 seconds. “YouTube is working hard to promote Shorts,” Gupta told Rest of World. “They want audiences to move from Instagram to YouTube. Because of this, creators are active on Shorts day in and day out.” Between November 1 and January 11, RG Factboy had gained 4 million subscribers, according to social media analytics company SocialBlade.

Indian teenage creators like Gupta have drawn millions of views by producing Hindi voice-over Shorts on Western and Asian memes and skits.  These creators describe, explain, and provide additional context to the videos, often in the style of boisterous news-anchors, as part of a growing genre known as “fact channels.” In January, four of the top 10 fastest-growing channels on YouTube were fact channels, according to SocialBlade. All four channels are relatively new, operated by Indians, and almost exclusively upload Shorts. While these channels have “fact” in their names — like RG Factboy, Sanyasi Facts, and Facts’ Mine, among others — their content has little to do with facts or science. It’s all viral entertainment skits. Many of these channels are operated by teenagers in smaller towns and villages across Bihar, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, and Uttar Pradesh — and have been recognized by Google with YouTube Creator awards.

YouTube’s Shorts feature first launched in India in 2020, where many expected it to fill the void after the government’s TikTok ban that year. Today, Shorts operates in over 100 countries and competes with both TikTok and Instagram Reels. Globally, Shorts now has 1.5 billion monthly logged-in viewers, and has even eaten into the growth of the main YouTube platform.

For young Indian creators, Shorts represents a path for upward mobility, and a shot at internet fame and fortune. In August 2022, YouTube’s creation of a $100 million Shorts Fund to reward creators boosted India’s Shorts economy. Although it’s being phased out in February, rural creators with record views, such as RG Factboy, have received as much as $600 a month through the Shorts Fund. Gupta’s bank delayed his YouTube payout because local bank officials in his remote town were unaware what a SWIFT code — necessary to process international bank transfers — actually was. They laughed him off, Gupta recounted, cautioning him that he was being duped by an online scamster.

“Some creators have found the hack to gather millions of views by using translation and commentary on already existing videos,” Rituraj Biswas, co-founder of a stealth startup for Gen Z creators, and previously the product manager at the Twitter-backed Indian short-video app Moj, told Rest of World. “This also proves a massive demand for such content, as language still remains a roadblock for millions of content consumers in India.”

“Some creators have found the hack to gather millions of views by using translation and commentary on already existing videos.”

India’s hinterland creators are now a constant fixture in, and benefactors of, the Shorts economy. Pradeep Malhotra, the son of a coal picker from Bokaro in Jharkhand, stumbled onto YouTube some three years ago. He saved up and bought a Redmi Note 9 smartphone worth 15,000 rupees ($184) to kick-start his YouTube career. Initially, he uploaded long-form gameplay videos that gathered little traction. Finally, in October 2022, the 20-year-old got his big break through Shorts. 

“I would pick any video and do a voice-over,” he told Rest of World. “I realized that if we do voice-overs in a short story, then we are bound to get views, so I just stuck to that.” Malhotra would pick short videos, such as a person lighting firecrackers inside a metal cupboard, do a Hindi voice-over, and upload the video on his YouTube Shorts channel MrFactVoice22, which is growing in popularity. Between October and December last year, his channel drew over 6 million subscribers.

Recently, some of the Hindi voice-over channels have run afoul of YouTube’s community and copyright guidelines.

Fx Facts, a channel with over 7 million subscribers, was permanently banned in November for “repeated violations of community guidelines.” Fahim Khan, the channel’s 15-year-old creator, told Rest of World that although many of his voice-over videos were picked off of the internet, he didn’t believe he had violated community guidelines. Khan’s appeal to YouTube to restore his channel is pending. Malhotra told Rest of World that a number of other high-profile fact channels had run into similar issues. Over the past few months, he claims, eight such fact channels have been banned. “The rate at which YouTube grew their channels, it’s also taking them away at the same rate,” Malhotra said.

After Rest of World sent YouTube a list of questions about the rapid rise of fact channels and some of them being banned due to copyright issues, the platform investigated the trend. YouTube then confirmed that many of these channels were in fact terminated due to multiple or severe violations of its policies against spam, deceptive practices, misleading content, or other Terms of Service violations. YouTube pointed out that their policy does not allow content selling engagement metrics, such as views, likes, comments, or any other metric.

YouTube purged RG Factboy’s account on January 11, a day after Rest of World inquired about the channel’s rapid growth. @MrFactVoice22’s channel also met with a similar fate the same day, although it was unclear why or for what duration of time. YouTube told Rest of World that many of these “fact channels” add voice-overs to content belonging to other creators, and that it is important for creators to only upload videos they have made or are authorized to use. YouTube added that when a copyright holder notifies them of a video infringing on their copyright, they remove the content in accordance with the law, and terminate accounts of repeat offenders.

A technology policy expert who has worked on copyright-related takedowns, and wanted to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of enforcing them, told Rest of World that the sudden increase in copyright takedowns is because of a cozier relationship between platforms and music publishers. As the short-video ecosystem grows larger, Big Tech platforms and music publishers are partnering more closely on licenses, the expert said, and this flourishing relationship influences how swiftly YouTube acts on some copyright complaints. Rest of World learned that at least one channel, called “Fact Universe,” was banned after repeated third-party copyright complaints. India’s new Information Technology Rules, 2021 has also made platforms more aggressive in enforcing copyright laws, while safeguarding their intermediary status for voluntary content takedown. “I think this has given platforms a little bit of confidence … to act on their own instinct,” the expert said. 

Yet, proponents of the creator economy believe there’s room for YouTube to be more accommodating towards creators. “[It] would be great to see YT allowing such creators to partner up with the original channel and share the additional revenue that these videos generate,” said Biswas, the former product manager at Moj.

The high viewership for these Hindi voice-overs, Biswas said, is a testament to the supply-demand gap in the Indian creator market. “I’ve seen similar trends on Moj where Chinese makeup videos get consumed by Telugu audiences due to lack of similar content in their native language,” he said. “This goes to show that there’s a huge demand for good content and a good opportunity for Indian creators to fill these gaps.” In 2022, YouTube Shorts in India drew 30 billion views per day. The average number of first-time daily Shorts creators more than doubled.

Not every Indian creator prefers Shorts to Reels. Khushaal Pawaar, a comedy content creator who has done minor roles in Bollywood films, has grown his YouTube audience to more than 870,000 over the past couple of years. A majority of the viewership has come from Shorts, but Pawaar still feels his Instagram Reels followers are more valuable. Although Pawaar only has 392,000 followers on Instagram, he told Rest of World brands are more willing to pay for Reels collaborations. According to Pawaar’s talent manager, Samkit Shah, this is because Reels allow creators to link out to and tag a brand’s Instagram page, whereas YouTube Shorts don’t. “So that traction which you get from Instagram page or Instagram audience, you would not be able to get those things from YouTube [Shorts],” Shah told Rest of World

But this might soon change. Starting February 2023, YouTube will start ad revenue-sharing for Shorts from YouTubers enrolled in its partner program, and will phase out the reward program.