Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

A Look at YouTube’s Recommendations of Conspiracy Theories, One Year After the Platform Vowed More Aggressive Action

Jack Nicas, New York Times:

For years it has been a highly effective megaphone for conspiracy theorists, and YouTube, owned and run by Google, has admitted as much. In January 2019, YouTube said it would limit the spread of videos “that could misinform users in harmful ways.”

One year later, YouTube recommends conspiracy theories far less than before. But its progress has been uneven and it continues to advance certain types of fabrications, according to a new study from researchers at University of California, Berkeley.

YouTube’s efforts to curb conspiracy theories pose a major test of Silicon Valley’s ability to combat misinformation, particularly ahead of this year’s elections. The study, which examined eight million recommendations over 15 months, provides one of the clearest pictures yet of that fight, and the mixed findings show how challenging the issue remains for tech companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter.

This is impressive, but the limitations of YouTube’s strategy are revealing:

One video, a Fox News clip titled “The truth about global warming,” which was recommended 15,240 times in the study, illustrates YouTube’s challenge in fighting misinformation. YouTube has said it has tried to steer people to better information by relying more on mainstream channels, but sometimes those channels post discredited views. And some videos are not always clear-cut conspiracy theories.

Fact-checking this video is not YouTube’s responsibility, but whether it should appear in recommendations is entirely its purview. Does YouTube want to be known as the frame around users’ descent into an alternate universe of disinformation and miseducation?

The company faces similar problems outside of the world of conspiracy mongering. There are loads of life-hack compilation channels on the site pushing videos that reach millions of people. But many of them are peddling information that is not just wrong — it’s dangerous. Chris Fox of the BBC recently interviewed Ann Reardon of the How to Cook That YouTube channel. In addition to showing viewers how to cook and bake, she also tests many of these tip compilations.

One of the videos advised teens to put milk in cola, for some reason, and to create white strawberries by bleaching red ones in actual bleach. The tips video is still online, but, based on its comments, it appears that the video file has been replaced with one that does not feature the strawberry bleaching trick. According to Reardon, when people tried reporting the bleached strawberry video, YouTube found that it did not violate any of its rules. Another video shows viewers how to make a delicate caramel bird’s nest garnish by drizzling hot molten sugar into a spinning motorized beater. Reardon tried this and, predictably, found that it would be a terrific way to get seriously burned. The original video remains on YouTube.