How YouTube Is Changing Our Viewing Habits

NPR interview with Dr. Zeynep Tufekci of the University of North Carolina:

SIMON: Of course, YouTube personalizes recommended playlists. You see one cute cat video – six more will be lined up for you. You watch one video that purports to show the Abominable Snowman at Starbucks – you get 10 more videos for the snowman, the Loch Ness monster and UFO abductions. What are some of the implications for more and more people making YouTube more and more their source for information entertainment?

TUFEKCI: A platform like YouTube has algorithms designed to recommend to you things that it thinks will be more engaging. And what I’ve found is that whatever I watched, it would push a more hardcore version of whatever it was I was watching across the political spectrum. So something that I found really striking was that if I watched Donald Trump rallies, I would get recommended white supremacist conspiracy theories. And you have examples from radicalized, you know, extremists when, some of their interviews, they talk about going down the rabbit hole of YouTube.

SIMON: I remember somebody once sent me a video purporting to show that man never landed on the moon. And there – for a couple of days thereafter, I had eight or 10 similar videos, each of them more convincing than the other, showing me why man never landed on the moon. Now, I don’t mind crawling out on a limb and saying, that is false, man landed on the moon. But at the same time, it makes you wonder, you know, people, who don’t consider themselves dumb will watch some of those videos and say, see, this proves it. I mean, that was the case of the person who sent it to me. Does YouTube or any other platform have some kind of responsibility not to put misinformation on their site?

TUFEKCI: So there’s two things going on. On the one hand, we do have freedom of speech. So if somebody wants to claim we never landed on the moon, I can see that as freedom of speech. But there’s no freedom to necessarily be recommended by YouTube, right? So what I see happening and what I see as troublesome is that if you watch something like that, YouTube could recommend to you something debunking falsehoods saying hey, check this out, right? Or…

SIMON: I mean, after seeing that video, I got a lot of stuff saying 9/11 never happened.

TUFEKCI: Right, that’s exactly right. So if you look at it from ISIS to white supremacists, it’s the key platform that they put their stuff on. And they rely on that recommendation engine to draw more and more people, preferably young, vulnerable, gullible people, to their message.